Ugandan women tricked into domestic slavery in Iraq

The BBC has the first detailed accounts of how Ugandan women ended up in domestic slavery in Iraq, and the extraordinary story of their rescue.
Ugandan women farming in the west of the country At least 100 of the Ugandan women who went to Iraq in 2009 remain unaccounted for

Prossie was working as a schoolteacher when she heard an attractive advert on Ugandan radio.

A Kampala company called Uganda Veterans Development Ltd was recruiting women to work for high wages in shops in US Army bases in Iraq.

She signed up, along with 146 other Ugandan women.

But when she arrived in Baghdad, she discovered that she had been bought by an Iraqi agent for $3,500 (£2,200). Her real job was as a housemaid for an Iraqi family.

Like many others, she was forced to work long hours, sometimes from 5am until midnight. She often received little food or water and she was locked inside the house.

"It was a lot of work because Iraqis have this dust, the sand storms, it keeps on falling, so you have to keep on cleaning from morning until you sleep," Prossie said.

Rape

When Prossie protested, her employer told her: "We paid a lot of money for you and we were told that you people don't get sick and you don't get tired. So you have to work."

Samuel Tumwesigye and Lt Col Theodore Lockwood Sam Tumwesigye and Lt Col Theodore Lockwood rescued 14 Ugandan women

Prossie was raped by the man in the house. Several other trafficked Ugandan women we spoke to were raped too.

"I felt so sad and I had no way out. I really hated everything in the house," she said. "It was psychological torture."

On the other side of Baghdad, at an American military base, a Ugandan security contractor called Samuel Tumwesigye heard what was happening to these women.

He called one of them, Agnes, on a mobile phone she had hidden, and promised to help her.

"The first thing I did was go to my bedroom and pray to God," Mr Tumwesigye said. "I thought: 'Please, I'm going to start this. Let me succeed.'"

He told Agnes that if she could escape from the house and get to the Flying Man statue close to Baghdad Airport he would rescue her.

Escape

Agnes had no passport, very little money and she spoke no Arabic. But she had been told that she was soon to be moved to Syria and she believed this was her only chance of escaping.

Ugandan Labour Exports

Ugandan woman wearing necklace
  • Exporting labour earned Uganda $500m a year, at its peak in 2009
  • Most of the workers sent abroad are men, only a small minority are women
  • A women's rights organisation, FIDA-U, has filed a court case against Uganda Veterans Development Ltd
  • An earlier attempt to sue the company failed when the lawyer pulled out

She waited until the family took an afternoon nap before going up to the roof of the house and stealing an abaya cloak from the washing line. When she got outside the gate of the house, she started running.

She was able to find a taxi driver who spoke English and was prepared to take her to the statue. Agnes had to negotiate her way through four checkpoints without documents.

She called Mr Tumwesigye en route and he risked his job when he appropriated a vehicle from the base and drove to get her - violating a strict requirement of his contract not to leave the base.

Previously, Mr Tumwesigye had approached a base chief, Lt Col Theodore Lockwood, about the women's predicament.

Col Lockwood said there was nothing the US Army could do to help the women. However, if they could somehow get to the base, he would allow them on to it.

Military protection

Just hours after making this promise, he got a call to say that one of the women was in his office. Two days later Prossie and another woman arrived at the base by the same route.

Start Quote

They are not our employees - we recruit them and they make a contract with the companies on the other side ”

End Quote Colonel Mudola Uganda Veterans Development Ltd

The officer sent an email to his superiors explaining the situation and expecting to be told the women should not be on the camp.

To his surprise, the e-mailed response read: "We will do everything we can to support you, we are going to provide temporary refuge for these women and they will be under the full protection and authority of the US Military."

The pair rescued a total of 14 Ugandan women before changes to their jobs and the eventual closure of the base closed the escape route for good.

None of those involved in this dramatic sequence of events in 2009 have spoken to the media before.

Several of the women were sick or severely traumatised. One woman who was raped was pregnant and there were fears she would commit suicide. Another was unable to speak or hear as a result of mental trauma and many required treatment for dehydration and exhaustion.

Help

Col Lockwood was able to get them medical attention and even dental treatment at the base.

He spent $5,000 (£3,100) of his own money and another $2,500 collected from colleagues on clothes and other supplies for the women.

The Ugandan capital Kampala at sunset Uganda Veterans Development Ltd has strong links with the governing party

The International Organisation for Migration took them back to Uganda.

The company which recruited the women in Kampala, and continues to export labour, is Uganda Veterans Development Ltd.

Its managing director, Colonel Mudola, denied that the women were sold and said that his company has no responsibility for the women after they have been recruited.

"They are not our employees," he said. "We recruit them and they make a contract with the companies on the other side (in Iraq). We look after them and see that they are being treated well, but really the contract is between the agents and the girls."

At its peak in 2009, the trade in exporting labour is thought to have been Uganda's largest source of foreign currency.

Export licence

Uganda Veterans' licence from the Ministry of Labour, allowing it to export labour, was revoked by the government after local media revealed the consequences.

However, in December last year it was renewed and the exports resumed.

When questioned, Labour Minister Gabriel Opio said: "We meet them at various political meetings and he (Col Mudola) is a member of the party hierarchy so you need to handle him so that he doesn't spoil the atmosphere when you're going for political meetings at the highest level."

The BBC made contact within the last fortnight with a Ugandan woman sent to Iraq by Uganda Veterans.

She said she was being held against her will, that she was very sick and had been raped and beaten.

Since the BBC interviewed her and Col Mudola, she was put on a plane and returned to Uganda. No explanation was given.

At least 100 of the Ugandan women who went to Iraq in 2009 remain unaccounted for, and Uganda Veterans does not know where they are.

This edition of BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents will be broadcast on Thursday 31 March at 1100 BST and on Monday 4 April at 2030 BST. You can also listen on the iPlayer or get the podcast.

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