Mrs Do and her husband An were working in the fields the day May disappeared.

When they came home for dinner, their daughter was gone.

At first they thought she might be playing with some friends. Or maybe she had gone to the nearby market. Surely she would be home soon, they told themselves.

But May had vanished. As night set in, their only child did not return and a deep panic gripped Do and An. Every parents’ worst nightmare had come to life in their tiny village, high up in the mountains of north-central Vietnam.

This is the reality of human trafficking: lives turned upside down, families destroyed, childhoods stolen. And this is why we must continue to fight against trafficking and slavery in all its forms, wherever it exists.

Michael Brosowski Not For Sale Vietnam Director

The rumours and speculation began almost immediately. May was not the only person missing: a woman from a neighboring house was also gone. Was there a connection?

Gradually it became clear that May had been visited by the neighbor, and that they went together to the bus station. The police set out to find them, but they were long gone and nobody knew where they went.

May had been taken by a trafficker. It was 2009.

The inexplicable loss of their daughter destroyed Do and An. They blamed themselves: if only they hadn’t left May alone. If only they had asked a relative to look after her. If only they had told her to stay inside and not go out with anyone. If only they had taken her to the fields that day…

They searched and searched, but found nothing. Was May taken to China? Or to Laos, which is not far from their village? Was she even alive?

As the days turned into weeks and months, Do and An were torn between grieving their daughter and hoping she would come home unharmed. Needing to dull the pain, An turned to drugs, finding relief in the numbness and punishing himself for his failure as a father.

May’s mother wanted to believe that all was not lost. For the first five years, she spent every Lunar New Year at the bus station, hoping that a bus would pull up and May would step down into her arms. But after five years, she could take it no more. Do went to the bus station one last time and boarded a bus to Ho Chi Minh City. She could no longer torture herself with hope and watch her husband slowly kill himself with heroin.

The years passed, and still there was no news of May. At one time Do, working in the south of Vietnam, heard that the neighbor who took her daughter was now living in Laos. An continued to descend further into his addiction, until finally he was arrested and sent to a drug rehab centre.

And then, a miracle: in July this year, May made contact through social media.

After 11 years in slavery – first as a wife and then resold into domestic servitude – she finally met someone who showed sympathy and gave her a smartphone. May went online to search for her family. She couldn’t locate her parents, but found an old school friend who raised the alarm.

Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon sent a team to find and repatriate May in early August. Her rescue was further complicated by the travel restrictions caused by COVID-19, but we got her back to Vietnam safely and she entered mandatory quarantine along the border.

Mrs Do could not believe it. May’s return to Vietnam had seemed impossible. As soon as we told her that May was alive and safe, she left her home of the past six years and returned to her village to await May’s release from quarantine.

May was 12 when she was taken – a girl wondering what joys life would hold for her. Today she is 23 and has already lived through more terror and fear than most of us will know in all our lives.

But she is home. On Saturday, May and her mother Do held each other for the first time in over a decade. In that moment, all the pain they have been through was washed away.

This is not a happy ending – not yet, anyway. We will work with May and her mother to set things right: to find the trafficker, wherever she is, and bring her to justice. To reunite May with her father An, so that his pain too can find some release. And to give May a chance at having the life she deserves.

It will be a long, long road to healing. Much of what May and her family has lost can never be recovered.

This is the reality of human trafficking: lives turned upside down, families destroyed, childhoods stolen. And this is why we must continue to fight against trafficking and slavery in all its forms, wherever it exists.

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