“I didn’t think there was a state [law and order] in Lebanon. A. had told me that he bought the state with his money. I believed him once I was detained in the General Security building for 24 hours and then released scot-free.” This is what Sally said on Tuesday, March 29, 2016. ‘Sally’ is an alias for one of the 75 girls that were freed from Lebanon’s largest human trafficking ring. The ring had been operating for more than ten years, and its activity spanned from Tripoli to Jounieh to Dahr al-Baydar.
How the Mount Lebanon Survey Detachment uncovered the largest human trafficking ring is unclear. The ringleader is so-called M.J., owner of the Chez Maurice entertainment complex and Silver Hotel in Jounieh. He was aided by several others who remain at large. For years, the ring had been seducing Syrian girls and then ensnaring and imprisoning them, enslaving them, and trading them on the slave market.
The clampdown operation on the ring was carried out in two stages. The first raid occurred at 7pm on Sunday March 27, 2016, and freed some of the girls who had been imprisoned in the basements of the Chez Maurice and the Silver Hotel after being subjected to the vilest forms of torture and trafficking. Then on Tuesday March 29, 2016, the aforementioned detachment raided apartments and cabins that one of the suspects had rented in Jounieh to hide approximately 29 other girls. Several of the gang members were arrested, while the search for the others is still ongoing.
Each girl has a unique story about the events that led to her abduction and imprisonment in the Chez Maurice and the Silver Hotel. Some gone outdoors for more than five years. Others had not seen the light of day for more than three years. They did not know what it means to ride in a car, except to go to the doctor’s clinic or the hospital for abortions that cost some of them their lives. While the girls fell prey to the ring in different ways (described below), they were forced into prostitution via beatings, floggings, and torture that left its marks on their bodies. They were systematically flogged in accordance with a list of reasons necessitating floggings. Among the seized items now held by police are a club, a reinforced whip, and a notebook containing the girls’ aliases and detailed references to the number of times they were flogged and the reasons: “Ten lashes” for not wearing nail polish; “Fifty lashes” for not receiving tips from the customer.
The work hours –for which they were paid nothing– began at 3pm and could continue until 5am. The girls could sleep at 6am after receiving the lashes they had earned. If a girl lost consciousness, an electric prod was used to wake her so that she knew why she was being punished. The girls were then forced to jump into water to cool the strike marks so that customers did not notice them. The “guards” (former prostitutes who, after customers stopped choosing them, were promoted to supervise the others) determined each girl’s share of lashes.
The girls worked throughout the month. Rather than interceding in their favor, their menstrual periods only made matters worse. They were forced to use cotton so that the customer did not notice. Similarly, sickness or surgery provided them with a break of only two days at most. None of the girls dared to disclose their situation to the customers, for they feared that they would lose their tongues, or be killed and buried in an obscure location. Several girls talked about one who died from torture and was buried in the Chez Maurice’s basements, although we were unable to verify the incident.
On Thursday, March 31, 2016, Doctor R.A. was arrested. R.A. had performed more than 70 abortions over several years. Initially, he denied his actions and said that he only performed regular gynecological exams, prescribed drugs for infections, performed cauterization and fibroid-removal procedures, and confirmed pregnancies using ultrasound. However, The Legal Agenda learned that after he was confronted with the girls, he confessed to a number of cases of abortions, which raises a legitimate question about the extent to which he was connected to the ring and facilitating its activity.
Moreover, The Legal Agenda has followed this case since the beginning, and was able to meet the girls freed from the human trafficking ring in the last week of March before a number of organizations began securing safe havens for them. Some of the girls recounted their experiences and how they arrived in Lebanon and fell victim to this ring. They wanted this narrative to act as a warning for girls –especially the Syrian girls being deceived– so that they do not fall into the trafficking trap. Here are a few testimonies:
Sally had been in Lebanon for two and a half years, during which she forgot how the sun and the street looked like. She was one of the girls who planned the escape that helped expose the case. She told us her story.
“I came to Lebanon after losing my family in the war. I met A. at an evening in Beirut thinking it was love and marriage, and that he is a Syrian compatriot who wanted to help me. After multiple meetings, he took me to the Chez Maurice pretending it was to procure work, telling me that he needed three months to finish his house and that we would then get married.
