Just children when predators ripped away their innocence with hurricane-like force, Trong and Rani Hong faced horrors that sound as if they sprang to life from the pages of a Stephen King novel. Yet their all-too-real stories reflect a modern-day nightmare. Nearly two centuries after England outlawed slavery and the United States fought a Civil War over its existence, human trafficking is a worldwide scandal. An estimated 27 million people are held in some form of bondage, bought and sold as domestic workers, child laborers, sex slaves and for other uses.
Their numbers include thousands of children drafted into military service annually. Trong fled from Vietnam at the age of 9 to avoid becoming such a statistic. After being shipwrecked, he spent two years in a refugee camp.
Sold into slavery and abused so severely her captor dumped her after a year, Rani didn't know the full truth of her past in India for 20 years. Today she directs The Tronie Foundation, which seeks to raise awareness and provide aid and comfort to victims.
"This is such a huge business, the [U.S.] State Department estimates it will be the No. 1 crime in the world by 2010," Rani said in an exclusive interview.
The problem has been documented in a number of books, including Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy by Kevin Bales. The author says between 700,000 and 1 million slaves are trafficked annually, although the U.S. Agency for International Development estimates the number could be as high as 4 million.
Nor is this situation limited to overseas. Such federal agencies as the FBI, the Department of State and the Department of Justice have formed initiatives to combat trafficking. A sampling of crimes in the United States:
- In October 2006, the last of eight Mexican nationals was convicted for participation in a sex slavery operation involving women from Mexico and Central America.
- In May 2006, two doctors from Milwaukee were convicted of holding a Filipina in involuntary servitude for 19 years.
- In December 2005, a Russian woman who had illegally entered the U.S. pled guilty to forcing her niece to work as a prostitute after confiscating her passport.
- In June 2005, the former owner of an American Samoa garment factory was sentenced to 40 years in prison for his role in enslaving 200 victims.
Commenting on the situation, syndicated columnist Michael McManus noted that about 80 percent of slaves are women or girls sold for sex or labor. Most are tricked into slavery, asked if they would like to be waitresses in the West.
"They sign a contract to repay the cost of their transportation, in what is called 'bonded labor,' " McManus wrote recently. "Then they are sold to pimps who rape them, steal their passports and put them in brothels where they earn so little they can never pay off their loan."
Enslaved in India
Such scenarios reflect Rani's experience. Her family was suffering when her dying father became too ill to support his wife and five children. When Rani turned 7, a woman approached her mother with a beguiling promise to take Rani, educate her and give her the best in life.
Rani's mother agreed because she could still see her daughter daily. But one day when she went to visit, Rani had vanished, sold by the woman to a child broker.
Rani stayed with her owner for about nine months. She still remembers the feelings of pain, isolation and loneliness, recollections more vivid than the actual abuse. For proof of the mistreatment, she refers to a picture taken in India just before she arrived in the U.S., showing a frightened girl with multiple scars and bruises.
"For that year, I was involved in beatings, severe trauma and abuse," Rani says. "My 7-year-old body shut down. I would never look up. I would not talk. I felt like I wanted to die. This isn't a vivid [physical] memory but an emotional one."
Taken to another state in southern India, Rani couldn't communicate with other captives because of their differing dialects. Ironically, her master was a corrupt government official who ran a children's home. From documents, she knows that this official was selling children to become maids. Had she stayed any longer, she could have wound up in prostitution. Having blocked the most violent incidents from her mind as a matter of survival, she doesn't recall all the details of her enslavement.
"It was very difficult for me," Rani recalls of the separation from her mother. "My life was good with my mom. I would cry and cry for my mother, and they'd tell me to shut up. I was very lonely and afraid."
Before long, she looked so beaten and broken down her captor decided nobody would be interested in her. Through his connections, he arranged for an international adoption, although the only profit occurred in India.
Nell Clark, the woman who became Rani's mother, didn't know anything about her past. Elderly and crippled with arthritis that turned her hands into shapes of the letter C, society would have decreed that the Foursquare church member couldn't raise children. Rani says otherwise.
