Duyen shared her tale of horror after six months of begging on the streets of Ba Ria-Vung Tau and Dong Nai provinces, both bordering Saigon, with her siblings.
Duyen is the oldest sister of four brothers, aged 3, 4, 6 and 8. They were born to Dao Thi Gai, 38, a resident of Ba Ria-Vung Tau, and a man named Trung, a Dong Nai resident.
Gai had started living with Trung after breaking up with her first husband, with whom she’d had two daughters, now 16 and 19.
Though they had Duyen and four boys to care for, Gai and Trung lived a nomadic life, moving from place to place and doing different jobs.
Later, after Trung was jailed for theft, his mother Tran Thi Ry, 58, brought Gai and her grandchildren home to live with her in Xuan Bao Commune, Cam My District, Dong Nai.
After leaving prison, Trung decided to mend his ways. He moved to the southern coastal province of Binh Thuan to work as a fisherman and send money home to raise his children. He wanted a stable life and a family.
But that did not suit Gai. She preferred to keep roaming. "My son was very upset. Two years ago, he hung himself to death," Ry said.
Two months after her husband committed suicide, Gai took her two eldest kids and left with her younger brother Dao Van Be, 24.
Poverty stricken Ry had to send the remaining three children, Duyen, Tinh and Truc, to some relatives so that she could go to work.
Duyen, a 10-year-old girl, was forced by her mother and uncle to beg on the streets of Ba Ria-Vung Tau and Dong Nai provinces along with two younger brothers. Photo by VnExpress/Truong Ha.
One morning last October, when Duyen, Tinh and Truc were all at school, Gai visited them and asked for the teacher’s permission to take the kids to Ba Ria-Vung Tau, lying that they had to attend the "death anniversary of their maternal grandmother."
The three children were taken to a rented house in a deserted area of Ba Ria-Vung Tau’s Xuyen Moc District, where Gai was living with her brother Be, and kept them there for days.
"When I asked my mother if she was going to take us back so that we can continue going to school, she glared at me and said: ‘You must stay here and go around begging for money.’ When I refused, she and uncle Be beat me," Duyen said, crying as she recalled the horror days, with her grandmother Ry sitting beside her.
Tricks of the trade
Gai and Be forced Duyen to learn all the tricks of the trade – to nag people, cry and ask for money. They made her practice these over and over again until the girl could perform them convincingly.
The first day, Duyen had to get up early, put on torn clothes and walk to a nearby market with her bare feet, closely watched by her mother and uncle.
Ashamed, the little girl did not dare to open her mouth or put on a show. She simply held out a bowl and waited for people to drop some change.
Gai was not satisfied. She dragged Duyen to a corner, threatening the girl with a series of painful punishments if the girl did not try harder.
"Eventually I could beg and get VND300,000 ($13) on that first day and this satisfied mother and uncle. The next day, I had to take Tinh and Truc along.
"But the more we went out, the less we earned. We were punished, only allowed to have plain rice with soy sauce. There were days when I was really tired, but still had to get up and go begging or they would beat me," said Duyen.
Dao Thi Gai (R) and her brother Dao Van Be. Photo by VnExpress/Hai Minh.
After four months of operating around the local market area, Gai and Be were busted by local police for forcing the children to go begging. However, before the police came up with specific moves to stop their operation, the brother-sister duo moved away with the kids.
Since that day, they kept moving around different districts of Ba Ria-Vung Tau and Dong Nai, continuing to make the children beg, staying at rented houses for short periods.
The torture begins
No matter what the conditions were, the three kids had to bring home VND900,000 ($38.77) each day. In case they failed to reach the target, they would be tortured by Be, who had modified a mosquito racket into a tool that he would use to impart electric shocks on the kids. Later, they would be forced to sleep on the bare floor.
"I don’t know why my mother and uncle wanted us to beg for so much money each day. Since we were miserable, Truc (8 years old) once suggested that we escape and take a bus back to grandma. But mother overheard that. That day, Truc was beaten so hard he could have died. But I could not scream for help because we were staying at a very isolated place," Duyen said.
