Tho Tho had seven siblings, all living in a small house on stilts over the dirty water of one of Yangon’s sprawling slums. She was the oldest and had to leave school early to help take care of her younger brothers and sisters. Her mother became sick with diabetes, a common problem in Myanmar amongst poor families. The medical bills forced the family to borrow money but with no official loans available, they were forced to borrow from a loan shark, with high-interest payments of up to 30% each day. The bills for Tho Tho’s family increased, her mother couldn’t work and eventually they put their house up as collateral for a loan increase. They couldn’t keep up the repayments and, facing eviction, were distressed and desperate.
Seeing the perfect opportunity to strike, a local agent approached Tho Tho and started spouting her false promises about a high-paid factory job in the neighboring country. As the finishing stroke, she laid out cash on the table, the equivalent of 200 dollars, exactly what they needed to get them out of trouble and to enable them to keep the small bamboo house they call home. The offer was too good to refuse and Tho Tho’s parents made up their mind. Tho Tho’s things were packed and with quick goodbyes, she left for her new job.
Sitting with three other girls in the back of a small van for 20 hours, Tho Tho began to feel uneasy. As they drove through a mountainous region, she didn’t recognize the signposts or the language the people outside were speaking. She wanted to vomit as the van twisted and turned around the small roads eventually pulling into a village courtyard house.
There was no sign of any large factory or big city life. The driver opened the back doors and pulled her out, leaving the other two girls inside. “You stay here,” he said gruffly. An older couple came out of the house and began inspecting her. The couple gave the driver an envelope of money and he quickly left. Tho Tho had no idea what was going on. The older woman pulled at her sleeve and pointed inside. Climbing the three stories to a small room she followed the woman inside where there was a mattress on the floor, a bottle of water, and some boiled rice. She was pushed inside, and the door was locked from the outside. She went to the window but it was too far to jump down. She felt hot tears running down her cheeks and a sickening feeling of dread in her stomach.
Sobbing, she lay exhausted on the mattress and fell asleep. When she woke it was dark outside and there was no light in the room. She heard the door open and a man came in locking the door behind him. He didn’t speak to her but took her violently by the wrists and raped her. She was in total shock. She didn’t understand what had happened to her. As a 16-year-old her parents had not explained those things to her, she was confused and numb, angry and self-loathing all at the same time.
Over the next few weeks, she was slowly allowed to leave the room and was put to work immediately. She realized she had been bought, not just as a wife to this man who never spoke to her, but as a slave to the whole family. She cleaned, washed clothes, and cooked, and when they didn’t like what she did, they beat her.
When the numbness and shock wore off, she began to plan her escape. She knew it could only be at night, but how could she get down from the 3rd floor without breaking her legs. Then the idea came to her. She could tie bits of cloth together to make a rope to escape. So, over the next few months, she collected scraps of cloth and worked on them in the night, knotting them together making sure the knots were strong enough to carry her when the time came. It took a long time but finally, it was finished. She waited, knowing the family’s routine, and once she knew everyone was sleeping, she tied one end to the balcony rail and let down her rope of knots. Hanging there between the 2nd and 3rd floor she was so dependent on those knots for her escape. Finally, her feet touched the ground and she ran into the night. For hours she ran until she reached a small town where she waited until dawn to find the police station.
Then began the long process of repatriation. It took six months for Tho Tho’s case to be processed, during which time she was put in prison whilst she waited. There her trauma grew even worse, as she daily faced life in prison as someone who was totally innocent of any crime. After six months, Tho Tho was returned to Myanmar and referred to Eden for trauma counseling and vocational training. Her story was so profound that it deeply touched the hearts of all the Eden Myanmar Staff. They were inspired by her patience in finding and carefully joining together this rope of knots that would be her escape. Despite her suffering, she stayed focused on the escape and not on the daily abuses. She didn’t just give up in hopelessness but kept her eye on the goal of freedom.
The Knots of Freedom pieces are inspired by Tho Tho’s story of escape into freedom. It’s a reminder to us all that we don’t often see the instant rescue, freedom, or healing that we would like but instead, just like creating a beautiful song, it’s a process that requires patience, diligence, focus, and courage. Each knot found in this collection represents those qualities. To all the women and girls who have courageously escaped captivity, we honor you with this jewelry.