Known as Anonymous of Uganda to protect her identity, the journalist says after stories of victims of human trafficking covered over five years resulted in apathy from readers, she decided to become the story by joining throngs of women from her country who fall victim to traffickers whilst in search of a better life. Her first hand experience culminated in a gripping series of stories that were published over three months.
During her investigation she came across a web of connected people who abetted traffickers, including government officials from Uganda who were working in cahoots with the cross-border agents operating from different countries.
“I did not just stumble on this story. I had been reporting on human trafficking and talking to victims for five years. It was a story that was being told by the victims but I wanted to tell it from a personal experience. I planned my move and did desk research. After understanding the issues, I decided to get trafficked as a domestic worker to Dubai,” she explains.
Before signing up to be trafficked, she had interviewed victims of human trafficking who had been trafficked to Oman, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and returned to Uganda with visible wounds and shared horror stories of torture and sexual harassment.
“I wrote several stories based on their experiences, but the problem persisted and the public started blaming victims. As a journalist I understand what they were going through and after observing that writing about their experiences did not solve the problem of human trafficking, I opted to be part of the story so the public could believe me as a journalist and also a victim,” she explains.
Part of her research included collecting information on the issue, understanding the criminal network, the transit routes and how these women and girls ended up in the Middle East. After carefully planning her entry and exit routes and mapping out different scenarios, including what would happen once her passport was confiscated, she was confident to discuss her plans with her editors and convince them to let her go ahead with the investigation.
“I started planning for this Investigation in 2018 and the whole process took me two years to plan but I had only one week to leave,” she reveals.
She knew that working undercover in a foreign country was not going to be easy but felt better equipped to handle the assignment owing to her advanced investigative journalism skills. She carefully concealed her mobile to use it as a notebook and also protected her real passport.
“I never dreamt that one day I would go the extra mile to work as a housemaid just to get a story. My plans went well until I reached Dubai where I realised I was part of a “black market”. I was starved, humiliated, dehumanised and tortured but I persisted so I could live to tell the story,” she explains.
Like the victims she wrote about, the journalist says her life was in danger throughout the assignment and mostly feared being jailed in a foreign country should her cover be blown. She kept in contact with her editors via text messages to update them on her movements.
“My editors supported me throughout the investigation and I wanted to return home alive and tell the story. Interpol Uganda was also notified in incase my plans failed. I wanted to raise alarm that human trafficking with this story at a time when the government was not giving it the attention it deserves. I also wanted to alert the security ministry to tighten security at exit borders and at Entebbe International Airport where officials are bribed by travellers,” she explains.
After her personal encounter with traffickers was published, the story was commended as the best undercover story for 2020 by the Ugandan government, further prompting the President of Uganda to order that nation’s anti-corruption unit to investigate human trafficking.
“Many people, including activists and researchers are using this story as a case study on modern day slavery and human trafficking. Many Ugandan girls still desire to travel and work abroad, but this series of stories describes what happens when one gets there, what to expect and how to deal with it.”