Breaking the spell
With attitudes towards so-called 'undocumented people' hardening in the Netherlands, Tom Marfo works to fight forced Voodoo prostitution in the deprived Bijlmer district of Amsterdam.
Flashes and sparks from the overhead power lines light up the graffiti on either side of the tracks as the metro train rattles through the tunnel. The last backpacked tourist has long since got off, as the line snakes its way southwards, towards the Bijlmer.

The metro station is unfinished - its dusty, concrete floor bordered by ramps, scaffolding and building plots. Waiting at the bottom of the long escalator, dressed in a green and black tie-dyed shirt and shorts, stands Tom Marfo. He grins as he shakes my hand enthusiastically. As we walk, Marfo nods to the occasional passer-by. He is something of a hero in these parts.

The centre of the town - his town - is a lively jumble of cultures with the feel of a real community. Shops sell foods from all over Africa. Large family groups gather on the benches, soaking up the afternoon sunshine. People stop and say hello. After the sobriety of central Amsterdam it is like stepping into another world.

'The Biljmer is our country,' Marfo explains. 'It is a country within a country. We've lived here for 25 years. We eat African food, wear African clothes and we have our African culture. It is like we are back home.'

Marfo pauses to speak to a mother, out with her teenaged daughter. They speak in their native tongue. She fumbles and a coin slips through her fingers. Before she can react, he bends down to pick it up.

We walk through the bustling market and towards the monolithic tower blocks, standing in swathes of grass. Some of these blocks have been knocked down and replaced by low-density housing. Others have been renovated and repainted. But no amount of paint- nor even the slanting golden rays of summer sunlight-can hide the bleakness.

Marfo works with what the Dutch Government terms 'illegal immigrants', whom he prefers to call 'undocumented people'. He has rescued countless young African women smuggled into the Netherlands and forced by criminal gangs to work as prostitutes-virtual slaves. He has received two high-profile national awards for his work. In 2002 he was given the prestigious Marga Klompe Foundation award, named after the highly respected Dutch minister who fought for the rights of women and the underprivileged. And in 2003 he was given the 'The Hero of Amsterdam' award by the City of Amsterdam.

Marfo is typically modest about his achievements. Sitting in his flat with a commanding view overlooking the tower blocks, Marfo gestures towards the window. 'If we walked a bit down there I could show you where the women were marketed, bargained for and sold,' he says. 'The place was an open space-a sports area where people liked to be-but the bulldozers are very busy there now.'

'It was subtle and only those involved knew exactly what it was. For instance, you would see a guy walking [along] with three or four young girls. They would all have one trademark hairdo. Whenever you saw a guy with a lot of chains around his neck, or a woman with three or four girls following her, you knew it was a madam or a pimp.'

The deals were done by nods and whispers. The girls were discreetly paraded in front of prospective buyers, sometimes from Belgium, Luxembourg or other parts of Europe.

'Usually the person who brings them will not put them to work but resell them to a second buyer,' explains Marfo. 'The second buyer may even sell them to a third buyer. But sure, the second buyer will use them.

'The price depends entirely on the physical appearance of the woman. A tall woman with a good figure and nice bone structure will get a good price, perhaps around 30,000 dollars.

'Once she's been "sold" her new "owner" will make her work to earn this money back. She remains a slave for a period of five to seven years. She has to work and she has to make about 60,000 to 80,000 dollars for this person. And until she's finished she remains effectively a slave.'

The girls are 'softened up' to make them more suitable for their new Owners, Marfo says. They are introduced to smoking, drinking and drugs to make them feel high and to lower their inhibitions, as for these girls it is a cultural shock too-they are not used to being naked in front of another person.

According to Marfo, the pimps and madams employ professional torturers and voodoo to scare the girls into submission. 'When the girls are bought they usually have to inculcate into them fear and respect [so that they] take orders, [and] never ask questions.

