Opinion

Commentary: Army reservists helped Ugandan women escape human traffickers

Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez
Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez MCT

Word spread quickly among the desperate Ugandan women:

If you can somehow escape from the Iraqi household, go to the “Flying Man” statue. The Americans will help you.

Eventually, 17 women, many beaten and raped by their enslaving employers, made it inside the U.S. base in Baghdad in 2009.

The women were not U.S. citizens, nor hired by U.S. contractors, and the Americans had no jurisdiction beyond the walls of their base, having turned security matters over to Iraqi forces months earlier.

So, it would have been easy for the men of the 326th Area Support Group, an Army Reserve unit from Kansas City, Kan., to do nothing, to not get involved, to avoid risk of an international incident. That’s not the choice they made.

“I don’t know if I could have lived with myself,” said Lt. Col. Ted Lockwood, who organized the sanctuary where the victims of a human trafficking ring hid.

At least 150 Ugandan women, maybe more, are believed to have been lured into Iraq with the promise of jobs on an American military base. Instead, some were sold to wealthy Iraqi families for about $3,500 each.

Sexually assaulted, starved, worked from early in the morning until late at night, some without any pay, the women felt trapped.

“Oh, my God. I thought I would die. I thought they were going to kill me. I lost my life,” said Prossie, one of the Ugandans who found refuge within Victory Base Complex.

She said she was raped at one house where she worked. She considered taking her own life before another Ugandan woman passed her a secret message: “Get to the American base.”

Alone and in small groups, the women made their way to the landmark statue outside the sprawling base. One was so traumatized she was unable to speak and had to be helped through the gates.

Another victim was pregnant from rape. Some would later test positive for sexually transmitted diseases. One likely had been drugged. Several had infections and problems from poor nutrition. Most had bruises from recent beatings.

Samuel Tumwesigye, a Ugandan working for a private security firm at the base, first heard about the women’s plight. He told Lockwood, who helped oversee Camp Slayer, one of several installations at the Victory complex, a nearly 50-square-mile base set within the grounds of a Saddam Hussein palace.

Tumwesigye wanted to take other Ugandan guards to go rescue the women from their abusive circumstances, but the American officer warned that they could be arrested and imprisoned by Iraqi forces.

“We cannot go get the women, but if they can get here, I will protect them,” Lockwood said.

Less than three hours later, he received a call. Tumwesigye was in his office with a frightened Ugandan woman, frantic because her employer was about to send her to Syria.

Two days later, two more showed up. They were given a place to stay, set up with board games to play, puzzles and cards. At first, the women slept a lot.

For two months, the women hid on the base, their presence known by only a handful of Army officials.

“If LTC Lockwood was not there, it would have been difficult, even impossible,” Tumwesigye said.

“We just figured it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission,” Lockwood said, although he kept his superiors informed.

He praises Tumwesigye, who risked his own safety and employment to encourage the women to flee, as well as Thair Ihssan, an Iraqi who worked for the International Organization for Migration and helped them return home.

“People just do what they have to do,” Lockwood said.

The incident is acknowledged by a four-line entry in a 359-page U.S. Department of State report chronicling the tragedy of human trafficking globally.

“I am not interested in any publicity but would really like to raise awareness of the fate of these women and especially the 100+ that are still in Iraq,” Lockwood wrote in an initial email. “I do not need to be a part of your telling.”

Sorry, sir. But you do.

The 326th deserves great credit. Its members exemplify what reservists — ordinary men and women who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances — do.

Their rescue of the women was heroic, although those involved shun that term and until recently hid their exploit from publicity. Each said they never hesitated for one simple reason; it was the right thing to do.

Today, Lockwood works as a sourcing manager at the Sprint Campus in Overland Park. Originally from a small community in New York state, he has been a reservist for 22 years and comes from a family with a tradition of military service. He served in Germany during the Gulf War and completed two tours in Iraq.

His assistance of 14 Ugandan women occurred during his six-month deployment. Three more were helped by the officer who took over after Lockwood returned stateside.

Col. Charles Blaschke accompanied Lockwood whenever more women would make it to the “Flying Man,” a statue of Abbas ibn Firnas, a medieval astronomer who tried to soar with homemade wings, that was not far from the base.

The fear in the women’s eyes as they first arrived is seared in his memory, said the Kansas City litigation paralegal with 34 years in the reserves.

“We just tried to do the right thing and make them feel like a human being again,” Blaschke said. “They had just escaped from slavery.”

The men would then take the women to the post exchange, offering their credit cards so personal items could be bought. They were given medical attention as well, outfitted with clothes, shoes, anything they needed to feel more comfortable. Some of the women still treasure the stuffed toys Blaschke gave them their first night on the base.

For his role, Lockwood’s family was given a brown and white cow by Tumwesigye’s family. His son later named it Jessie Belle. The cow is cared for by Tumwesigye’s mother, who lives near Mbarara, Uganda.

You would not be reading this now if it weren’t for a trial that was scheduled to begin Thursday in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. The case, now delayed by a judge’s absence, involves five of the rescued women, including Prossie.

“My life is still very hard,” she said. “I used all of my savings to get to that country.”

The former teacher’s thoughts came in spurts in a brief phone conversation from Kampala. The Kansas City Star is not using her full name, as sexual assault carries a horrible stigma for victims in her nation.

The women are accusing the company that lured them out of Uganda with responsibility for their suffering. In addition, they are charging their government as partly culpable.

Calls for comment from the recruiting firm, Uganda Veterans Development, were not answered. Nor did the Ugandan Ministry of Labor, which issued permits to the recruiting firm charged with trafficking the women, reply to requests for comment.

Because Uganda only recently passed the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, the importance of the charges is amplified, said Ladislaus Kiiza Rwakafuuzi, an attorney handling the cases for FIDA, an international federation of women lawyers.

The victims’ treatment could result in the first prosecution of its kind under the new law, Rwakafuuzi said.

Lockwood contacted me after I wrote an opinion piece on rape as a tool of war. He was seeking help to publicize the trial and to raise funds for the women’s cause.

An estimated $18,000 is needed for witness protection because of the nature of the case and $38,000 in projected legal costs, according to Rwakafuuzi

The term “international incident” was used by more than one official knowledgeable about the possibility that someone would attempt to kidnap the women or harm them.

“There were a lot of potential implications,” said retired Col. Tom Hardy of Olathe, who teaches at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.

To understand the sensitivity of the situation, realize that at the time, the U.S. military was attempting to hand authority to the Iraqis. And it was Iraqis — some probably influential — whom the women accused of the abuse.

Some of the women received death threats in cellphone calls from the people who had bought them. Lockwood stationed an armed female guard near the women, sequestered in a building once used as Baath party headquarters.

Hardy, at the time Lockwood’s immediate supervisor, never actually saw the women but, trusting Lockwood, gave permission to continue allowing them on base. He constantly checked with other officials, keeping a chain of command aware of developments.

Each man worries about the Ugandans they did not save, hopeful the trial will force the government to find out what happened to the women who are unaccounted for.

“I think about it,” said Blaschke of Lee’s Summit. “I have a daughter who is 21 and they are someone’s daughter, too.”

“The world is a horrible place,” Lockwood said. “I’ve seen some horrible things. If it can be imagined, then it can be done.”

Yes, but the same is true of the good that people can envision.

The reservists imagined how they could help. And then they just did it.

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