Susan Ferner is a member of The Calgary Circle who has channeled her experience of coming close to traffickers and her subsequent heightened awareness of the issue into a beautiful creative writing piece. Since becoming a member, she has formed The Calgary Circle and focused their attention on addressing the huge issue of sex trafficking within her own country. This piece and the efforts of their circle on the other side of the pond are testament to Susan’s determination to use her own experience to empower other women.
On a warm September evening in 2017, I walked along a single lane highway that led to the border of Iran and took photos of the Zangezur Mountains and Voghi River valley. I had embarked on an off-the-beaten-track trip in Armenia just two weeks prior. Armenia is a tiny Christian country in the Caucasus that boasts home to the oldest churches in the world, with mysterious monasteries dating back to 200 AD. After spending days exploring ancient churches and fortresses, I set out with two friends to discover the more isolated Syunik Region. My friends were at the hotel when I ventured down the road for a short walk, armed only with my camera.
Transport trucks and buses lumbered by sporadically as they wound their way up the mountain pass, confined by a wall of rock on one side and a steep slope on the other. The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, but goods pass freely between Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Iran. One hot commodity is women. We had long ago left behind the red neon lights and silhouettes of naked women that adorn the strip clubs in the outskirts of the country’s capital, Yerevan.
The heat of the day had broken and my shadow formed a long black silhouette ahead of me. Engulfed in a dusty haze, the mountains rose up around me. Dead grass swayed back and forth in the breeze along the steep slopes. I heard a car whizz by, followed by the sound of the
engine as it ground into second gear. I turned to watch a white Lada pull a U-turn before a hairpin curve, a blind spot in the road. The car drove slowly back towards me. Dark tinted windows lowered and four men stared hard-eyed at me. They appeared to be in their early twenties. The car came to a dead stop thirty feet down the road. The front passenger, with black hair, fair skin and dark eyes, got out of the car and walked slowly towards me. He tugged on his cock, unexposed, and called, “Russa?”
“Nyet Canada.” I yelled. I backed away quickly and faced the man.
“Russa!” he insisted.
My heart raced. My mind was clear. These men thought that I was Russian. A prostitute. Fair game. Then the driver got out of the car and walked slowly towards me. “Russa! We police. You come here!”
I knew the police in Armenia did not look anything like him. I also knew that sometimes pimps pretend to be the police to frighten women to come closer. “Fuck off! Fuck you!” I screamed.
My heart pounded. I ran across the road, seized a large rock on the side of the highway and hurled it in the direction of the driver. It fell purposely short of my target. I picked up another and winged it closer to his feet. I grabbed a third and sprinted back across the highway.
I faced the two men and felt the heavy weight of the rock in my hand, ready to launch it. Surprised, the driver stopped. Angry, the passenger cursed me. “Bitch!”
“Fuck off! Go away. STAY AWAY,” I yelled.
Silence. The men looked me up and down. Was that the sound of a motor in the distance? I was not sure, but maybe that is why they got back into their car. As they drove away, an uncontrollable wave of anger slammed into me. Furious, I raised my camera and zoomed in. I took two photos. One of the driver’s profile with a sneer on his face and his third finger raised high in the air. And one of the license plate. Brakes slammed. Doors flung open. The passenger in the front seat jumped out and came straight at me.
My mind was focused on one thing, and that was getting away alive. I distinctly remember thinking that I am not ending my life in Armenia. I rested my hand on the highway guardrail and leapt over it. I hunched down low and – half running, half skiing – slid down the steep slope. I did not look up until I moved into deeper brush and thorny bushes, fiercely seeking a place to hide. I scanned the top of the slope and guard rail. No one. I scoured the brush. The men were nowhere to be seen.
I had one hour to get off the mountain before dark.
Calm down. Breathe. Think! Which way to go? The steep climb back up was not an option, the white Lada might be waiting for me further along the highway. I had no choice but to angle further down towards the town. My steps were firm and deliberate. I did not want to trip and fall into the empty space – the void – that lay between the top of the bushes and the ground below. My pace slowed as I struggled through the brambles and stinging nettles. I
thrashed along as red welts and deep gashes appeared on my hands and legs and ankles. At last, I saw signs of civilization. The rails of an abandoned railroad gleamed red in the failing sunlight. I followed the tracks which led me to an isolated cemetery. The graves were marked by the somber portraits of men and women, their faces etched into the granite and star at me. They reminded me of the eyes of those four men in the white Lada. Dispassionate and cold.
This was not the place for me.
I continued through the cemetery and followed a rough dirt road that led to the outskirts of town. I heard shouts of laughter from children who played in the streets. Three young girls and a boy chased a dog and threw small rocks at it. I slowed down and passed by row upon row of heavy grey Soviet-style apartments. Apart from a few Toyota trucks, all I saw were white Ladas, but no sign of the four men. I am not sure if I would have recognized them. The entire episode on the side of the road felt like an eternity, but I believe it all happened in less than four minutes.