'It is a culture which is very heavily superstitious, with many gods. They take body parts like fingernails, blood from all parts of [the woman's] body, saliva, hair from her head, armpit and private parts, clothing and underwear. They use these to "conjure up" powers against you if you break any of their "rules". The girls believe that if they go against it they will die, and their parents will die. So [the gangs] keep them perpetually in this bondage.

'Coupled with this voodoo, there is the physical torture that they undergo daily. They are told that if they ever go to the police they are dead.

'But for many the biggest torture is psychological. It is threats against their parents back home in Africa. The girls are told that if they do not cooperate, their parents, brothers and sisters will be killed. The mother will call [and say] that people have come to her and threatened to kill her because she has been misbehaving. The mother will be pleading with her to work obediently.

'They become very pliable. I know of cases where even after they have been rescued they go back to the pimps. They have been so psychologically imprisoned that independence from them is quite a big task.

'Before they are brought here, legal contracts are sometimes signed by the parents, giving out their children to be sold like this. These are illiterate children and parents from the villages. They have never heard the word "dollar" before and they have no idea what it is, let alone how much it is in their currency. They have no idea that it means you have to be a slave for so many years.

'These girls are brought over as teenagers and they never finish paying until they are in their mid-to-late 20s. By the time they have finished paying, their whole womanhood is wasted and their life destroyed.

If the women are unlucky enough to fall pregnant through their work they face the prospect of a botched back-street abortion. 'Some of the girls have even been threatened with having their stomach hacked open and the foetus forcibly removed,' says Marfo.

'All these things put terrible stress on them and I have seen many cases where they have lost their minds.'

Marfo first came to Amsterdam in 1988. 'I loved the canals, the relative calmness of the city compared to life in London at the time. But there was one thing that really shocked me. My puritanical psyche was completely jolted when I went to the Red Light District. I didn't know there was anything like that in this world.

'I couldn't stand the fact that they were involved in prostitution and were naked and it was like it was normal. From my spiritual perspective it was wrong. More importantly it was extremely degrading to the women. I saw a lot of Africans and I knew immediately something was wrong.

'When I returned some years later in 1993 the situation was out of control. Hundreds of young African girls were being brought here to be sold. I started first by opening my own home to these people.

'I'm a cocktail of faiths,' he explains. 'And that helps me a lot to relate to [the people I work with] and to deal with them. I know the game and I understand the language. We know the culture and that's why we have been more successful than any non-indigenous organisation.'

His grandparents were animists, believing that spirits inhabited the mountains, rivers and lush green forests of the Ashanti Region of central Ghana. 'If someone did something bad to you and you wanted revenge then you went to the gods. That was the African religion. I do not subscribe to that at all now,' he says.

'Then my village came under Islam. So my parents became Muslims and I became a Muslim. But the only school in the village was a Christian missionary school. 'Around the age of nine I had a revelation about the Lord Jesus Christ.' From that moment onward, he decided to devote his life to helping others.

He lost his father at the age of twelve, and by tradition, his uncle became the head of the family, taking responsibility for all of his father's 22 children. 'My uncle took some of us to the city and there I went to a missionary school,' he relates. He joined the Scripture Union and became a youth leader. He later worked as a missionary in Nigeria and was sent to study in England.

When he moved to the Netherlands in 1993 he established the House of Fellowship Church, catering for the migrant community. Later he set up the Christian Aid and Resources Foundation, dedicated solely to rescuing and rehabilitating victims of trafficking. The Foundation rented cheap apartments in the area which were scheduled for demolition. Today, it runs nine "mission houses" for rescued women in the Bijlmer.

'At any given time I have 45 people staying there. I also have the same number who come and go, take a shower, eat and drink. It costs us almost ?1000 a month for one mission house, not to mention additional expenses, such as legal and hospital bills. We have managed it because I helped to provide "black" jobs for the women so that they could contribute to the cost of running the houses.

