Returning home after 24 years, trafficked woman tries to pick up pieces

By Pham Nga   April 17, 2020 | 05:58 am PT
Ha Thi Chien was trafficked to China in 1996 and only returned home in northern Vietnam several days ago.

As she sits with her head on her sister’s shoulder in their small house in Tan Son District, the northern province of Phu Tho, her memories come flooding back.

She had left home at 18 in the hope of earning money to support her poor family.

"Father used to catch toads and frogs for us, we used to collect bamboo shoot and cassava in the forest," she recalls.

"You are right, that is correct," Thuan, her sister, responds. 

Thuan came to Phu Tho from her home in the northern province of Thai Binh after learning her long-lost sister was returning. Now she spends time talking to and helping Chien adapt to her new life.

Chien bursts into tears when returning home. Photo by Tran Le Dung.

Chien sobs as she recounts her story. Photo by Tran Le Dung.

Chien was the second of six daughters of Ha Van Hoat, 68, and Hoang Thi Lieng, 70, had. The couple struggled to earn a living or afford an education for them. 

One day in 1996 Chien decided to leave home to help her parents by doing some business.

Her sister recalls her saying before leaving: "I will earn money and come back when I have enough to build a house for you."

But the years rolled by without any news from Chien. The other five daughters got married and their mother suffered from a paralyzing stroke. The family did not have enough money to look for the lost daughter.

Hoat laments: "How can I not miss my child? but I had no way to find her."

But that feeling began to gradually lessen over 24 years. 

Last month out of the blue, the local police called them to say Chien had been found.

Chien says of her family: "They made a video call so I could see them. I did not remember their names but I recognized them when I saw them."

Then, on March 28, she returned home after almost a quarter century.

It was a sunny day, and Hoat hobbled out to welcome his daughter. They all burst into tears.

"You are home now, do not worry," her sisters told Chien, who could not control her emotions and went on her knees and sobbed uncontrollably.

Chien (wearing a connical hat) learns how to herd a bufffalo. Photo by Tran Le Dung.

Chien (in conical hat) learns how to herd a buffalo. Photo by Tran Le Dung.

She had been trafficked to China by a woman in the village. She had gone with her bus and realized after several hours they had entered China. They sold her to a Chinese couple, who changed her name to Dinh Thi Bich Ha and sold her in turn to a Chinese man.

"We have one kid. My husband loves me, and allowed me to return to Vietnam to see my family, but when I was returning, I was trafficked again."

She tried to escape four times, but was caught and beaten up and sold to a brothel.

At the end of last year a woman from the northern province of Ninh Binh was sold to the brothel where she worked, and she suggested they should try to escape. One night, when everyone was sleeping, the two escaped through a window.

After they had wandered in a forest for five days, they were given food by a man who then took them to a police station in Lang Son Province in northern Vietnam. They gave Chien and the woman some money to return home.

But since she could not read, Chien got into a wrong bus and went to the central province of Quang Nam. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, local authorities quarantined her for 14 days after learning she had come from China.

"She said her hometown was Thu Ngac Commune, Tan Son District, Phu Tho Province," Captain Tran Le Dung, head of police in Thu Ngac, says. 

"The center for social protection in Quang Nam Province asked local authorities, but they could not find anyone named Dinh Thi Bich Ha in Thu Ngac."

But after speaking to locals, they found her family, he says.

Hoang Van Liem, chairman of Thu Ngac Commune, says Chien’s family has faced many difficulties. The local administration has provided her with food and money, and will initiate the process to restore her citizenship after six months, he adds.

Chien still shakes in fear when talking to a stranger on the phone. 

She accompanies her sister to the forest to collect some vegetables and tend their buffaloes. She is getting used to cooking and washing her parents’ clothes, and is desperate to make up all the years they have lost.

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