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July 24, 2017

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Fighting against Burundi's sex-traffic rings

BUJUMBURA, Burundi--Pamela comes from an affluent family and was doing well in one of Bujumbura's best high schools — until two years ago.

She ended up being a sex slave after meeting a group of girls when she was 14. At first they proposed that she come along when they went out, then the trips out became dates with older men who picked up the bill — initially without asking for anything.

But then she was taken to a house in Kiriri, a smart residential district of Burundi's capital Bujumbura, where she was locked up for three months under the close watch of "people in police uniform," she said.

"When a client came, if you didn't want to go with him they would slap you and whip the soles of your feet," Pamela recounted in a trembling voice. She was freed in a police raid after her mother reported her disappearance.

"Such places exist in every part of town. You just have to open your eyes to see them," said Florence Boivin-Roumestan, who heads the Canadian NGO Justice and Equity — an organization that has exposed the shocking scale of sex trafficking in the small central African nation.

"After months of investigations we're seeing that human trafficking and sex trafficking in particular exists in Burundi on a scale no one would have imagined," she said.

Victims include both girls from poor rural backgrounds and those brought up in middle-class families in the capital.

In an investigation lasting several months, Justice and Equity found that "young girls are recruited across the country and are either forced into prostitution or sold abroad."

"You find girls of nine or 10, but most of them are in the 13, 14, 15 age range," Boivin-Roumestan said.

No Justice

The trafficking takes different forms. In Bujumbura, it is girls from well-off families who are targeted in the best schools of the capital. Fellow pupils, both girls and boys, recruited by pimps, play the role of intermediaries.

They gradually gain the confidence of the victims, who eventually end up in brothels.

Keza, who comes from a poor district of Bujumbura, says she was locked up and used as a sex slave by a senior intelligence officer for several months starting from age 15.

"He threatened me and he threatened my parents," said Keza, now 16, adding that she no longer wishes to see her family after the ordeal.

"I filed a formal complaint against him and he received several summons. But he has never shown up. The case has gone nowhere," she told AFP.

Khadija, a 15-year-old Muslim from an even poorer peasant farmer family up-country, is still traumatized by her year-long ordeal in which she was lured to the Gulf.

"Some people came to see my parents and said they had well-paid domestic work for me in Oman," she recounted, staring down at her lap.

"In fact I worked 16 hours a day, every day, I slept on the floor and I was never paid anything," she told AFP.

"Whenever my back was turned they would come up from behind and try to lift up my dress," she recounted, preferring not to give further details.

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