‘Trafficked’ Girls’ Nightmare Persists

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Two of the fourteen young women who on Monday lost their legal battle against the man that they claimed lured them to Lebanon where they faced physical, emotional and sexual abuse, Abbas El Debes, a Lebanese national, yesterday told the Daily Observer that they are highly disappointed in the government and the justice system.

The two women, Muffittee Panma and Helen Gardeah, said they were shocked to learn that the justice the government had promised them did not materialize.

“We were told that our case was thrown out for a technicality against our lawyers by the 11th Circuit Court in Tubmanburg because they (lawyers) were not licensed and they did not have direct evidence to prosecute the case,” they said.

Panma recalled that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had a meeting with them and promised that her government would ensure they got justice.

“Sadly, though we suffered many indignities in Lebanon, Judge George Smith did not believe our story,” Panma noted and decried the humiliation and the countless abuses suffered in a land (Lebanon) that did not care for them.

Gardeah said they believed President Sirleaf when she gave them the assurance and had strong hope that their honor would have been restored.

“Now that the judge did not believe us and many of those we had depended on to confirm what happened to us testified against us, we don’t know what to do next,” Gardeah said.

Panma stated, “Our hope was to get justice in our country but with the verdict that threw our case out, we have been disgraced beyond measure.”

She explained that though two of the 14 girls testified against the others, “it does not make sense that 12 of us would lie.”

Both admitted that they all rejected financial offers to keep the case out of court, which if they knew they would not have gotten justice they could have decided otherwise.

“But we were fighting for our pride, and we expected our government to stand by us and defend us,” Gardeah said.

With tears in her eyes, Panma said her life is ruined because she is taunted in her community as a ‘prostitute’, which she is not. “I was fooled to believe that there was a better life out there in Lebanon for us, which turned out to be a nightmare,” she stated.

Gardeah regretted that instead of sympathy and support, many Liberians, including women, have turned against them, considering them as people seeking what they never sowed.

Both women recounted their bitter experiences in their stay in Beirut, Lebanon that sometimes turned out to be life-threatening, as even the Lebanese law enforcement did not respect their dignity.

“We had our individual experiences and we told our government to seek a sense of dignity for us, but we were wrong,” Gardeah said. With the end of the case,they said, they were told that they are on their own.

“All the promises of at least a job to help us fit into our society have never materialized and there is no one who is interested in our suffering,” Ms. Gardeah said.

Both women said when they were rescued from Beirut and brought home, they were impressed with the concern and interests that the Liberian government and the international community showed.

“When we arrived at RIA that day, there was a huge delegation that came to meet us. Officials from Gender Ministry, and some UN agencies like IOM and others were all there. That gave us so much courage and hope that our government and the people were ready to make things happen for us but now we had been wrong all along,” Gardeah said.

She explained that among the abuses suffered by them included one of the Liberian colleagues, who was pushed by her madam from the 4th Floor apartment to the first floor and was bleeding for three months because there was no one to take her to hospital.

“After she ran away from her madam she joined us to sleep in the street for three weeks, until we could find help through someone at the Liberian community organization in Lebanon,” she said.

Another time she said another girl was forced to sew drugs in her blouse and sneak into the city of Beirut to sell it against her will. “She had to do it otherwise she would be beaten and this happened because we had nowhere to seek redress,” she noted.

Ms. Panma said further that on several occasions some of them were subjected to rape, especially when they resisted the abuse meted against them by the women whose households they worked in.

“When the agent comes to pick you up to take you back to your original base, he would take you alone to the mountain and tell you to open your legs, under threat with a knife,” Panma explained.

Gardeah, however, said she was never raped because she stood up against anyone who wanted to take advantage of her, and subsequently suffered many detentions and beatings. She also learned to speak Arabic, a skill that increased her chances at survival.

She said once when she was threatened by a woman she worked for and heard the woman murmuring something in Arabic about findng a knife to stab her (Gardeah). she engaged her in a serious fight and was able to prevent the woman from stabbing her.

“I stood at the corner in the house as she came after me armed with a knife but I blocked her on the wall with a chair,” Gardeah said.

Of her ordeals with the Lebanese police, she said, “Once I was put in a room naked with low temperatures from the 6 a.m. until 12 midnight, as a punishment because the police said I was misbehaving.

“At that time I gave up and knew that I was going to die. My spirit was in Liberia and only my body was in Lebanon,” she said.

She told the Daily Observer that one of her friends who was later found to be pregnant upon her arrival in Lebanon was forced to abort the pregnancy and, when she refused, was beaten until she began to bleed.

“Later we used to take off our blouses for her to treat herself. We were most of the time hungry because you don’t dare to be caught eating and sometimes we had to hide to eat,” she said.

She said such experiences were explained to their lawyers and police in Liberia, who recorded their statements. Sadly, Gardeah said, their experiences as narrated did not make any difference to their quest for justice in Liberia.

“I worked in Lebanon as a domestic worker for people who did not care for me as a human being and there was a time that I gave up and only hoped in God. I suffered severe beatings and spent several months in jail and my country cannot give me justice, only to tell me that the one that hurt me had the right to do so,” Ms. Gardeah said with a bitter smile.

They said they are considering pursuing careers in law, if help is available to be able to defend those who are weak and are ignored and treated as ‘trash’ in the Liberian society.

It may be recalled that Lebanese businessman El Debes, who was accused as the mastermind in the trafficking of young Liberian girls to Lebanon,had them soldto Lebanese households, their passports seized, and some of them sexually abused, was freed on Tuesday.

The case ended at the 11th Judicial Circuit Court in Tubmanburg when Judge George Smith ruled that state lawyers handling the case did not have license to practice as besides the case lacked direct evidence.

Judge Smith said prosecuting attorneys Cornelius FlomoKennah and D. Stephen Williams did not have the standing to institute the action against defendant El Debes. El Debes has since left the country.

The case began in 2015 but was suspended after a jury failed to come up with a verdict. The defendant was said to have allegedly conspired with co-defendant Richard Dickson Tamba to traffic the 14 girls to Lebanon between 2011 and 2013.

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