The illicit proceeds from human trafficking and exploitative labour crimes in 2018 are estimated at $150 billion (up from $32 billion in 2011). Sexual trafficking provides a significant part of these proceeds, $99 billion, going into the hands of criminal gangs. The dark underside of globalisation, the trade has been the subject of both documentaries and thrillers. But what is far less well known is the extraordinary role nuns, Women Religious, have played in caring for its victims and combating it.
I was recently privileged to interview Sister Imelda Poole, about her experience of working with trafficked women. But before watching, you may need a few acronyms and words explained.
CARITAS - the international arm of the Roman Catholic Church for aid and development with branches in different countries. CAFOD - the UK branch of CARITAS. CIIR - the Catholic Institute for International Relations, an independent radical organisation founded during the Second World War. Conference of Religious - the national body for men and women Religious. Congregation - a particular association of men or women Religious (Sister Imelda for example belongs to the English congregation of the IBVM, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as Loreto or Mary Ward Sisters, who share Ignatian Spirituality with the better known Jesuits. Currently 23 different congregations in England and Wales have members engaged in anti-trafficking, over half providing properties for safe-houses and shelters).
Here is Sister Imelda explaining what brought her into this work....
Sister Imelda was then profoundly influenced by meeting trafficked women awaiting deportation in an Italian detention centre . She describes what sexual trafficking means for its victims. Sister Eugenia Bonnetti, mentioned below, is a founder of the movement to combat trafficking in Italy.
Work in Albania gave her considerable experience of the criminal gangs that flourished in post-communist countries. Many of these have found human trafficking safer, so more lucrative, than the drugs trade. The gangs operate across borders. But this is also true of Women Religious whose congregations are found in many different countries.
An important part of the mission of Women Religious involved in combatting sexual trafficking is setting up and maintaining Shelters for women who have escaped their traffickers. This has become an ecumenical effort in the UK involving the Salvation Army as an important partner. Below she describes the formation of the Medaille Trust which cares for trafficked women in a number of Shelters in the UK.
* CLARIFICATION: The founder of the Medaille Trust is Sr. Teresa Ann Herrity, a Sister of St. Joseph, living with her comunity in Newport.
In the video footage, we mistakenly named the Founder of the Medaille Trust as Sr. Teresa Helm, who was in fact a key lay worker in Chigwell, Surrey, UK. Sadly, Teresa is now deceased.
After pioneering work combating sexual trafficking in Europe, Women Religious successfully engaged the Catholic hierarchy in their mission. This engagement went up to the level of the Pope and Vatican with meetings in Rome and is now an international movement, (see santamartagroup.com which includes police and www.renate-europe.net which is a network of Religious in Europe). I discuss with her the tension between protecting trafficked girls suffering from trauma and the police's need for the girls to testify in order to obtain convictions.
Finally we discussed what impact this work, which many would not associate with nuns, had on her religious life. In a moving personal testimony, at times struggling to put her experience into words, she places it squarely in a tradition of Christian spirituality.
Thanks to Steve Pierce, Oxford Film Shed, who filmed and edited a long interview, Edmund Ross who embedded the clips in my blogsite, and the Las Casas Institute, Blackfriars, Oxford, (https://bfriars.ox.ac.uk/study/research/Las-Casas-Institute-for-social-justice for more of the interview) who invited Sister Imelda Poole to Oxford. And, of course, to Sister Imelda herself.
Miraculously they’d arrived. Emerging from the coach were thirty Nigerian sheikhs, imams, pastors, priests and activists from areas affected by Boko Haram’s terrorism in Nigeria, men and women, some hardline some open-minded, run off their feet, not knowing what to expect. An attempt to create some interfaith unity against the ISIS-style terrorism in the north-east of Nigeria was underway.
The Conference Centre was tucked away outside a small town in Northamptonshire. That first day was hard going. The body language from the senior Pentecostals said it all. They were boarding with the enemy. Most of the Christians had never been in a mosque. Most of the Muslims had never been in a church. The divisions were immediately visible in who sat with whom. With only the sheep outside the Centre to talk to, everyone was stuck, way beyond their comfort zone.