When he brought me to the place and I saw the girls in very revealing clothing and he explained the nature of the work, I refused. He asked me to stay a single night and leave the next day. I began to cry and didn’t let anyone touch me as the customers traded me. The following day I gathered my bags to leave and found the doors bolted in my face. The ‘guards’ said that I needed A.’s permission to leave. A. arrived and then hit me twice. After those strikes, I lost my hearing in one ear for several days. Then he took me to the saloon, put me in the chair, and fetched the whip. He brought the girls down and asked them loudly, ‘what do I do to those who think about leaving?’ I was scared. I had never even been slapped in my life. Nonetheless, after 15 days I couldn’t bear it, and I told him I wanted to leave. He put me on the chair and flogged me, not stopping until I told him that I never wanted to leave. He flogged our feet so that we didn’t raise customers’ suspicions. If we couldn’t go back to work because of the beating, he gave us a 2–day break. But if we could move, we returned to work. Sometimes customers asked us about these marks and we told them that we fell on the stairs. Some believed us and some didn’t, but they had nothing to do with us.”
Sally related her final experience, which led to the ring’s exposure: “We decided to escape, 8 other girls and I. But we thought that if we went to the General Security, he will find us. We decided to go to Hezbollah. We believed Hezbollah would protect us because we support the Syrian regime. Chez Maurice had an unguarded back door. We watched where the guards put the key and stole it. But during the escape, three of us got caught, while the other 5 got away. When A. caught me, he tied me to the bed and flogged me. He didn’t flog me too many times because we would have a lot of work on Saturday. He promised to finish beating me on Monday, but the raid happened on Sunday.”
Rana and the Fourth-Month Abortion
Rana (24 years old) nearly died after an abortion during her fourth month of pregnancy. She told us how she arrived in Lebanon.
“I came from Saudi Arabia after issues with my husband. I was supposed to come for a month and stay with my uncle and then return to my husband. But I wasn’t comfortable living with my uncle. After I met some girls, I left him and lived with them in a shared house in Jounieh.
I was standing in the street when I met A. He stopped and offered me a lift. I said to him, ‘you’re not a taxi’, and he said, ‘no worries, get in’. Then he began asking about my situation and why I was alone. He gave me his phone number and told me that if I needed anything, I should call him and let him know.
Later, I ran into a problem. A. seemed like a good man, so I thought about calling him. That’s how it happened. I called him and he came to me and said he wanted me to work for him. I asked him if he could help me return to Saudi Arabia, for I left my children and had a problem with the embassy; they wanted me to provide a document that I had to procure from Saudi Arabia, and my husband wouldn’t allow it. A. told me he had a brother in Riyadh and he would help me if I worked for him. Once I learnt the nature of the work, I refused. But after being beaten and tortured, I complied.
Later, I was impregnated by one of the customers, but because there was a lot of demand for me, they delayed the abortion until I was in my fourth month. At that point, performing an abortion was difficult, so they gave me a drug to kill the fetus and break it up inside my gut before taking it out. When we were held in the General Security building, I had only just had the procedure. They asked me, ‘what’s wrong with you?’, so I was forced to tell them that I had a fever. But no one tried to get to the bottom of what was happening to me, even though I occasionally lost consciousness. In the General Security building, no one asked about anything. They wrote whatever they wanted. When they heard a whisper amongst us, we were beaten with a cane.”
Serena’s False Love Story
Serena (27 years old) arrived in Lebanon 3 months ago.
“A young man called A.S. met me under the pretext of love and marriage. He told me that we would live in Lebanon and work together. In time, I would bring my daughters from Damascus to live with us. At that point, I prepared my documents and came with him. He didn’t mention prostitution to me at all.
Initially, he brought me to G.D.’s house (G.D. has been arrested) on the pretext that the two were brothers. Earlier, he had talked to him numerous times on the phone in front of me and had made me talk to his wife, ‘Nur’ (one of the guards), who in turn encouraged me to come to Lebanon. When I arrived in Lebanon, I stayed in the ‘frog’ house for three days, but a strange thing occurred there. A strange man –A.– visited them every day at 6 or 7am, and they woke me up to see him on the pretext that it was ‘wrong’ for me to not get up to drink coffee (I later learned that he was coming to collect the revenue).
