Calcutta: It was 2001. Indonesia was in the grip of political turbulence.
Shandra Woworuntu, a widow with a three-year-old daughter, had just lost her bank job. Life, she thought, had hit rock bottom when she chanced upon an advertisement for a six-month job in Chicago. "I loved Hollywood movies and the life they showed. And I loved eating at KFC, McDonald's... The job promised $5,000 a month. So though I would have to pay $3,000 to apply, I saw that I would still make $27,000. So I set off, leaving my daughter behind with my family a week before my 25th birthday."
Little did Woworuntu know that her journey would end in the brothels of New York. Till she would find it within her not only to pull through but also to punish her perpetrators. Now, she works to prevent trafficking.
The gritty woman is in town to address a conference at ICCR on human trafficking on the occasion of 175 years of Loreto Congregation in India, organised by Kolkata Mary Ward Social Centre.
"Victims never think they are victims. So when this man called me by name at the JFK airport I trusted him. Within hours I changed hands multiple times and was finally forced into prostitution at gunpoint."
One day a woman gave her a phone number. "She said: 'When you pay off your debt - she meant making good the $30,000 I had been sold for - you call the number for help.' But I realised that earning at the rate of $100 to be one or more men's sex slave for a day would mean I would die before I would earn my freedom."
So she jumped from a second floor bathroom window. "God is great I did not break any bones. I promised the other girls I would come back."
Instead of help, the call led her to another trafficker. She fled the second time, scavenging garbage for food and sleeping by day on park benches.
"One day at the park, a man asked why I was crying. When I told him, he brought help. My passport had been taken away. But the police believed me." The brothel was raided and the others rescued. "That part was like in the movies," she smiled.
Woworuntu was offered permanent residency in the US if she testified against the traffickers. "The case went on for years. Gang members even visited my home in Indonesia, making false claims to try and lay hands on my daughter and get my US address. Finally the arrests happened."
Now the 44-year-old, appointed Human Trafficking Commissioner for the state of New Jersey for 2013-17, works to raise awareness about trafficking risks through her Mentari Human Trafficking Survivor Empowerment Program. "For six months, I did not see the sun. I was kept in basements and moved from brothel to brothel by night. Mentari means sunshine."