It was a high risk strategy but the only way to break the tension. Three Christians were placed opposite three Muslims and each asked to tell their story. The Muslim story was about being second class citizens in a Western dominated the Nigerian Federation. The Christian story was - implicitly - that “Muslims were killing Christians”. Tension mounted.
Then came the first woman Muslim speaker. She described being in a car ambushed by Boko Haram. Her three female companions shot dead. She was partly hidden by the body of her companion in the back seat. A terrorist looked through the window but decided they were all dead. A few months later Boko Haram came for her brother. Tears began to flow. The body language amongst the Christians changed, arms were unfolded, the tension evaporated. After that the religious divisions began to break down, doors appeared in cultural walls. By the end of the week they had a shared story “Terrorists are killing Christians and Muslims”.
The divisions in that room were religiously motivated and, on day one, entrenched. Some Pentecostals believe that Muslims worship the Devil, some Salafi Muslim reject Christianity as kufr, unbelief and Christians as infidels. The change in narrative was no small thing. But the tears broke through religious identity to a common humanity. Most of the participants had lost kin and loved-ones or experienced suffering caused by their religious affiliation. The empathy at work broke down barriers. Several of the participants, began to work together, and still communicate across religious lines years later. Nigeria remains plagued by religious divisions.
This is not just a lesson for Nigeria. What of our own social and religious neo-tribalism? A plethora of articles and books have appeared diagnosing the roots of contemporary divisions: identity politics, “somewhere” versus “anywhere” people, the differential impact of the 2008 global financial crisis. Such divisions are not just imagined, the projections of a fragmented present against a fanciful harmonious past. We seem to be heading into apocalyptic W.B. Yeats country: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. Much quoted but presciently descriptive of the political gyrations occurring globally today.
What has gone wrong since the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 and Fukuyama foolishly gloried in the eternal triumph of democracy and liberal capitalism? Whatever it is politically, sociologically and economically, it has had an impact on people’s minds. Or perhaps it would be better to say it has made up many minds that the apparently contradictory mix of an emotional tribal and a cognitively individualist worldview is in their best interests.
It is a commonplace to suggest that a world in which most people spend a significant part of their life in virtual reality, with identities shaped and intensified by self-selected peer groups, might be an important factor in generating neo-tribalism. Or that social media peddles a fake individualism, nurtured by advertising agencies, based on promoting the purchase of different sorts of goods, my music, my shoes, my clothes, for example. The rapid decline of organized religion means that what is right has become simply what is right for me. And the default position for what is right for me is what most of my peers do. Traditional wisdom and ethics are like the remains of a meal, cold and congealed, to be swept into the garbage. Historical humility, the idea that the past may have some lessons to teach us about how to live, disappears in the immediacy of virtual interactions.
Yes, this me-now generation is a dismal caricature. There is a new Generation Z campaigning for strict gun laws in the USA, voting against Trump. In the UK, a youthful food and alcohol puritanism concerned about climate change and bio-diversity, voting against BREXIT. Both are alert to infringements of the rights of sexual and ethnic minorities.
But caricatures are based on certain features artfully exaggerated, and depend on these features being there in small measure ready to be exaggerated. There are people everywhere who, in the pursuit of profit and power, are ready to manipulate these features to their advantage.
Another way of looking at what has happened since 1991 is to consider not what is new or apparently growing, but what is rare, missing or notable by its absence. What is in people’s minds, or missing from them, when they see large numbers of migrants desperate enough to drown in the Mediterranean – over 2,000 this year - or die crossing the US border in pursuit of a better life, yet campaign against them? Who put jobs in the arms industry above 14 million people facing famine in Yemen. Who rise up baying in huge numbers for the death of a Christian woman on trumped up charges of blasphemy? Who gun down people of different colour, religion or political views, or from different gangs? What are the roots of this, our contemporary neo-tribalism?
My answer is not some brilliant sociological insight. I wish it were. What has been disappearing is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Or the desire, skill and formation to do so.
Can democracies create and sustain a culture of empathy? Even affluent Germany is struggling. Can Empathy be taught? Let’s hope so.