On the third day, A.S. told me he was going to his aunt’s house to give her some things and asked me to go and see the job. Then A. came and took me to the Chez Maurice. When I first entered, I didn’t sense anything odd. I saw a kitchen and felt at ease as I thought I would be taking guests’ orders. Afterwards, A. asked someone to show me to a room to relax in. That was around 11am.
At 2pm, they woke me up and asked me to put on revealing clothing. I found this odd and refused, but they made me put it on and sit in the hall beside the other girls. I didn’t know the meaning of the word “prostitution” before, and I tried to ask a girl about the nature of the work. One of the guards told A. that “someone has a big mouth”, and I was beaten. He slapped and flogged me and told me that I would work for him as a prostitute for two months, and that the young man who brought me to Lebanon had collected his fee and left. I later learnt that A.S. had seduced other girls.
I tried to convince A. that I couldn’t be a prostitute. I kissed his shoe and pleaded for him to let me leave, so I was beaten violently for several days until I gave in. After a month and a half of work, he moved me to the Silver Hotel. I agreed to work but he continued to beat me because I didn’t satisfy the customers. Tips were the measure of the customer’s satisfaction. Each time I didn’t get tips, I was beaten. After two months went by, I didn’t dare say no. Some of the other girls were there for two to four years.”
Nagham and the Cucumber Diet
Since arriving in Lebanon two weeks earlier, Nagham (30 years old) had lived off a single cucumber a day. Work exigencies necessitated this kind of “diet”, as her figure did not attract customers. She told us, “I met a person named A.S. via a girlfriend in Syria. She called me one time and told me she had a friend who wants to open a restaurant in Jounieh. She offered me a job with him with a wage of US$1,000.00 so that I could gather money and then, with my children, join my husband. The girl supposedly knew A.S. via family ties. I told her I couldn’t confirm or decline without meeting the person. When I met him in Syria, he told me he had a restaurant called ‘Juni Bar’ that he had opened a month earlier. Famous artists such as Ali Al Deek and Hussein Al Deek go there, he said. I told him that my girlfriends and I wanted to trial the job for two weeks and then I would decide, and he said he would pay me $350.00 to work that period.
He and the girls came legally to Lebanon, but he smuggled me into the country as I had violated residency conditions during a previous visit. I got in a jeep, and after about six hours of climbing and descending, stopping at stations, and swapping cars, I arrived at a jeep with two people –G.D. and A.– inside it. They were supposed to transport me to the restaurant. When I arrived at the hotel, where there was an enormous number of girls with their bags, A. listened to my story. Then he informed me of the truth about the work. I refused and told him that I could call someone to provide the amount he paid to bring me into Lebanon. He said, ‘you girls don’t want to work’, and through beating and coercion they forced me to do the job.”
The Story of Samar, the Victim Guard
Samar (25 years old), one of the new guards, had spent ten years working as a prostitute in Lebanon. She told us her story.
“I was 15 years old when I got divorced. My family ostracized me and thought I would bring shame on them because I was a divorcee. I left the house and lived in a hotel and had no money. Then I met a girl working in prostitution, and she said she would introduce me to people who would help me secure my food and livelihood in exchange for such work. Then, I moved to Lebanon where I met A.
During the ten years I was only arrested once. I was detained for 24 hours and then they released us. I conceived 6 times to the best of my knowledge, and had 2 operations beyond the scope of pregnancy. In the beginning, condoms weren’t compulsory, so some customers didn’t agree to use them. One time, I wanted to use a contraceptive pill and took it, then began bleeding. One of the girls told A. that I was bleeding, and he said to her, ‘leave her to bleed out so that she learns how to take a pill’. They didn’t give us tests or check-ups. The only time they did a blood test was when I was forced to have a procedure due to urinary retention. It turned out that I was suffering acute blood infections, so it was decided that I would stop working and instead be a guard over the girls. But I was a second-degree guard; I was still imprisoned with them and subject to floggings and beatings if I didn’t do my job watching them.”
