At the start of 2017, 28-year-old Sarah had failed to find a job and her husband’s contract at Airtel had come to an end. A friend introduced her to the idea of working abroad and connected her to Kalule, a man who found jobs for people in Abu Dhabi at a low cost. He asked her to pay UGX 700,000 which would cater for “everything”.
“I told him I did not want to work as a maid because maids suffered a lot in those countries and he said I would work in a hotel. My mother got a loan from a savings group and gave me the money.”
One month later, Sarah got a call from Kalule telling her to prepare UGX 50,000 for a medical examination and UGX 70,000 for transportation to Nairobi where she would board a plane to Abu Dhabi.
Crossing the boarder
“I did not have any doubts. I did not question why we were passing through Nairobi and not Entebbe. The day before I left, he told me to stop at the Tororo- Malaba junction where I would find a man waiting for me. A coaster full of girls found me at that same junction and they were all going to Nairobi as well. We were twelve girls in total. Boda-bodas came and the man told us to give them UGX 20,000 each. Each bike took two girls from that junction to Kenya. The journey was about 45 minutes long through hidden paths.”
In Kenya, the women were taken to a large warehouse. In this building were small mattresses and threadbare blankets scattered all over the floor and thirty women from Uganda and Kenya who were on their way to the Middle East as well.
“When we got there, a man called Abdul took our passports saying he was going to put for us stamps showing that we had gone through immigration at the border.”
As the other girls started to panic Sarah remained calm, now that she had seen many other girls. She believed they would all be okay. Two coasters picked the girls up the next morning and took them to Nairobi where they stayed for a week, waiting for their air tickets.
“When we got to Nairobi, we boarded another bus to Hilltop hotel on Umoja street. Abdul kept telling us to hurry so we do not get caught. On the bus, they returned our passports which now had stamps of Busia, both for Uganda and Nairobi, yellow fever card and the bus ticket. They paid for accommodation at the hotel but we had to use our own money for upkeep as we waited for our tickets.”
A week later, Sarah and the other girls were taken to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport where they were handed their tickets.
“My ticket had Dubai, then Oman. I was confused because Kalule had assured me that I was going to Abu Dhabi. The other girls were confused too. I called him and he said that I had to work in Oman for two months first, then go to Abu Dhabi. He said that is how it was supposed to be.”
Life in Oman
At the airport in Oman, Sarah found an Egyptian woman waiting for her. She took her to an office in town and gave her a contract. In this contract, she was to work as a house maid for two years in Oman with a monthly salary of UGX 700,000. To ensure that she did not run away, her boss would hold onto her passport.
“I asked her why the contract, said maid not waitress in a hotel and she didn’t know anything about that. She told me if I did not want to work as a maid, I had to refund all the money they had spent for me to get to Oman. It came to UGX 6,000,000. I couldn’t pay back that money so I decided to stay and work. My new boss came and took me to his home. The house was a three-storied mansion. AT first I thought there were other maids who worked there but soon found out I was the only one. He took me around the house and told me all my work. I was expected to clean the house and look after the children who were six and all very young. He had a bakery and I was responsible for cooking the food that was sold there.”
This would be the beginning of Sarah’s eight long and torturous months in bondage.
“The bell would wake me up every morning at 4am and I would start the day by making chapati for the family’s breakfast. I would then mop the entire house, cook other meals, iron very many clothes, cook food for the bakery, wash the cars, shower the children from five and below. I would go to bed between 1am and 3am. I spent the entire day on my feet, there was no room for rest because the chores were back to back.”
At the end of the first month, Sarah asked her boss for her salary but he refused to pay her. She assumed that in Oman, housemaids were not paid in the first month and trudged on, until she fell gravely ill in her second month.
“My legs got swollen, my back started to hurt and I started feeling pain the chest. I would feel pain when I squatted and when I urinated. I felt my body was paining everywhere and urine would just flow through me at any moment. I asked my boss to take me to the hospital or give me any medication because I wasn’t able to work in this condition. He told me to take Panadol. I asked for my money again and he still he refused to give it to me. I told them to take me back to the office if he didn’t want to treat me or pay me. At the office, they did not want to listen to me. They told me to go back to work since my contract had not yet expired. I went back and worked for the third month but I almost died. By chance, I found an abandoned ointment in the children’s room which made me feel a little better.”