Under the Wire is a documentary film you will not forget. It brings together the story of war correspondent Marie Colvin’s last assignment for the Sunday Times in 2012, reporting the harrowing destruction of Baba Amra in Homs, the slaughter of its residents and the gripping escape of her wounded camera man, Paul Conroy. Paul Conroy and Lindsay Hilsum of Channel 4 News discussed the film at the Aldeburgh Documentary Film Festival on November 4th. The audience emerged stunned.
The Director, Christopher Martin, could have made a film culminating in the deaths of Marie Colvin and the French photojournalist, Rémi Ochlik, trapped in the Baba Amr press centre – a wrecked house – and systematically targeted by the Syrian armed forces. This deliberate killing of journalists was in itself an important story.
But Under the Wire is far more. Assad’s bombing destroyed most of Conroy’s footage and photographs but only about 15 minutes of an 80 minute film is reconstruction. Martin searched far and wide for material and found a wealth of amateur video of Homs under siege and of a make-shift health centre where a doctor struggled to keep life in the mutilated bodies brought to its door. But intense bombing coupled with lack of medical equipment and drugs could leave Dr. Mohammed trapped and helpless. The death of a single baby, watched by the mother and doctor, both unable to help, brought the daily slaughter by Assad’s regime into heartbreaking focus.
Conroy, a former soldier, raises this documentary from exceptionally good to almost epic. He acts throughout the film as story-teller/commentator, Liverpudlian voice struggling for the right words, his face in close up, intercut with the live footage of mayhem, terror and suffering. Conroy struggles to express the horror of the situation, trying to suppress emotion, the story first given to camera in one long, almost unbroken, filmed session, features etched like a mappa mundi of the pain, suffering and fear around him. You are irresistibly drawn in. Here he was some six years later, getting a standing ovation in a seaside town in East Anglia, wearing a cheeky Scouser persona like a warm protective coat. Though you wonder what the trauma of his escape from Baba Amr is doing to him inside it.
Conroy’s escape retold as the Syrian tanks roll in has the desperate quality of the common fear and flight nightmare. The Red Crescent arrives when all seems lost. But the doctor in charge, summoned into the press centre, explains sotto voce to Conroy that he and his companions, including another seriously wounded journalist, should under no circumstances, despite the urgency of their physical condition, get into the ambulance. They are left helpless, in pain from bad leg wounds and in the dark, hope fast disappearing, with no apparent means of escape. Christopher Martin, Under the Wire’s Director explained to the audience that they would all have been killed and thrown into a ditch at the outskirts of Homs. Had this brave doctor not died six months before the film was screened, in order to protect him none of these details could have been included.
Were it not for Conroy, Under the Wire could have become another document of outstanding courage in a standard survival/escape movie format, with the journo as tough hero. But he infuses the film with his and Marie Colvin’s passionate conviction that they must “tell the story”. On Marie Colvin’s insistence that they must go back to Baba Amr - having left after being inaccurately informed a Syrian army invasion was imminent – Conroy, smothering his instinct and foreboding, accompanies her and goes back. Phoning the story out, of course, gave the Syrian air force their co-ordinates for bombing. The ethical backbone of the film is Colvin and Conroy’s sacrificial commitment and to the core principles of journalism, and touchingly to each other.
Getting the story out is rarely enough to bring about any substantive change in war zones. A safe passage, local ceasefire, is sometimes the reward. A Nuremberg trial for the Syrian regime with the film as prosecution evidence is not going to happen. But the truth is a value in itself and the cost of it in journalists’ lives is growing increasingly high. And I would include in the cost the unhealed invisible wounds caused by living through such experiences of civilian slaughter in war.
So don’t expect a comfortable tear-jerker. This is raw immersion in Assad’s destruction of life. You will never come closer to feeling what it is like to be bombed or wounded unless you are actually caught up in a war. I came out of the Aldeburgh Cinema feeling someone had surfaced several of my emotions at once, yet had not been manipulated by the film-maker. This is a “must see”, but more importantly a demanding “ought to see”. And if you have children, definitely worth a babysitter.