Layali and the Torture
Whoever listens to Layali’s story understands what it means for a person to become a traded commodity. Layali (24 years old) arrived in Lebanon seven years ago after her husband sold her to a man referred to as ‘Sheikh Saddam’ for US$1,500.00. “He said to him, ‘Give me the money, and keep her for life’. Sheikh Saddam received me and took me to his house and introduced me to his wife and children. I stayed there for two days. Thereafter, he took me to work. I didn’t meet A. right away. Rather, about three years passed before I met him. But it was Saddam’s wife that brought me to him. The work call would come to Sheikh Saddam’s phone from one of the hotels –usually the al-Ghurub hotel– and I would go and meet the customer and go with him wherever he wanted, with the Sheikh’s knowledge.
After two days, he stopped me from working and convinced me to stay with him. He convinced me that he wanted nothing from me, that I would be endeared and honored, and that all I would do is eat and sleep. He convinced me to call my family and tell them that I’m in Lebanon and that I wouldn’t be coming back to Syria. I called my sister and told her that, then hung up the phone and smashed my SIM card. I forgot about my family and only thought about Saddam.
Two weeks after I spoke to my family, he told me that he would leave me with someone as a ‘pledge’ for a month. He took me to a Lebanese man called R.S., whose supervision I worked under because Saddam didn’t have money. When I finished the month –without collecting any money, of course– I called Saddam and told him to come and get me. After two days of rest, he told me that I got a new pledge from a person called M.H. in exchange for US$1,500.00, which Saddam took. While I stayed with this latest man, there was a ‘raid’, after which I was transported to Hbeish Prison. There I called Saddam. He said, “don’t worry, I’ll get you out of it”, and I got out three days later. After I had rested for two days, he told me that he had found another person for me to work for. I said to him that I didn’t want to and that he was renting me out, so he beat me with an iron chain and locked me in a room without food for two days as punishment. After two days, he came and said to me that he would employ me himself for about three weeks, and then we, along with five other girls and two drivers, were arrested. We were transferred to Hbeish prison, at which point I learnt that his real name is M.A. We were then transferred to Qubbah prison. He was [to be] detained for six months and we [would be held] for three, but he got out within two months. A lawyer called ‘George’ helped us get out.
Once I got out of prison, I returned to Saddam, and he left me with a Syrian man called M.M. But during this period, I met a man who promised to help me escape with him to Syria. When Saddam learned of this, he took me and left me with A., whom he advised to flog me morning and night. I fell into grief and began praying morning and night for us to be raided. When the raid occurred for the first time, I was overjoyed.
When they asked me in the General Security building if this was the first time I had been arrested, I said no. But I had been hoping to God for the raid so that I would not have to go back to where I had been in Dahr al-Baydar – I mean the Chez Maurice. They asked me about names and I confessed all of them except for Saddam, who then hired the lawyer G. for me. A. and the other girls got out the same day, but I stayed 20 days.
When I got out of prison, I asked the guard to stop a taxi for me. The guard asked me what I feared. I told him I was scared that A. was waiting to ambush me. I took the taxi to the al-Ghurub hotel in Byblos –the only place I knew– and called Saddam to tell him that I got out. He asked me to wait some time for him because he was in the Harissa region. After learning that some of the girls were subjected to a raid, he had hidden them there.
He returned and took me to his house the next day. He woke me up and said ‘guess who called me? A.’. He had spent 24 hours in front of the General Security building waiting for me to get out. I told him not to take me to him again, and he swore on his children that he wouldn’t. We went out on the pretext of buying clothes for me. But he was taking me to A. I realized because of the route, which I remembered. I began shouting “Let me out!” in the car, so he pulled me by the hair. In the end I found myself in front of the Chez Maurice. A. came and asked two people to take me by the ears and put me in the basement, where I was violently beaten and gave in.”
This case raises questions about the security forces and the authorities concerned. They are now obliged before the public to clarify and explain how, and on what basis, such a ring was released within 24 hours.
In conclusion, the ring that was uncovered is not the first and will not be the last, for there are dozens like it. Concerted efforts are needed from the authorities concerned in order to uncover them and free the girls from the yoke of trafficking.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.