As I entered the room behind Asghar, and waived a general “Hi” to everyone present, I counted at least 8 heads in there. Adding the two, who brought us there it made a total count of 10 people sharing an apartment.
The room was not exactly rectangular. The part to the right of the door was broader, and ended at a wall with a wide window and a door, which probably opened into the balcony, because I could see silhouettes of trees through the glass.
The part of the room to the left of the door was narrower to such an extent that the width was merely enough to fit a small couch in it.
There was another door in the far wall, across the room. That door probably opened into another room, or into some kind of storage area, because before entering the room I had seen the door to the bathroom in the corridor right opposite the main room’s door.
While I was scanning the surroundings, and contemplating probabilities, Faisal went shaking hands with the entire crowd one by one. The look on the faces of those guys solidified my guess. They were all thinking: “Where did these two new customers come from?”
We put our bags behind the door on the narrower side of the room. I wanted to talk to Faisal in private and ask him to be careful, but I could not find any excuse. Probably it was the first time for Faisal to have seen a real human trafficking den, but I had seen such places before in Turkey, Egypt and Thailand. I knew the kind of care that needed to be taken.
Then we were asked by Asghar to come to the kitchen for a cup of tea. Leaving our bags behind the door, we went into the kitchen. We sat at the table, all four of us, and Asghar called one of the guys from the room to make tea. This clarified Asghar’s position in that hierarchy. The guy, who came to make tea, was Arif: a slim average height young man of around 19-20.
As we were sitting and talking waiting for the tea, I excused myself and went to the room. My purpose was to call Faisal back to the room and try to somehow pass on the message to take care of essential belongings, like passports and money. As he came to the room, I asked him to help me find something from the bag. As soon as he got close to me I whispered: “Be careful with your passport and money. Do not leave in the room. I will explain later”.
Then we returned to the kitchen, where hot tea with milk awaited us. Since we had left Peshawar this was the first cup of tea as we were used to take it in Pakistan: mixed tea, boiled on a stove with milk and sugar in it.
During the rest of the evening, Asghar asked us a whole array of questions regarding our purpose of coming to Moscow. He even offered us his help in extending our visas and even arranging for one year registrations, for a small fee of 250$. Since I had understood the nature of his real “business” right away, I had no problem answering him satisfactorily, but at the same time having no illusions.
As we were sitting in the kitchen waiting for dinner, a woman came out of the room into the kitchen. She said something, probably “hello” in Russian. We nodded in response, and Asghar made the introduction: “This is my wife Natasha”.
So the door in the far wall of the room probably opened into another room, where Asghar’s Russian wife lived. But this was strange, because people, who engage in such activities, as human trafficking, do not keep their wives in the same place, where they keep their customers. But again, every place has its own specifics. People engaged in similar business in Bangkok do things very differently from their counterparts in Istanbul.
After dinner as we got ready to go to bed, I asked Asghar:
- Do you have a map of Moscow metro?
- Yes I have.
- Can you give it to me? We intend to go out early morning. We want to take breakfast somewhere near the Red Square.
- No you are our guests. You will take breakfast before going out. And don’t worry I will send someone with you. Moscow metro is very complex. You will not be able to navigate your way.
- No problem, I have commuted in very complex subway systems. I think we will manage it. Anyway, what’s the fun if you don’t get lost a bit!
He again called for Arif, and asked him to give us the metro map. As I took the map I asked Asghar to mark the station, which was near their home, so that we could have the first orientation marker. Then I asked him to mark the metro station closest to the Red Square.
Having secured our route map, we all said our goodnights and went to bed. I set the alarm for 6:00am on my digital Casio watch, and hoping to be lucky enough to sleep through the night safely, closed my eyes to this horror show of people smuggling.
Next morning the annoying sound of that small Japanese digital miracle woke me up. I got up and before going to the bathroom, shook Faisal by the shoulder to wake him up also.
As I came out of the bathroom, I saw Arif and Faisal sitting in the kitchen. After a quick round of good mornings, I went to the room to change. As I came out again, Faisal had gone to use the facilities, and Arif was waiting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea for me. As I sat down, he asked:
- If you want I can go with you?
- Please don’t bother. We will make it to the town and back. You can be sure.
- I just thought I could take you to some known places around town, because I have been here for more than a year and know the downtown district quite well.
I decided to inquire a bit from this very-keen-on-helping-us guy.
- Where are you from in Pakistan?
- I am from Peshawar.
This was strange, because he looked nothing like a Pashtun. He looked more like a Punjabi. But then again, in their line of business, people seldom told the truth.
- So are you working with Asghar?
- Kind of. In fact he is my brother-in-law.
Ok, now things were getting really weird. As far as I had understood, Natasha was not from Peshawar. If she was a Russian, then how could Arif be her brother? I already knew that she was Asghar’s wife. My next question was very straight:
- He is your brother-in-law, as the husband of your sister?
- But his wife is Russian!
