A shopper at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York in 2012 reached inside her shopping bag for her receipt, but what she pulled out of the bag shook her to the bone. It was a letter, along with what appeared to be passport photo of the man who claimed to have written it, who signed himself Tohnain Emmanuel Njong.
The letter was scrawled in blue ink on white paper and took up a whole page, but its message, penned in all capitals across the top was simple, and stunning:
“HELP! HELP! HELP!”
Tohnain Emmanuel Njong wrote that he was a prisoner in a Chinese factory, on the other side of the world from where the shopper, 28-year-old Stephanie Wilson, found his desperate letter.
“We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory,” Tohnain Emmanuel Njong. And he signed off politely, writing. “Thanks and sorry to bother you.”
Now, two years later, Tohnain Emmanuel Njong has been found — by researchers at the New York-based news site DNAinfo.
“I read the letter and I just shook,” said Wilson, a native of Australia. “I could not believe what I was reading.” She turned the letter over to a human rights group that specializes in the treatment of prisoners incarcerated by the Chinese. But even though there was an e-mail address on the back of the letter, the group came up empty.
The Department of Homeland Security also got ahold of the letter, but would not reveal if it found Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, or even tried.
DNAinfo used the now-inactive e-mail address as well as social media to track down Njong and the story has a happy ending. The Cameroonian native is alive and well, living and working in Dubai.
He verified that he was, in fact, the author of the letter by referring to specific facts about the document that only he could have known.
Njong told DNAinfo that he was teaching English in China when he was accused of fraud — a false charge, he says — and imprisoned for three years in Qingdao, Shandong Province in eastern China.
In the interview, he explained how and why he wrote the letter.
“We were being monitored all the time,” Njong told the site. “I got under my bed cover and I wrote it so nobody could see that I was writing anything. Maybe this bag could go somewhere and they find this letter and they can let my family know or anybody [know] that I am in prison.”
According to Harry Wu, founder of Laogai Research Foundation and a former Chinese prisoner himself, Tohnain Emmanuel Njong risked his life by wrting the letter — and Njong said he wrote five such letters, only one of which was found.
“There would be solitary confinement until you confess and maybe later they increase your sentence — or even death,” said Wu, of Tohnain Emmanuel Njong’s desperate letter-writing act.