BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Own Correspondent
The Repentant Trafficker
By Jane Labous
Producer: Polly Hope
Introduced by Kate Adie
Kate Adie: In a place where many children are regarded as a potential drain on one's income, trying to make money out of them has become a cultural norm. So tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of its children, some as young as five are being trafficked into conditions of actual or near slavery. And as Jane Labous has been finding out, the traffickers are not strangers, often their friends or members of the family - sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers.
Agram Aseco is slight and tense, quivering with nervous energy. All week he sends me sidelong glances as we film in the village of Bago in northern Togo, where the mud buildings rise from the red earth, and the teak flowers form lacy silhouettes in the blazing dusks.
Agram seems relieved when I finally sit down with him on a ledge outside an earth house, and he speaks urgently, as if at confession.
“May God forgive me,” he says, “but they were like little slaves.” He hangs his head and clicks his teeth regretfully. “What a business. It was no good. We were living off the blood of children over there. “
His eyes well up, this ex-trafficker, and I sense somehow that he needs my forgiveness, that he needs everyone's forgiveness. Agram, now forty-five, used to traffic children for a living. He was 19 when he first took a group of ten-year-old boys from Bago to Nigeria, via Benin, making detours all the while to confuse the crying children, so they couldn't run away.
The bus broke down and, after they'd walked more than 30 miles and the children's feet were ripped to shreds, Agram treated them until they could work again.
“So you cared?” I interrupt, hoping for a chink of redemption.
“No, no,” Agram exclaims, shaking his head. “If they can't work, you don't get paid.”
Agram lived with the boys in a hut near the fields where they worked during the day, driving them on with a stick and harsh words. At night, they'd all sleep on the floor, crammed in with other masters and their children. For each small boy labouring away, Agram earnt around two pounds a day, three pounds if he pushed them hard enough.
But this is no story of bad guys and good. And I find myself with a conflicted sort of sympathy for Agram, as he tells me that he himself was trafficked when he was a teenager. You see, this is not about children being taken by strange men in the dead of night. The traffickers known as Ogas are men and women, close relatives or family, friends.
And here in the rural villages of Togo, child trafficking doesn't surprise anyone. Most trafficking happens with the consent of the child, bewitched by a murky spell of familial obligation promises and hope. Female ogas promise girls money, schooling, or a holiday, then put them to work as domestic servants in Lomé, Lagos or Accra.
Male ogas promise motorbikes and four-battery radios if boys come with them to the cassava, cocoa, cotton, and tobacco fields of Benin and Nigeria.
It was Agram's uncle who lured him to Nigeria, promising that he'd make enough money to replace his parents' straw roof with a zinc one.
“Ah, the ogas,” winces Agram with another click of his teeth. “It's like alchemy when they speak.”
In the end, he received a bicycle and a four-battery radio for months of gruelling work in the cotton fields. He was trafficked back and forth for three years.
“And then I thought, no, he's exploited me. I'm going to exploit others.”
We stare across the square to where some girls are drawing buckets from the well, the tinkling of water mingling with the scent of dry savanna, and I wonder how many of these children will one day be enchanted by an oga. A motorbike zips past, a teenage boy hunched a top in the billowing dust, and I know he's made the same journey as Agram, and is now riding his only prize.
Agram sold the motorbike and video player that in the end were the only spoils of his entire trafficking career. He now lives on a minimal wage as a village educator, talking to families and children about the dangers of trafficking. He says that he must have seen half a dozen ogas just that afternoon, and reckons there are about a hundred, in total, operating here.
:Child trafficking is a contagious disease,” he adds angrily. “You can fall into it so easily, and you risk losing your life and your morals.”
Agram sees his current poverty as a punishment. Sometimes he spots the boys whom he trafficked, now grown men. One sometimes brings him gifts of clothes or food, according to Agram, a subtle way of saying, ‘you did me harm, now see how successful I am, despite you’. This too, Agram considers a punishment, but his eyes light up when he mentions his own children, four girls and a boy.
“I want them to be something,” he smiles for the first time. “I tell them, think of your future. Trafficking is not your future.”