M's dilemma IV: Burden in my hand

Posted November 18

At the last possible moment, I'd cancelled the rescue of my trafficked Hmong friend M from the "husband" who had bought her in China. I'd given M hope, and it had proved to be a very dangerous thing. 

M's "husband" had been alerted to her intention to leave and, sensing the danger to himself, was keeping M captive in his home. It seemed he intended to wash his hands of her, by selling her on as a wife or prostitute. 

There was the very real possibility that M was about to disappear, along with any hope of saving her, and I found myself facing a decision for which I was not prepared. 

The Human, Earth Project's success to date has been a matter of luck and persistence - of being in the right place at the right time, ready for action when each opportunity arose. 

This time, however, I chose inactivity. I chose to remain in the wrong place, on the wrong side of the Himalaya. Almost immediately, I knew I'd made the wrong decision, yet couldn't bring myself to fix it. 

It wasn't yet too late. If I acted quickly, perhaps there was something I could still do - but I didn't. 

I was drained, and needed time to process all I'd seen and done in the course of an emotionally- and physically-intense, 10-month, 40,000-kilometre journey. 

I was waiting on confirmation of P's rescue date, and wanted to be present in Vietnam to support her through her return. 

A return to China would be extremely costly, and I'd already begun to dig into the funds reserved for post-production of our feature-length documentary. 

There were any number of excuses I could offer, factors I could blame - but I hadn't founded this Project to make excuses. 

So what if M herself had told me it was impossible, and there was nothing I could do? At any other time, I would have taken her declaration as a challenge, and faced it down. At any other time, I would have dug deep, and found the strength. 

Instead, I stepped away and let the moment pass, not realising its importance until it was gone. If there's one thing I regret in the course of the past year, it was in not taking that gamble, and not returning to China to try my hand. 

There's no way of knowing now what might have been achieved had I rolled the dice, and there were any number of things that might have gone wrong. I could have spent thousands of dollars and travelled halfway across the continent for nothing but bitter failure - or I might have brought her home. 

Behind all the rationalisations are the facts, pure and simple: I didn't go, and M remained in China, a prisoner in the home of her "husband". 

With the rumour of P's imminent rescue, I flew to Vietnam instead, and spent weeks waiting for news in Hanoi. Nothing happened - and what was to be our moment of greatest victory was the blackest of the entire Project. 

While the rumour of her impending rescue persisted, P was still in China. I didn't know what had become of M, and couldn't risk calling her. 

I've never been good at doing nothing. Although I wanted to be in Vietnam to see P through her reintegration, I knew she would be safe in the hands of Blue Dragon, the NGO that was arranging her rescue. 

At last, in mid-September, I gathered the strength to return to China to do whatever was necessary to help M. 

I submitted the necessary papers at the Chinese embassy - and my visa was flatly denied, on the basis that my motives were believed not to be touristic. I was given no further options. 

M's "husband", it seemed, was not the only one who had been alerted to my motives: so had the People's Republic. 

How was I to help M if I couldn't get within a thousand kilometres of her? 

The moment had passed. 

Yesterday P's story was covered by a local newspaper in my hometown in Australia: see the story here.

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