The man on the phone with the 14-year-old Iraqi girl called himself Sa'ad. He was calling long distance from Dubai and telling her wonderful things about the place. He was also about to buy her. Safah, the teenager, was well aware of the impending transaction. In the weeks after she was kidnapped and imprisoned in a dark house in Baghdad's middle-class Karada district, Safah heard her captors haggling with Sa'ad over her price. It was finally settled at $10,000. Staring at a floor strewn with empty whiskey bottles, the orphan listened as Sa'ad described the life awaiting her: a beautiful home, expensive clothes, parties with pop stars. Why, she'd be joining two other very happy teenage Iraqi girls living with Sa'ad in his harem. Safah knew that she was running out of time. A fake passport with her photo and assumed name had already been forged for her. But even if she escaped, she had no family who would take her in. She was even likely to end up in prison. What was she to do?
Safah is part of a seldom-discussed aspect of the epidemic of kidnappings in Iraq: sex trafficking. No one knows how many young women have been kidnapped and sold since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq, based in Baghdad, estimates from anecdotal evidence that more than 2,000 Iraqi women have gone missing in that period. A Western official in Baghdad who monitors the status of women in Iraq thinks that figure may be inflated but admits that sex trafficking, virtually nonexistent under Saddam, has become a serious issue. The collapse of law and order and the absence of a stable government have allowed criminal gangs, alongside terrorists, to run amuck. Meanwhile, some aid workers say, bureaucrats in the ministries have either paralyzed with red tape or frozen the assets of charities that might have provided refuge for these girls. As a result, sex trafficking has been allowed to fester unchecked.
"It is a problem, definitely," says the official, who has heard specific reports from Iraqi aid workers about girls being kidnapped and sold to brothels. "Unfortunately, the security situation doesn't allow us to follow up on this." The U.S. State Department's June 2005 trafficking report says the extent of the problem in Iraq is "difficult to appropriately gauge" but cites an unknown number of Iraqi women and girls being sent to Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Persian Gulf countries for sexual exploitation. Statistics are further made murky by tribal tradition. Families are usually so shamed by the disappearance of a daughter that they do not report kidnappings. And the resulting stigma of compromised chastity is such that even if the girl should resurface, she may never be taken back by her relations.
A visit to the Khadamiyah Women's Prison in the northern part of Baghdad immediately produces several tales of abduction and abandonment. A stunning 18-year-old nicknamed Amna, her black hair pulled back in a ponytail, says she was taken from an orphanage by an armed gang just after the U.S. invasion and sent to brothels in Samarra, al-Qaim on the border with Syria, and Mosul in the north before she was taken back to Baghdad, drugged with pills, dressed in a suicide belt and sent to bomb a cleric's office in Khadamiyah, where she turned herself in to the police. A judge gave her a seven-year jail sentence "for her sake" to protect her from the gang, according to the prison director.