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Stories that Unravel

Written by Karen Campbell-Nelson
June 6, 2014

Her name was Rista Botha and she returned to her home in West Timor in a coffin. Rista arrived in Kupang on 4 March from the bird’s nest (for soup) factory in North Sumatra, an island on the other end of the Indonesian archipelago, where she had worked for the past three years. Rista and more than 20 other young women from islands in eastern Indonesia had been held for years on an upper floor of the owner’s multi-story home, meticulously cleaning and inhaling dirt and germs from bird’s nests in a room without ventilation. The women and girls lived in slave-like conditions: most were illegally recruited and traded for money. They were poorly fed, had no freedom of movement (e.g., they were not allowed to leave the building, even to attend church), their handphones were confiscated, and they were never paid. About a week earlier Marni Baun, another young woman who worked at the same factory, also died and her body was returned. These two deaths precipitated a concerted response by a small group of concerned Christians and activists in Kupang. CGMB member and head of the Eastern Indonesian Women’s Network (JPIT), Rev. Dr. Mery Kolimon, has played a key role in helping to organize and mobilize the Ampera (Alliance Against Trafficking) network to support the women who survived this case, repudiate trafficking, and seek justice for the wrongs committed.

In January 2013, Eri Ndun managed to escape from this factory and made her way back to West Timor. Ampera did not yet exist, but with the help of a non-government advocacy organization, she reported her case to the police. At the time she escaped, her friends left behind in the factory had asked her to help them; she tried. That two of these women died a year later suggests just how entrenched trafficking networks are in Indonesia and the difficulties involved in apprehending them.

I was unable to attend Rista’s funeral in her home village in the mountains of South Central Timor, but I visited her family in early May to better understand Rista’s story. Her work in Sumatra was not the first time she had left her village for work. A previous stint in a Chinese restaurant on another island must have proved somewhat lucrative for her. She returned to her village to learn that her younger sister had disappeared, most likely to follow in the migrant laborer footsteps of Rista, but her whereabouts were unknown. Rista supposedly left to search for her, but landed at the bird’s nest factory.

My queries in Rista’s village and a neighboring one reveal increasingly rapid changes in the rural economy, particularly in villages of NTT Province where I live in eastern Indonesia. I heard story after story of young women who had worked on other Indonesian islands or in other countries (primarily in Malaysia and Hong Kong). Some stories I heard from women themselves, several too pregnant to continue work as migrants. Other stories came from parents or siblings who had heard nothing for years from their daughters and sisters. The stories included threads about a non-functioning grade school where teachers have been paid for years even though they do not teach; children “graduate” from the school unable to read, write, or do basic math; stories about absentee husbands and falsified passports (disguising the age of under-age girls); and stories of children—more and more children—left behind in villages to be cared for (or neglected) by families with little money and education.

As these stories unraveled in Timorese villages I recalled similar stories told by the group of teens from the bird’s nest factory who were finally sent home to West Timor in April. JPIT contacted parents so they could be present to greet their children and Ampera, with no full-time staff dedicated to trafficking and whose members lack adequate time and energy to launch any sustained response to the immensity of the issue, subsidized meals and transport that allowed family members to participate in the reunion with the survivors. Most of the reunions were tearful and emotions were high as the families witnessed a representative from the provincial Social Service Department disburse a pittance to the young women – barely enough money for transportation to get them back to their homes in the interior.  During their brief stay in Kupang prior to returning to their village homes, the young women were asked what they wanted for their future and Ampera has made some effort, albeit inadequate, to support them. A few who never completed high school want to return to school; some want to have small kiosks; others want to work together and make a go at developing a small restaurant.

These women have articulated their dreams, but many of their individual stories suggest lives unraveling. Some of the women/girls left their families not primarily to provide cash support for them, but to escape trauma and pain experienced at home. These women’s stories include threads of physical abuse, pregnancy out of wedlock and abandonment by the father of their child, no education or skills, but almost all include a narrative of severe, endemic, disabling poverty of land, knowledge, and opportunities.

The sea change in Indonesia’s rural economy has both a national and regional dimension. Increasing access to consumer goods of a global economy (over the past three to five years, imported items from China, Korea, Japan, and Australia, have become available for the first time in West Timor; many migrant workers send cheap foreign electronic goods to their village families as signs of their love, but perhaps more importantly to their families, signs of their financial success). The burgeoning impact of the global economy on villages also is exerted through national patterns of migration. Increasing amounts of indigenous lands throughout Indonesia are being “developed” by private investors who convert rich forests into palm oil plantations and destroy landscapes with mining. These large-scale operations intentionally draw in unskilled labor from other Indonesian islands, mainly because it is so easy to exploit their labor. It is far more difficult for a Timorese worker to escape an illegal and abusive work situation in Sumatra than were she in Timor where families and acquaintances would be able to help her.

Last night (28 May), the last two women survivors from the bird’s nest factory returned to West Timor without the fanfare their colleagues met weeks earlier. One of the two women is in a wheelchair after being treated for weeks in a hospital in Sumatra. Her symptoms match those of Rista and Marni, but Yeni has survived. The Facebook page of Ampera member Romo Leo Mali, provides this update:

Tonight two more of the 25 victims of the Medan trafficking case arrived. One of them is paralyzed; the other escorts her. For three years their only pay was suffering. Those who have been following this case didn’t know [about their arrival] and were surprised because their arrival was quietly arranged by . . . the perpetrator of their confinement in Medan who, at this moment, is comfortably drinking his afternoon coffee at his home. He iscomfortable because there are those protecting him. Certainly the police know . . . I will go to the airport to greet them and will continue to support opposition to human trafficking.

Stories of victims and survivors of human trafficking unravel as do their young lives without good economic or social options, as do their hopes for a better future, as does the social fabric of their communities. We hear, record, share, and read these stories. How shall we respond, individually as Christians and collectively as church? This, friends, is our calling, our mission, our challenge.

Karen Campbell-Nelson serves with the Evangelical Church of West Timor. Her appointment is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing, Our Churches Wider Mission, Disciples Mission Fund and your special gifts.

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