On July 17, 2021, in Livingstone, John Sitali began his day thinking it would be just like any other—slow and uneventful. Little did he know that his life was about to take a horrifying turn. Around noon that day, the 17-year-old accompanied his friend from Livingstone's Dambwa Central area to the United Church of Zambia's Coillard Congregation, situated on Nakatindi Road, a bustling transit route leading to Sesheke in Western Province.
As his friend vanished into the church, John found himself approached by a white man who greeted him. The man then asked John for help in carrying mineral water to his vehicle parked outside the church. Unbeknownst to John, a black man was already in the car, loading multiple cases of water. Obliging the request, John transported two cases of mineral water to the vehicle. However, the moment he reached the vehicle, the black man seized him and forcefully pulled him inside, causing John to lose consciousness.
"When I regained consciousness, I found myself at the back of a containerised truck," recollects John, still visibly shaken by the ordeal. "There were approximately 17 other individuals onboard, including two armed men, children ranging from seven-year-olds to teenagers, and three girls among them." It seemed the truck had made a stop in Monze or Mazabuka, as John overheard people conversing in the Tonga language. He also noticed that more children were loaded onto the truck at that point.
After several hours, the abducted children requested a restroom break from the armed guards. The gunmen reluctantly permitted them, tying them up and allowing only two minutes in the bushes. "As soon as I stepped out of the truck, I heard a voice in my head screaming at me to 'run,'" recalls John. "That's when I took off, and all I could hear were gunshots and what felt like an army chasing me. I sought refuge in the trees, praying fervently for salvation."
A few hours later, John stumbled upon a settlement and sought help. "I must have looked like a mad person. My clothes were torn from running through the forest," he says. "I inquired about my whereabouts, and they informed me that we were in Kabwe. I pleaded with them to take me to the nearest police station."
The police managed to contact John's parents in Livingstone, who confirmed that he had been missing for three days. His uncle arrived in Kabwe to collect him, and the police documented the case, advising the family to also report it in Livingstone.
Accompanied by his parents and grandparents, John lodged a report with the police in Livingstone. However, the response they received was lackluster, with no further action taken on the case.
John remains uncertain if any of the other children managed to escape their captors. MakanDay reached out to the Zambia Police for comments on the matter but did not receive any feedback.
Tragically, the chemical used to drug John during his abduction caused lasting damage to his organs, resulting in ongoing health issues.
In the year John was abducted, the government of Zambia identified 42 trafficking victims, a decrease from the 199 victims identified in 2020. Out of the total, 140 victims were identified in two specific cases. Additionally, the government uncovered an additional 174 potential trafficking victims. These findings were reported in the 2022 Trafficking in Person Report on Zambia, which was published by the US State Department last month. Consequently, the United States has placed Zambia on a Tier 2 Watchlist for human trafficking. This classification is assigned to countries whose governments do not fully comply with the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 but are making significant efforts to align themselves with the required standards.
The report highlights that over the past five years, human traffickers have exploited both domestic and foreign victims in Zambia. Furthermore, it reveals that traffickers exploit victims from Zambia abroad. The majority of trafficking activities take place within the country's borders and primarily involve the exploitation of women and children from rural areas. These individuals are subjected to domestic servitude or forced labour in various industries such as agriculture, textile production, mining, construction, small businesses, including bakeries, as well as forced begging. Jerabo gangs are also known to coerce Zambian children into engaging in illegal mining operations, such as loading stolen copper or crushing rocks.
Moreover, the report emphasizes that school closures resulting from the pandemic have increased children's vulnerability to exploitation, including sex trafficking and forced labour. It discloses that truck drivers exploit Zambian boys and girls in sex trafficking in towns along the Zimbabwean and Tanzanian borders, while miners exploit them in Solwezi.
The report further reveals that Zambian boys are trafficked for sex in Zimbabwe, while women and girls are exploited for sex trafficking in South Africa. Domestically, trafficking is facilitated by extended families and trusted acquaintances. In the Western province, traffickers exploit Zambians, including children, for forced labour on cattle farms in Namibia. Additionally, women and children from neighboring countries are subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking in Zambia. This includes transiting migrants who initially intended to reach South Africa. Furthermore, Zambian women are recruited for domestic servitude in Lebanon and Oman.
The US report also uncovers that in recent years, traffickers have enticed Rwandan women to Zambia by promising them refugee status. These women are then coerced into registering as nationals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) seeking refugee status in Zambia. They are subsequently exploited in sex trafficking, threatened with physical abuse, and reported to immigration officials for making fraudulent refugee claims.
The report notes a growing trend in traffickers exploiting victims from Tanzania and Malawi in the Zambian timber industry. These women and girls are transported to Zambia for sexual exploitation in brothels and massage businesses in Lusaka. Traffickers employ front companies posing as travel agencies to lure victims from the People's Republic of China (PRC), coordinating with Zambian facilitators and middlemen. Additionally, Indian-Zambian nationals operating in India facilitate the illegal adoption of Indian children, intending to exploit them in domestic servitude within Zambia.