Sarah’s health deteriorated further forcing her boss to take her to the hospital, where the doctor instructed him to let her rest as she regained some strength. He gave her some medicine and two inhalers for her chest pain and sent her back home.
“We went back home and I went straight to my room. I must have slept off after taking the medicine because I just heard him barging into my room. “Did you come here to sleep?” he shouted as he pulled my ear making me sit up. He shouted at me to get up and work. He pulled me from the bed and I just went on my knees, begging him not to beat me but rather send me back home. His wife and brother heard me scream so they came and pulled him off me. When he was leaving, he said “I will do to you what I did to the Filipino.”
Sarah did not sleep that night because she was afraid of what he could do to her. She lay on the floor to watch out for his footsteps from under the door. The next morning, she made the decision to run away and save her life.
Escape from torture
“I woke up in pain and I was vomiting blood. I packed the few clothes I had come with and ran to the next compound which also had a Ugandan maid. She hesitated to open for me at first but later she did and I told her what had happened to me the past three months. She also had swollen legs and looked unwell. She lent me a phone and I called the police. An officer told me to get a taxi to the police station and there, he asked me how I had come to Oman. I told him about the Egyptian lady at the office but I did not know where the office was, I only had their business card. He took me back to the office and instructed the woman to give me passport and buy for me a ticket to Uganda immediately. After the policeman left, she took off her shoe and hit my head with the sharp heel. I told her I was sick but she did not care. She told me to call home, ask my family to send the money my sponsor has spent on me and an air ticket. My boss said he could only release my passport after I had paid back all his money.”
Helpless at the accommodation
Sarah called her husband who promised he would try to get all the money together as soon as possible. She was then sent to the accommodation, a large holding two floors above the office. In this room were over thirty women who had run away from their jobs as well. Here she found Ugandans, Kenyans, Nigerians, Filipinos and Indians. They were all waiting for their families to send money and air tickets. The suffering Sarah experienced in that room will forever be imprinted on her mind.
“One of the Ugandan girls had been beaten so badly that her back and shoulders had wire marks. Another woman had worked for 4 days and left, the other had been raped by her boss and all the men that lived in the house. We suffered in that room. We slept on the floor, were not allowed to go out and we only ate basmati rice once a day. We had to cut our clothes to pad ourselves and there was no Vaseline, soap and toothbrushes. All my life, I had never seen lice until I got to Oman. It was like a maximum prison.”
Due to lack of medication and the poor living conditions, Sarah’s health worsened and her entire left side got paralyzed, leaving her at the mercy of the other girls. She stayed in that room for five months.
“One of the Filipino ladies had a phone that we used to communicate to our families. I talked to my husband frequently and he assured me that he was looking for the money everywhere. He had sought help from good Samaritans, NGOs, TV stations. He gave me a number of a man called Alex who could help us. We started chatting with him and he reassured us that he would bring us back home. After two months, the woman called me downstairs and asked who Alex was. I told her he was my brother in law. She told me to tell him to send my ticket and USD 400. I did not hear from Alex for a month because our phone had been confiscated.”
Sarah was eventually allowed to to speak to Alex who told her that a ticket had been sent and she would be going home the next day. The joy and relief Sarah felt was immeasurable. She had gained some strength and could be able to walk on her own.
“As I left for the airport the next morning, three Ugandan girls had just been brought to the office and the woman was beating them as she led them to the accommodation upstairs.”
At the airport in Dubai, she found many other Ugandan girls heading home after so much suffering.
“One girl had been burnt by a flat iron on her hand that her skin was all burnt off, the other was bleeding from her C-section incision because of too much heavy work and another told me she had worked in Dubai for four months without seeing a penny. Another girl had been locked in the house for months and this other girl had no flesh on her buttocks because of too much whipping. I saw things abroad I would never wish on anyone.”
In Entebbe, Sarah was unrecognizable. She found Alex and her husband who took her to a hospital in Kawempe where she was treated as an outpatient for three weeks however, her chest still pains whenever she does strenuous work.
“I was happy to be back home. However much I did not come back with any shilling, I was glad to be alive. Through the Make A Child Smile foundation, I was able to get counseling and now I counsel other girls who return home.”
Now that she is healed, Sarah would like to start a business selling second hand shoes and clothes.
*Names have been changed on request.