"That's who God used to save me," says Rani, still a member of Clark's congregation—The Church of Living Water in Olympia, Wash. "I believe God handpicked my chosen mom to take care of me and give me the guidance I needed.
"I had the best life," she says of her restored childhood, which included visits to Disneyland and a cross-country trip in her teens. "I learned English and the American way of living and the freedom we have. Mom gave me everything she could."
Yet tragedy struck a second time when Nell died after Rani turned 16. The teenager remained in her mother's house, struggling to keep up with mortgage payments, utilities and other bills. She survived by finding part-time jobs and benefiting from the generosity of fellow students' parents and other benefactors.
But she also had her faith in Christ to sustain her. At 11, Rani gave her life to Jesus, thanks to attending the Foursquare church and Clark's constant tutoring in the Bible. Psalm 119:105 became her life verse: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (NKJV).
"That's why the Word of God has been so key to me," Rani says. "Little did [my mother] know how much strength I was going to get from this scripture. Eventually I had to make a choice: Was I going to believe what she taught me?"
Fleeing the Communists
The same year Rani was kidnapped, 9-year-old Trong Hong fled from Vietnam. Although three years had passed since U.S. forces left the country, the Communists wanted to expand their army and sought boys as young as 7.
Certain his son would get drafted, Trong's father took advantage of an offer. Another villager promised he could send one of his children to a place better than their home 30 kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City.
"This was a rare opportunity," Trong says. "My father thought about it and looked at the family. Something he saw in me ... he picked me out of seven children."
Escape would turn into a harrowing fight for survival. Cast into the South China Sea on an overcrowded ship, Trong felt terrified. After three days, their drinking water ran out. Some people panicked and tried to commit suicide by leaping from the boat.
The worst danger came from pirates who attacked in search of valuables. They raped women and threw some babies overboard when they got aggravated at their crying.
"They would take the women and put them on their boats and strip search them," Trong recalls. "I still remember some of those incidents in my head. I don't know why as a young kid I still remember, but I have that mental picture."
After those attacks, the ship hit ground and started sinking. Survivors wound up on the nearest island, one of more than 13,000 across Indonesia. First seeking shelter in a small cave, Trong spent six months on the uninhabited island.
Thanks to survival skills he learned back home, the young boy lived off the land by picking oranges, bananas and other wild fruit. He trapped fish in canals or cooked dead ones salvaged from the beach.
Finally rescued by the Indonesian government, Trong spent two years in a refugee camp. Despite a more stable environment, he felt isolated. People desperate for survival often took advantage of one another. Trust was in short supply.
"There was a lot of confusion and loneliness. The time was passing, and you didn't know where you were going to go next [or] what your life would be the next day," he remembers.
"The living conditions were very poor. In the camp they would assign us 5 feet by 10 feet, and that was our space to sleep. Each month they would give us maybe a couple kilos of rice, and that's how we [ate]. Beyond that, you were on your own."
Trong's rescue came when a Lutheran church from Seattle sponsored his entrance to the U.S. at age 11. He spent the next five years with an elderly couple and another family from the church.
Stepping off the plane at the airport, Trong marveled at the snow he had never seen. When he enrolled in school, it was his first time in a classroom. Back in Vietnam, only children from wealthy families could afford an education.
It took a couple of months for reality to sink in: This is where he would grow up. It meant relearning everything, from English to a new culture to the American way of life.
When a relative immigrated to the U.S. and found work in Olympia, Trong headed south to live with him. A few years later, he met Rani on a blind date, but she refused to go out with him regularly because he wasn't a Christian. However, she invited him to The Church of Living Water's youth group.
Although eventually persuaded he should follow Christ, Trong wasn't sure how to do that. One Sunday he asked Rani why he felt such sensitivity in his heart to the pastor's messages. She explained God was revealing His Word and about the way life should be lived. When Rani asked if he wanted to open his heart and accept Christ, he responded. Later, he was water baptized and filled with the Spirit.