Seated on the plaid sofa in our hotel room, my friends turned pale as I recounted my story. My arms and legs were dirty, scratched and bloody. Peter looked grim, and gave me a long hug and said, “Those bastards.” Sonia could not believe that I jumped the guardrail. “I would freeze,” she said.
Years ago, I said, I read a story in the Globe about a woman who was forced into a car, repeatedly raped and then murdered. The RCMP say that if you think someone is going to attack you, swear and scream and throw things. An attacker is looking for someone who freezes. He does not want a fight. He wants an easy target. And anyone who wants to drag you
into a car is going to do terrible things, so it’s best to fight and run. Even if he has a gun. Run! It’s hard to shoot a moving target. I never forgot that article.
Although friends at home questioned why I walked alone on the road to Iran, neither Sonia or Peter wondered why. We had been told that Armenia is safe for tourists, a new frontier for backpackers and travelers. Until that moment on the road, I had experienced only gracious and generous hospitality from the local people. It was not too late in the day nor was it too dark. I may be a seasoned traveler, but perhaps I was naïve in this case? Or perhaps it was just bad luck.
We went to the local station and a serious policeman looked over the photographs and noted the license plate. Twenty hours later, the same policeman informed me that he had visited the “boys” that evening and it was all a cultural mistake. He said that the boys thought that I was Russian. They were young and drunk and stupid. The policeman reminded me that Armenia is a safe country and things like this never happen here. Then he said, “This can happen anywhere in the world, can’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “It can.”
“Did you really throw rocks at them?”
“Yes, I did.”
“What do you want to do now?” he asked.
Surprised, I stopped to think. In Canada, I would not press charges because there is no case. The men approached me, I swore and yelled at them, the situation escalated, but they did not touch me. I kept my distance, threw rocks, jumped the guard rail and scrambled down the mountain. In my mind, there was no legal battle and even if according to an Armenian law there was a case, it was my word against theirs.
“Nothing,” I said. “I don’t want to do anything. I’m leaving Armenia in a few days and I won’t be coming back for a court case.”
It was only later that I learned from an Armenian friend that prostitutes walk the roads and highways. The prostitutes are Russians. Girls and women who are baited with the promise of work and opportunities and lured away from Russia. They are transported thousands of miles away from home. Enroute and in the new country, they are repeatedly raped, beaten and threatened by pimps who lock them into rooms and brothels and put them on the streets and highways.
When I arrived back in Canada, one thing struck me. Viscerally. I have the freedom to yell and swear and run. I can hurl rocks and I can howl. But the girls and teens and women who are trafficked out of Russia do not have that freedom. They cannot run, and if they flee, where will they go? A Russian woman on the side of the highway has no choice but to climb into that car with four drunk men because a pimp is holding a gun to her head.
A few weeks after I got home, a friend at work told me a story. His wife’s friend, Claire was shopping at Market Mall with her 15-year-old daughter, Emily. They were eating at the food court and Emily went to the washroom. Claire waited and waited. Emily was taking a long
time, so Claire went to check on her. She found the teen slumped semi-unconscious between two women.
“What’s the matter”?
“Oh nothing,” one of the women replied. “Our friend is sick and we are taking her outside.”
“Your friend? Sick?? That’s my daughter!”
The women dropped Emily and ran. Claire later learned from the police that abductions happen in Calgary and across Canada. She also learned that a teenage girl has a street value of $260,000 a year to a pimp and an organized crime ring.
Late in October of that year, I saw a young Indigenous girl on the downtown streets of Calgary on a cold rainy night. She was on the corner of an intersection with an older man. The traffic light glowed neon red on the wet pavement. The man walked between a few cars and panhandled until the light turned green. The girl waited on the sidewalk. Feeling utterly useless, I drove off. Then I pulled over about a block away and stopped. I paused. Then I called 911. After I explained the situation, the woman on the emergency line asked me if I thought the girl was in imminent danger? Was she being prostituted?
“I don’t know,” I said. “All I know is that it is late at night and the girl is so young, only about thirteen. She seems excited to be there, wide eyed and innocent. She’s not tough and beaten up. She’s alone with a man who is in his forties. It’s a rough corner. So yes, I think that she is in imminent danger.”
The 911 operator promised to send a car over. As I drove away, I thought about how the girl should be at home, sleeping, and going to school the next day. She would be in Grade 7. I have no idea if that phone call made any difference. All I know is that the policeman in Armenia was right, sex slavery is happening everywhere in the world, hundreds of thousands of miles away. And right here in Canada. Just a few kilometers down the road from home.
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