A short story.
“Patron,” the day guard was at the door. “Patron, the lady from next door, la Chinoise, is here to see you. Mogi killed her rabbits.”
That’s how it began. The Chinese lady, best known to the town as the “Chinese concubine” occupied the river front house just next door. The story was that she had been a gift from the government of Taiwan to the mercurial despot who ruled this small African nation. He was reputed to be ladies man of great sexual appetite who was genuinely touched by Taiwan’s gesture. By my time, however, la Chinoise was apparently largely ignored by His Excellency. She tended her garden and. kept a hutch of rabbits. I had waved or nodded to her from my yard from time to time, but she never acknowledged a greeting.
But there she was, standing on my stoop shifting nervously from foot to foot. Behind her was a soldier, one of her gate guards, his AK-47 dangled carelessly from one shoulder. He raised a bloody rabbit for my inspection.
My first thought was that the dog was still loose. Saying, “Wait, I must get the dog,” I rushed around the corner of the house where I found Mogi cowering by the back steps. He had blood on his muzzle, but appeared to have sustained a head wound that was also bleeding. Probably not from a rabbit, I thought. I hooked his rope and with him secured, hurried back to the front door.
I invited Madame in. With a wave, she dismissed the soldier and tip-toed in. I settled her on the sofa. She was a small woman, attractive with small facial features and very concise movements. Although I am not a good judge of women’s ages, especially Orientals, she was older than me. I guessed mid-thirties. I apologized profusely for my dog’s actions. I promised to set matters right, fix the fence and ensure that he was always properly confined. I regretted that children on their way down to the river frequently teased the dog by banging on the fence, but I pledged that he was not truly mechant.
“Monsieur,” she replied, “You must help me.”
“Yes,” I rejoined, “I will make restitution. I‘ll pay for your losses. We can find some new rabbits.”
“Naturally,” she responded, “but you must help me go to America. I cannot stand this awful place, my house is a prison, and that man,” she whispered, “he ignores me, then beats and humiliates me.” She began to cry.
Whoa, what’s up here! If I thought that my dog’s killing the president’s girl friend’s rabbits would get Mogi executed or me tossed out of the country, entertaining this woman’s dreams of flight would be much more dangerous. But, intrigued I wanted to hear her story.
It came out in bits and pieces. Her name was Lin. She was from a poor family in Taipei. Her father was a tailor. Unable to stay in school, she became a shop girl, but one who loved to party. From time to time, she admitted having escorted rich, lonely businessmen. One day, one of those men, a prominent government official, offered her a tidy sum to go with him to Africa. He promised a good trip and lots of fun times. She agreed. Next thing she knew, she was in this humid backwater being introduced to a big black man. Told that she must stay with him, her Taiwanese patron left. Although she did not know the language, it was clear what was expected of her. “What else could I do,” she sobbed.
Lin recounted life at the presidential palace. At first she was a favorite, showered with presents and granted deference. She learned a bit of French. Matters soon changed. Another girl came and she was shunted aside, first in the palace, and then sent to the river house. She was still summoned to service the president from time to time. She said she once asked for her freedom, but he demurred, got angry and beat her, threatening, “You belong to me alone. You can never leave. I will kill you first.” And he nearly did. With no passport, no money, no friends and twenty-four hour guards, Lin explained she had no opportunity to escape. “But I have a sister in Chicago,” she hoped. “She will take me in.”
After this exchange I sent her home. I told her I would have to check with my ambassador. Meanwhile, she should send me her sister’s name and address. An envelope with that information was slipped through the fence that same night. Taped to the corner was a rough diamond, a potential gemstone of perhaps three carats
Objectively, she was a trafficked person and a victim of continued abuse. On the other hand moral turpitude seemed applicable. She all but admitted to being a prostitute. What to do? Her sister checked out. She was real, married to a marine, and ready to welcome and sponsor her sibling. The diamond would pay the way. Washington too liked the case, the rescue of a victim of sexual trafficking. The ambassador wasn’t so sure. He saw the downside of the president’s ire, should his prized Chinese trophy be spirited away. There was a downside for me too, should she leave, I would probably be fingered as her accomplice; expulsion loomed or worse given the unpredictable violent nature of the president and his thugs.
Finally, it was decided. We’d give her a refugee visa. It was up to me to figure how to get her out. I tossed it around with the clandestine guys. Clearly an exit strategy through the airport was out. That left road or river, both were viable, but road meant at least two days still in country. River was a thirty minute exit, but then a thousand miles to an international airport. Even though the woman had no intelligence value, the chief of station was intrigued; mostly it seemed by the sheer challenge of it. So, that is how it went down – a night pirogue to Zaire, missionary flight to Kisangani, connection to Kinshasa and on to New York.
Toting a box of rabbits, I carried the plan to Lin. She was scared, but readily agreed. I bid her good bye on the banks of the Oubangui one overcast night. She apologized for opening the fence, temping Mogi with a dead rabbit and cutting him. “It was my only way out.”