"This is all still growing in me," Trong says. "The Word of God is growing in me. Sometimes you know somebody's speaking to you, but when you're filled with the Spirit, you understand what the Spirit's telling you."
Rani and Trong also sensed something in each other. She was attracted by his tenderness. And, as she got to know him, his compassion: "He didn't like that I was living alone and paying all my bills. When I learned that, I started to accept him," Rani says.
At first, Trong just liked talking with Rani. As time went on and he learned more about her circumstances, his heart went out to her.
"I totally understood where she was at," he says. "And where I'm at—there's no way I can make it alone. We depend on each other. Neither one of us is alone any more."
However, before they married in August 1992, Trong had unfinished business in Vietnam. His father had died within days of learning his son had reached Seattle. Now Trong wanted to know more about where he came from—and why his family had decided to send him away.
"Why me?" he wondered. "Because they didn't love me? Because they couldn't take care of me? I had those kinds of questions in my heart for a long time."
Trong also wanted to know whether there was something that would draw him back before deciding to settle down and create a new family in Olympia. He quit his job, and to afford the trip sold everything he owned.
Before leaving, a pastor at The Church of Living Water asked people to pray for Trong's trip. Afterward, people stuffed cash and checks into his pocket. He walked away with $5,000—money he spent to help his family and to drill a fresh well for the village.
Back in Vietnam, Trong had the chance to ask his mother the reasons his father had chosen him to make the fateful journey to another land.
"Her response was because they loved me," Trong says. "Not because they loved me more than anybody else ... but they knew I could make it in a difficult time."
His mind at peace, Trong returned to the U.S. He and Rani married and in 1996 had the first of their four children.
After the birth of their second child, Rani took a fateful journey to India in 1999 with a friend of her adoptive mother's. Even before she left, God spoke to her through a dream. In it, He held her hand as they walked down a hallway and He opened different doors. Though blindfolded, Rani could sense the Lord revealing information about her past and preparing her for what was to come.
On that trip, she would be reunited with her birth mother and learn more about what happened to her as a child. It would be the first of several fact-finding missions that included talks with villagers, and other research.
Eventually, she would see one of the pieces of land purchased with the money earned from her slavery. As she looked over the rice paddies and wept, God told her she had to forgive her captors so she could move on with her life.
Joining the Fight
"I didn't get involved in the fight against trafficking until I took that first trip to India," Rani says. "On the way back, God gave me Luke 8:39: ' "Return to your own house, and tell what great things God has done for you.' " He wanted to share the great things He had done in my life. He wanted me to be a voice for the victims."
Rani did just that. Her testimony persuaded Washington legislators to make their state the first with laws against human trafficking. After years of working with state and federal legislators and speaking for other organizations, last year she and Trong formed The Tronie Foundation. Rani serves as executive director and Trong as president. While she has a more public presence as the group's spokesperson, he directs their building projects. The foundation is based in the offices of Tronie Homes, the luxury home building business he formed in 1997.
In the back of his mind, Trong always knew trafficking was going on because he saw evidence of it in the refugee camp and other places. Yet it wasn't until Rani diligently researched the problem that he became aware of its magnitude. Doing something about it is now the couple's life mission.
"Right now, I believe God is crying out for these victims," Trong asserts. "He cries out for them and for me—What can I do to relieve that? I have to do something because He's calling us to reach out to the needy and the people who can't help themselves because they are trapped."
Rani says there is much that "average" church members can do, from praying for godly leaders who will help put an end to trafficking to writing letters to Congress, state legislators and news media.
She also suggests keeping an eye out for hotel maids, laborers and other service workers who seem frightened or unwilling to speak.
Once, when members of a Long Island church noticed that Peruvian laborers coming to services were overly shy, they alerted authorities, who uncovered trafficking.
For Rani, the scriptural call to fight the problem comes from Isaiah 1:17: "Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow" (NIV).
For more information on The Tronie Foundation, log on to www.troniefoundation.org or e-mail email@example.com.
By: Ken Walker, a freelance writer from Huntington, W.Va.