DEPOK, Indonesia—When a 14-year-old girl received a Facebook friend request from an older man she didn’t know, she accepted it out of curiosity. It’s a click she will forever regret, leading to a brutal story that has repeated itself as sexual predators find new ways to exploit Indonesia’s growing obsession with social media.
The junior high student was quickly smitten by the man’s smooth online flattery. They exchanged phone numbers, and his attention increased with rapid-fire texts. He convinced her to meet in a mall, and she found him just as charming in person.
They agreed to meet again. After telling her mum she was going to visit a sick girlfriend on her way to church choir practice, she climbed into the man’s minivan near her home in Depok, on the outskirts of Jakarta.
The man, a 24-year-old who called himself Yogi, drove her an hour to the town of Bogor, West Java, she told The Associated Press in an interview.
There, he locked her in a small room inside a house with at least five other girls aged 14 to 17. She was drugged and raped repeatedly—losing her virginity in the first attack.
After one week of torture, her captor told her she was being sold and shipped to the faraway island of Batam, known for its seedy brothels and child sex tourism that caters to men coming by boat from nearby Singapore.
She sobbed hysterically and begged to go home. She was beaten and told to shut up or die.
So far this year, 27 of the 129 children reported missing to Indonesia’s National Commission for Child Protection are believed to have been abducted after meeting their captors on Facebook, said the group’s chairman, Arist Merdeka Sirait. One of the 27 has been found dead.
In the month since the Depok girl was found near a bus terminal Sept. 30, there have been at least seven reports of young girls in Indonesia being abducted by people they met on Facebook. Although no solid data exists, police and aid groups that work on trafficking issues say it seems to be a particularly big problem in the Southeast Asian archipelago.
“Maybe Indonesia is kind of a unique country so far. Once the reports start coming in, you will know that maybe it’s not one of the countries, maybe it’s one of a hundred countries,” said Anjan Bose, a program officer who works on child online protection issues at ECPAT International, a nonprofit global network that helps children in 70 countries. “The Internet is such a global medium. It doesn’t differentiate between poor and rich. It doesn’t differentiate between the economy of the country or the culture.”
Websites that track social media say Indonesia has nearly 50 million people signed up for Facebook, making it one of the world’s top users after the US. The capital Jakarta was recently named the most active Twitter city by Paris-based social media monitoring company Semiocast. In addition, networking groups such as BlackBerry and Yahoo Messenger are wildly popular on mobile phones.
Many young Indonesians, and their parents, are unaware of the dangers of allowing strangers to see their personal information online. Teenagers frequently post photos and personal details such as their home address, phone number, school and hangouts without using any privacy settings—allowing anyone trolling the net to find them and learn everything about them.
“We are racing against time, and the technology frenzy over Facebook is a trend among teenagers here,” Sirait said. “Police should move faster, or many more girls will become victims.”
The 27 Facebook-related abductions reported to the commission this year in Indonesia have already exceed 18 similar cases it received in all of 2011. Overall, the National Task Force Against Human Trafficking said 435 children were trafficked last year, mostly for sexual exploitation.
Many who fight child sex crimes in Indonesia believe the real numbers are much higher. Missing children are often not reported to authorities. Stigma and shame surround sexual abuse in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, and there’s a widespread belief that police will do nothing to help.
An ECPAT International report estimates that each year, 40,000 to 70,000 children are involved in trafficking, pornography or prostitution in Indonesia, a nation of 240 million where many families remain impoverished.
The US State Department has also warned that more Indonesian girls are being recruited using social media networks. In a report last year, it said traffickers have “resorted to outright kidnapping of girls and young women for sex trafficking within the country and abroad.”
Online child sexual abuse and exploitation are common in much of Asia. In the Philippines, kids are being forced to strip or perform sex acts on live webcams—often by their parents, who are using them as a source of income. Western men typically pay to use the sites.
“In the Philippines, this is the tip of the iceberg. It’s not only Facebook and social media, but it’s also through text messages … especially young, vulnerable people are being targeted,” said Leonarda Kling, regional representative for Terre des Hommes Netherlands, a nonprofit working on trafficking issues.
“It’s all about promises. Better jobs or maybe even a nice telephone or whatever. Young people now, you see all the glamour and glitter around you and they want to have the latest BlackBerry, the latest fashion, and it’s also a way to get these things.”
Facebook says its investigators regularly review content on the site and work with authorities, including Interpol, to combat illegal activity. It also has employees around the world tasked with cracking down on people who attempt to use the site for human trafficking.
“We take human trafficking very seriously and, while this behavior is not common on Facebook, a number of measures are in place to counter this activity,” spokesman Andrew Noyes said in an email.
He declined to give any details on Facebook’s involvement in trafficking cases reported in Indonesia or elsewhere.
The Depok girl, wearing a mask to hide her face as she was interviewed, said she is still shocked that the man she knew for nearly a month turned on her.
“He wanted to buy new clothes for me, and help with school payments. He was different … that’s all,” she said. “I have a lot of contacts through Facebook, and I’ve also exchanged phone numbers. But everything has always gone fine. We were just friends.”
She said that after being kidnapped, she was given sleeping pills and was “mostly unconscious” for her ordeal. She said she could not escape because a man and another girl stood guard over her.
The girl said the man did not have the money for a plane ticket to Batam, and also became aware that her parents and others were relentlessly searching for her. He ended up dumping her at a bus station, where she found help.
“I am angry and cannot accept what he did to me. … I was raped and beaten!” said the lanky girl with shoulder-length black hair. The AP generally does not publish the names of sexual abuse victims.
The girl’s case made headlines this month when she was expelled after she tried to return to school. Officials at the school reportedly claimed she had tarnished its image. She has since been reinstated, but she no longer wishes to attend due to the stigma she faces.
Education Minister Mohammad Nuh also came under fire after making remarks that not all girls who report such crimes are victims. “They do it for fun, and then the girl alleges that it’s rape,” he said. His response to the criticism was that it’s difficult to prove whether sexual assault allegations are “real rapes.”
The publicity surrounding the story encouraged the parents of five other missing girls to come forward this month, saying their daughters also were victimized by people they met on Facebook. Two more girls were freed from their captors in October and are now seeking counseling.
A man who posed as a photographer on Facebook was recently arrested and accused of kidnapping and raping three teenage girls. Authorities say he lured them into meeting him with him by promising to make them models, and then locked them in a house. Police found dozens of photos of naked girls on his camera and laptop.
Another case involved a 15-year-old girl from Bogor. She was recently rescued by police after being kidnapped by someone she met on Facebook and held at a restaurant, waiting for someone to move her to another town where she would be forced into prostitution.
In some incidents, the victims themselves ended up recruiting other young girls after being promised money or luxuries such as mobile phones or new clothes.
Police are trying to get a step ahead of the criminals. Detective Lt Ruth Yeni Qomariah from the Children and Women’s Protection unit in Surabaya said she posed as a teenager online and busted three men who used Facebook to kidnap and rape underage girls. She’s searching for a fourth suspect.
“It has been getting worse as trafficking rings become more sophisticated and underage children are more easily targeted,” she said.
The man who abducted the Depok girl has not been found, and it’s unclear what happened to the five other girls held at the house where she was raped.
“I saw they were offered by my kidnapper to many guys,” she said. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t want to remember it.”