After that day, Truc was made to stay at home and babysit the two youngest boys in the family, while Duyen and Tinh (6 years old) continued to work as beggars under much stricter surveillance by Gai and Be.
Gai gave her daughter a mobile phone so that she could easily check on the girl. "Sometimes, she called me to ask if I had collected VND100,000. If I had, I had to give it to her right away and get back to work," Duyen said, adding that her mother and uncle did not do anything on their own to earn a living.
One day, unable to bear the suffering, the 10-year-old girl decided to flee.
A day in late June, when they were sent to beg at another market in Ba Ria-Vung Tau, Duyen took Tinh’s hand and hopped on to a bus that ran to Dong Nai before getting to another one to get to the house of their grandmother Ry in Xuan Bao Commune. It was the driver and assistant on the first bus who guided them on which bus route they should take.
"Once on the first bus, I removed the sim card immediately so that my mom could no longer call. After the bus stopped in Xuan Bao, I took Tinh and we ran as fast as we could straight to grandma’s house without feeling tired."
That day, Ry was at work, as a manual laborer. Once she heard two of her grandchildren were home, she rushed back immediately.
Duyen (R) plays with three of her brothers at their grandmother’s house in Dong Nai Province after being rescued from their mother and uncle, August 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Truong Ha.
It did not take long for Gai and Be to track down the kids.
Around an hour after Ry had reunited with her two grandchildren, she learned that Gai and Be had showed in the neighborhood, looking for Duyen and Tinh. Ry reported the situation to the police, but once again, before the police could do anything, Gai and Be had fled.
After Duyen returned to school, she told her friends what had happened, worried about the fate of her other three brothers still stuck with Gai and Be.
The story reached Bui Minh Khanh, 35, member of an SOS group in Dong Nai, which gathers volunteers to help those in need.
The SOS group, in collaboration with the police, Ry and Duyen, set up a plan to catch Gai and Be.
The group reached out for help to search for Gai and Be across Ba Ria-Vung Tau. Based on information from Duyen, they went to all the places that Gai and Be once rented but were told by all landlords that they had moved out.
Then the group decided to bait the duo.
They disguised themselves as operators of a child begging ring.
Ry, the grandmother, spread some fake news with the intention of it reaching Gai via several connections. The news was that she had sold Duyen to a stranger to work as beggar so that she could have enough money to raise her brother.
On the night of August 25, a member of the SOS group carried Duyen, wearing torn clothes, on a motorbike around local entertainment areas.
At a night market, Duyen met with a 13-year-old beggar and learned the key information that her mother and three brothers were living in the same community with that boy and his grandmother. The boy said that the community gathered many children to serve different begging rings.
SOS member Khanh followed the boy to that community without his knowing. The next morning he went there with the police and local authorities to find Duyen’s three brothers.
Duyen’s brothers aged 3, 4 and 8. Photo by VnExpress/Truong Ha.
At this time, Gai and Be had reached Ry’s house, looking for the two kids. They were ambushed by the police then.
The duo has been put under four-month detention as the police investigate them on charges of "torturing or abusing children in the family."
Gai told the police that she only made her children beg for VND200,000 each day to "buy formula milk for the toddler and cover the rent."
Be is also being investigated for having sex with two nieces – the daughters of Gai with her first husband – when they were under 16.
Duyen and her four brothers stay with their grandmother Ry now and have been helped with food and clothes by the community.
Le Thi Trang Dai, chairwoman of Ba Ria-Vung Tau's Xuyen Moc District where Gai and Be were detected running their begging gang the first time, admitted that it was the local police’s carelessness that had allowed the culprits to flee.
She said the police should have informed forces in other localities and collaborated with them to arrest Gai and Be much sooner.
The district has now ordered all landlords to inform authorities any time they find signs of tenants running begging rings and keeping children out of schools. Failure to do so will result in the revoking of the license to rent out their property.
Duyen and two of her brothers have returned to school, and they are being supported well by their teachers and friends, local reports say.