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In a Brothel Atop Street 63

The intimate face of slavery in Cambodia -- where buying and selling children is a family business.

After he was in Thailand for a while, he flew to Cambodia to renew his visa and took the time to visit a brothel outside Phnom Penh known for having young girls. There he met Nee, the older daughter, who was then 13. Mark liked Nee a lot, maybe he even loved her, and he asked her if she wanted to get out of there and go with him. She said yes, for sure, and so he bought her out of the brothel for $1,500 and paid her mother $1,000. And then he married her and bought a big house and let 10 members of her family move in.

He put Nee and Auk in school. He taught their little nieces and nephews how to ride bicycles. He took them to the beach on weekends. He loved it.

“You know, it’s funny,” he says. “It was like I went through this Lolita syndrome. I was in la-la land for two years. Maxed out all my credit cards. Or, part of it, do you ever do something just because you can do it and you think it’s the wildest thing and you want to do it? I mean to buy someone out of a brothel was so wild, something you read about in the National Geographic in the Sudan or something.”

The thing he didn’t do, however, was give the girls’ mother enough money to pay off all her debts, which at 20 percent a month interest grew very quickly, and the mother, with her daughters out of the business, had no way of covering it. Mark claims she convinced Nee to divorce Mark and go work in the higher-paying Taiwanese brothels, which she did. Then, according to Mark, the mother tried to steal the home away from him while he was out of town. Then she filed charges against him for the crime of debauchery—sleeping with a child under the age of 14—and that cost him a lot of time and worry and $2,000 to pay off the judge. Still, he doesn’t hate the mother.

“She’s a fucking bitch, excuse my French, she causes all sorts of problems. She’s an evil, evil woman, but I kind of like her a little bit. Even after she took me to court, cost me thousands of dollars, almost sent me to prison for years, when I saw her I gave her a kiss. Like I said, a flaw in my character.”

Mark openly admits to all of this. He speaks as if he has no guilt or shame about having had sex with a minor, because in his mind he was doing nothing but trying to help her and her family. And he loved her, maybe, he’s not sure. Plus, he says he feels okay about talking because he’s been given immunity from prosecution by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in return for helping them obtain evidence for the conviction of another American pedophile with a much worse record.

I meet the Homeland Security officer Mark is working with. He comes over to Lisa’s office for a chat, and I ask him why the Department of Homeland Security is in Southeast Asia tracking down pedophiles.

He says, “Because they are terrorists.”

“Terrorists?” I ask, somewhat dumbfounded.

“Domestic terrorists,” he says with some hesitation.

“Domestic terrorists? I’ve never heard the term.” And that is the end of the interview. He leaves in a huff.

Is this off the subject?


ACCORDING TO THE United Nations, human trafficking includes “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person....” It goes on and on, passing through a difficult section about the selling of people for use as sexual slaves and ending with “the removal of organs.”

Off the record, people within the U.S. State Department in Cambodia will tell you they don’t know what human trafficking is or how it happens. And yet their job is to get rid of it. They say they have more anti-trafficking money than they know what to do with, that there aren’t enough aid workers in the country to give the money to, and consequently much of the money is being given to faith-based initiatives. They call this cronyism, like it’s an infectious disease.

The other side of this, however, is that Cambodia is actually way fucked up. Mothers really do sell their kids. Little babies are sold for adoption, girls as young as eight are sold for their virginity, boys are sold to beg on the streets of Bangkok and Saigon, or thrown onto fishing boats, never to come back. It happens, a lot, and nobody does anything to stop it. Not really. Cambodia is the first country in the world to create a special police task force to fight human trafficking, and in the four years of its existence, the number of arrests for sexual trafficking offenses has increased from 40 to over 600 a year. This sounds like a positive statistic until you realize that the justice system in Cambodia is just a pretense for extracting money from the accused, who are expected to buy their way out of jail. A debauchery rap now costs $20,000. The accused hires a lawyer, from jail, and the lawyer pays off the court clerk, the prosecutor, and the judge. The records of the court proceedings—like, for instance, the number of successful convictions for trafficking-related offenses—these documents are said to rest in the possession of one man, National Chief of Police Hok Lundy, and he has not been inclined to release them.

The political system in Cambodia is shaped like a pyramid, where the people on the top can commit unspeakable crimes and the people on the bottom have no rights at all. Money, in the form of bribes and extortions, flows upward through the pyramid, and violence comes back down. This is the cultural mechanism of impunity. It’s where the slaves come from. The U.S. State Department has published in its 2004 report on human trafficking that high-ranking members of the Cambodian government are directly involved in, and profit from, the sale of human beings—among the aid workers monitoring the trafficking, this is a well-known fact. The names are known but they are not spoken. There is silence in the face of evil, and under this silence the phrase “human trafficking” becomes a bullshit term, propaganda, a way of labeling something we don’t understand in order to throw a lot of money at it while loudly saying we are winning the war against it.