'I have set up a computer school in one of the houses where we can train people, but unfortunately I don't have the resources to hire a teacher. So I will be teaching all that I know, and praying to God that a Good Samaritan somewhere will help.'

'Through my work and that of other NGOs here, the trade has been drastically curtailed from Africa, but not much from Eastern Europe. That is much more dangerous because it involves the East European mafia and guns. I have had many calls to get involved with [stopping] the East European trade but I have no resources. We have run up a huge bill. By the end of this year if we don't have support, all our mission houses will have to close down.

'We do not get one single cent of sponsorship from anywhere, apart from one institution called Shared Hope International, headed by a former US Congresswoman, Linda Smith, which gives us a little support to bridge the very serious crisis we are facing this year.'

Over the last two years, Marfo has seen huge numbers of the migrant community leave the Netherlands because of the hostile atmosphere and the introduction of new regulations requiring people to carry ID cards. 'My church had a regular attendance of 180 but we are now down to about 70.'

Despite the funding crisis, in part caused by the diminishing numbers of churchgoers, Marfo has ambitious plans to try to crack the problem of trafficking at its source. He wants to build schools in Ghana and Nigeria to teach women computer skills and to show them what happens to those who are lured to Europe by false promises of riches.

This school will have 1500 used computers,' he says. 'In Africa, when you can use a computer and type, you get a middle-income salary. What I'm trying to do is have 3,000 students, train them for six months and give them used computers so that they can establish their own secretarial companies. 'I've been asking companies here for used computers but I have not had one single response,' he acknowledges.

'As much as they appreciate the social work that I am doing, the Dutch Government doesn't give any help. Nobody in politics wants to be associated with somebody who is helping what they call 'illegal people.' That is the political jigsaw involved here. 'If you push people to the wall you make them criminals. So I try to help people so that they are not forced into criminality. When people are driven to hopelessness it's bad for the whole of society.

'The fundamental problem with the law here is the failure to distinguish between victims and so-called illegal immigrants. They know that no child from Africa could have 3,000 euros to fly to this country. They know that they are not here on their own-they are slaves. But when they pick them up they put them in prison. They don't go after the criminals but the victims because they are the easiest. This is precisely what the criminals tell the girls: "If you go [to the police], they will not believe your story and they will throw you back, and when you come back, you know what we are going to do to you."

'There is no political will [to solve this problem] because we now live in an era where immigrants have become a political football. All of the political parties are struggling to prove themselves to be the most anti-immigrant party.

'For years I was crying, "Wolf wolf wolf," but either they didn't believe me, or they didn't care. I accused the police of inaction and I was quite often in the media. Thank God that later on it got some attention. Now, the police call me when they have a problem. The girls call me when they are in custody. When they are released they come to me and I always let them know that there is a way out, that I can guarantee their safety.

'However the police say to get a conviction [against the gangs] is difficult in this country.' For their part, the Amsterdam police acknowledge this problem and say that it can be difficult to get reliable witnesses. 'The women are afraid to talk,' a spokesman explained, 'and also sometimes there is concern that the women make up the stories to avoid being sent back.'

Marfo's dedication has not been without personal risk. 'A couple of times my door was broken and [I've had] some threatening phone calls. Five years ago some of the gangs gathered together in Rotterdam and they planned to take me out because I was spoiling their business and exposing them. But one of the guys at that meeting happened to be a former pimp whom I had converted. After they told him what I had been doing, he told them: "This man is now my father. Don't even dare, otherwise I will kill all of you. We know that what we are doing is wrong. An African should not enslave an African." He was right. He silenced all of them.'

When the girls come to me I have a network and I call the madam or someone [like that]. If the pimp calls I speak to him politely. 'I say, "Come on let's talk. She is now my child; I am her custodian. She is mine." They respect me very highly within the community. All these girls and these pimps are also very religious. The pastor occupies a very high position. Often we resolve it very peacefully. A few times when they have tried to be stubborn, the perpetrators who have been converted handled the case and not me.