- This is his second wife. His first wife is my sister.
Now things were getting interesting. If Asghar had a second wife and Arif knew about it, how could they be working together? You know in Pakistani culture, although polygamy is practiced, but in most of the cases, second or following marriages, usually put a rift between the in-laws.
In the meanwhile, as I was trying to comprehend the situation, Faisal came back to the kitchen ready to take breakfast or to leave for breakfast.
While everybody else still slept, we put on our shoes and left for town at about fifteen minutes before seven in the morning.
It was a Saturday morning, so the streets were not filled with rushing-to-work people. On the way to the metro, Faisal asked me:
- Why did you ask me to be careful last night?
- Because of the people and what they do.
- What do you mean? They seemed like very nice people. They took us in, fed us and gave us a free place to sleep. What else do you want, to be sure that they are nice people?
- They might be nice, but did you not grasp the idea about what they do?
- What is there to grasp. Asghar told us that he runs a business. What do they deal in, is none of my concern, and even of no interest to me.
- What if I told you that they deal in the guys, who were sleeping all over the floor?
He smiled a bit and mockingly said:
- You mean they are running a male prostitution business!?
I couldn’t help laughing at this remark. I said:
- No asshole. They are people smugglers, and those guys, are the commodity. They smuggle these people from here. I don’t know exactly where to, but most probably to Western Europe.
This time Faisal’s mocking smile turned into a grin. He looked at me with surprise and asked:
- And how do you know this? Did he tell you?
- No he did not tell me. I guessed it as soon as we entered that apartment. From the number of shoes and slippers. I have been around such places in other countries.
Now Faisal was listening carefully and probably was having some difficulty processing such information. As you know, we were not in fact old friends. We had just met by chance a couple of weeks ago. We had built-up a close trusting relation on the basis of the ordeal that we went through in Tashkent and later in the train and then at the Ryazan hospital. Sensing the alarm in Faisal’s looks, I continued:
- Don’t worry, I have never been smuggled, and I have never smuggled anyone. It’s just that in my line of work, the more you know the better you do. I am very inquisitive, and how could I not try to learn about such a widespread practice of people smuggling. I believe you must have also heard stories of people being scammed into paying large sums of money for overseas employment!?
- Yes I have heard a lot, but I never thought that I would one day end up in the hive.
- So, we need to find a place today and move out of there right away if possible. In the meanwhile, if we need to stay there tonight, be very careful. Do not leave your passport or money in the room even for a minute. This Asghar guy already tried last night to scam us into paying him money and giving him our passports.
Faisal’s looks showed that he wanted to know how. I continued:
- Don’t you remember him asking us for our passports to help us extend our visas for one year, just for a fee of 250$? That was the bait. Anyway, they must not understand that we are aware of their intentions, because until they consider us innocent prey, they will just try to bait us, but once they comprehend that we are not innocent sheep, things can get ugly.
- You know, now I have started to understand, why Arif was asking to meet us outside. He said something about wanting to talk to us, but not in front of everybody.
- Do you know that Arif is Asghar’s brother-in-law?
- How? Asghar’s wife is Russian. Arif is from Peshawar.
- I had the exact same question. But it turns out that Natasha is Asghar’s second wife. Now Arif is working and living with his sister’s husband, who has a second wife also. Does that not sound at least strange?
Discussing the whole situation, we had already descended deep into the metro, and had boarded a train, and were just one station away from our destination: Okhotny Ryad metro station.
- By the way Arif said that he would come to town at around 12:00. He asked us to wait for him near the Library in the Red Square. So we will have company soon.
- Well it won’t hurt us to have some company. Just let us keep our conversation under control. Let us get maximum out of him and give him the least.
In the meanwhile, the metro exited the darkness of the tunnel and stopped at a brightly lit station. This was our station. We came out of the train and the first thing that caught my eye was the décor. The metro systems in London, New York or Paris might be very extensive, but Moscow’s metro was the most exquisitely designed. Passing through the five stations on the way I had noticed that every station was different in its design. The metro was probably the first place to make you understand the artistic soul of the Russian people. The metro stations looked more like art galleries and less like the lifeless catacombs spiralling under the cosmopolitan.
Unfortunately there were no English language signs in the metro, so it was hard for us to follow the signs. Therefore, we decided to go with the flow and let the crowd of early-morning-commuters take us back to the surface.
Once out in the street, we looked around, but could not see any signs of the renowned Red Square. We just continued following the flow, and turned right from the exit, and then took the first left, just in a hope of seeing something familiar, to further decide our route.
Walking down the not-at-all crowded street, we came to a crossing with a main road. Across the main road, which we later came to know was Tverskaya Street, we saw a sign board all so familiar. It was the signboard of McDonald’s. There it was; our breakfast and our first point of orientation. And guess what, on the corner of the same street, where McDonald’s awaited us, stood the grand building of the Central Telegraph that we so desperately searched for the night before.
To be continued…