I’ll tell you about two places I saw. One was an open-air market for girls at a place called the Chicken Farm outside Koh Kong, a town on the southwestern coast. There’s a river and a port, ships coming and going from the Gulf of Siam. The road coming into Koh Kong is dirt and impassable at times during the rainy season, but the road going out of Koh Kong, over a bridge and across the border into Thailand, is concrete and busy with truck traffic. The Chicken Farm is out in a field near the river, or that’s how I imagined it. I couldn’t see a thing, the night was so dark—no moon, no stars, just the dim outlines of six or seven huts and the doorways glowing red, small shrines lit by candles out front, the smell of burning incense. The girls sat in pods of light from fluorescent tubes—six in front of me, eight next door, five across the road. They came from the farmlands of Cambodia and Vietnam, 12 to 16 years old, all for sale. “Cheap, good price,” the pimp tells me. “You want boom boom, $15. You want take, you keep, no problem. Good price, you say.”

The other place was on Street 63 in Phnom Penh, right in the middle of the city, not far from the U.N. offices and the shopping mall. It’s a room up two flights of steep steps, a room that could have once been a classroom or even a small dance studio, and there are 20 girls, fifth-graders, sitting in chairs in a big circle around me. Their faces covered with white makeup, purple lipstick. All from Vietnam. None are virgins. One is straddling my thigh, with her arms around my neck, and I can’t look at her and I’m trying not to hear the few words she’s saying. The others are laughing and giggling with each other, and when I make eye contact, their smiles turn to fear. They are supposed to flirt with me, but they’re not even old enough to know how to flirt and they’re scared—scared that I might choose them and scared that I might not and they’ll be beaten. At that moment, I would have rather been almost anywhere else, but to make it worse, in walks another man, an American by his dress, early 60s, like he’d just come in from playing golf. He sits down next to me but does not make eye contact, and at that point I stop breathing. I’m there to look, but he’s there for the real thing and I should hold it together and try to talk to him, find out what he thinks he’s doing, but I bolt for the door and the girls all instantly freak out and start screaming in terror. They stand in front of me and I have to pull arms off my waist and tear hands off my shirt, and just as I get to the stairs, the pimp blocks my way and says I can’t leave. I grab him by the arms and hold him out over the stairs and ask him if he wants me to let go. This calms him down and I run out of there, demons flying, chasing me out the door.

It’s creepy, for sure, but the thing that’s really unnerving is that it happens right out in the open. It’s no secret to anybody, and yet no one does anything to stop it. You walk away from it, and there’s a tearing sound, like the ripping of fabric that goes on and on and will not stop.

Lisa is making a video documentary about human trafficking, an Asia Foundation/USAID project for the Cambodian television audience. She wanted to go to these places with me, but she couldn’t, not without setting off all the alarms, so to speak. So I tell her about what I saw and she freaks out on me. She’s my guide, really the best I could ask for, but she sometimes breaks down in tears. I think this is common among NGO workers and diplomats in Cambodia. They spend their days trying to help people, trying to rebuild the country, and many spend their nights trying to drink and dance away the despair that comes from knowing their efforts are failing. The men often descend into hard drugs and prostitutes; the women become lonely and emotionally wounded. It’s tough—tough to sleep through the hot humid nights, tough to face the street in the morning.

I tell Lisa what I saw and she falls apart. She has a number of powers—charm and grace and also the talent or curse of the empath. She can feel what others feel, and apparently just my descriptions can make her become one of the Vietnamese girls with white faces.

“I think they’re reptilian,” she says. “They use that part of their brain. You’re always on the bottom tier, always a pain in your stomach. You ever been hungry for days at a time? Do you know what that feels like?”

She’s been here more than four years. She’s made friends with a lot of people—from kids who scavenge the garbage to the bodyguards of the prime minister, from pedophiles to State Department officials, and lately many of them have been telling her it’s time for her to leave, if not for good, at least for a while. She stays here because this place opened a hole inside her. She doesn’t know what’s inside the hole, she just knows it hurts and the only way to respond is with love and compassion. This is her job, her real job. But tonight there’s crying and yelling and a lot of expressed anger. She’s my guide, the best.

Again, maybe this is off the subject.

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