'At least 300 people have passed through my hands. The most exciting thing to me is when I see them put it behind them and get married, and I have the honour of blessing them-acting as both priest and father.'

A version of this story was first published in 'Amsterdam Weekly' in July 2005.

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? Pete Sawyer
Pastor Tom Marfo has rescued more than 300 women forced into prostitution by ruthless international traffickers.
The girls are 'softened up' to make them more suitable for their new owners. They are introduced to smoking, drinking and drugs to make them feel high and to lower their inhibitions

Tom Marfo has seen dozens of horrific cases over the ten years he has been working in Amsterdam. But few are more poignant than that of a beautiful young Nigerian woman whose identity and whereabouts he still has to shield from the gangs which first brought her to the Netherlands.

The woman arrived from Lagos in 1998. 'I decided to leave my country to make something better,' she says. 'They promised me a job in a shop, but when I got to this place it was a hell.

'I was very shocked and I didn't want to do it, but they tortured me. When I was leaving my country they made me swear voodoo. I was thinking that it was something to protect me, not knowing it was something to affect me if I didn't do what they wanted.'

'I didn't like the work I was doing, the way they were treating me, beating me and using me. Some of the guys were using me for sex. Sometimes they would call their friends. They were just using me whenever they wanted. I had been working in different places for about seven months. Then I met a Dutch person, a friend. He told me he would protect me... I believed him.'

Marfo takes up her story: '[She] was working as a prostitute in a small village near the German border. A Dutch customer came in to be "serviced" and asked her, "Why are you always crying? Don't you like the job?" She said, "No, I was never told I was going to do this. If I don't do it I am beaten and denied food." He said, "Maybe I can help you. I will take you out of this place and to my house. You can get money, work and a Dutch passport."

'She happily went with this guy without knowing that he had a history of violence against women. She felt completely dependent on him. Whenever he was drunk he would beat her and torture her. He told her, "If you go to the police they will always believe me because I'm Dutch. They will not believe you."

SHE: 'It was hell. I became very depressed and a few times I wanted to take my life. I lived with him for six and a half years. I had no place to go.'

MARFO: 'She came to the point where she felt her life was not worth living. She made a very serious attempt at suicide, which landed her in a psychiatric hospital. When she was discharged she swallowed the whole bottle of pills they had given her."

One time she fell through a glass window and had terrible wounds all over her face. It was then that the mother of one of the psychologists at the psychiatric hospital contacted Marfo.

'Last year my mission houses were full so I could not take her in. But this year they called me again. I had one room left. I needed to get her orientated so she stayed with me for three months and then I moved her to my mission house.

'Within 24 hours of arrival she complained about pain in her lower abdomen. I massaged it. The following day it was getting worse. Sunday night she almost died and Monday morning I took her to the doctor and he said, "Your kidney is very bad. Let me give you antibiotics. By early Tuesday morning she was screaming with pain.

'I rushed her to the hospital in a taxi. They told her that there was a tumour in her kidney and it would cost a lot of money. "If you don't have money to pay you have to go" they told her.

'At the hospital she was crying and said, "Where should I go?" They replied, "We don't know. Go back to where you came from." I made some calls to the authorities and they called me back and said, "Tom it is ok. She will stay and we will treat her." They will have to take her kidney out but when and how they have no idea. She is on the waiting list.'

She is back in touch with her parents, who thought she was dead. But she has no plans to return home. 'Nigeria is not very safe for me now,' she says. 'They are looking for me. They have threatened my parents. My parents have moved from one place to another because of the situation.

'Tom Marfo has helped me a lot. I feel my life is worth living. Right now I have my own room and I feel I am safe with him because he knows most of the situation.'

Nobody in politics wants to be associated with somebody who is helping what they call 'illegal people.' That is the political jigsaw involved here.
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