In a Brothel Atop Street 63

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

Photo by Flickr user <a href="">venetia joubert sarah oosterveld</a>.

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I THINK OF THIS RICE FIELD AT SUNSET, out in the countryside. I’m with Lisa and the sun is going down and the sky is dark with storm clouds on the horizon, but the long grass is glowing, luminescent, and there’s a water buffalo caked with mud standing motionless by the side of the road staring me straight in the eye. Two men are riding by on heavy Chinese bicycles, each wearing sandals and shorts and a headlamp powered by a six-pound battery slung over his shoulder, each holding a wooden spear against the handlebars. Frog hunters. And from far away—a mile across fields and trees—an electric guitar and the bass notes to “Oye Como Va” played karaoke style.

There’s a village of wooden huts built up on stilts—cows and chickens underneath, pigs in a pen around back, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, marijuana plants. Lots of kids running around, babies on their sisters’ backs. Dogs barking. Mosquitoes. The men come and we eat dinner sitting cross-legged in a circle—one of the chickens and some of the vegetables in a noodle soup made with ganja buds, a specialty for Lisa, who says her stomach has been acting up. The men are joking and laughing, pouring shot glasses of homemade alcohol and making toasts where every glass touches. The two oldest men are in their mid-50s and one is wearing a hat with a bald eagle and an American flag. I ask him if the Americans bombed this area in the early ’70s, and he says not this village but in the mountains nearby there were a lot of bombs. “And you still like America?” I ask. He says, “Yes, of course. I fought with the Americans as a Lon Nol soldier.” He tells me the man whose house we are eating in also fought as a Lon Nol soldier, but he died four months ago from AIDS. He and the other men believe his ghost is still here, that he hasn’t left yet. We toast the ghost, and it gets quiet, except for the crickets.

After dinner, we walk through a couple of gardens to a small hut made from bamboo poles and thatched palm fronds. There’s no light inside, completely dark, but there’s a voice, like a rock being rolled through dry grass, and the room smells as if an animal has died. Someone brings a light, a 29-watt fluorescent tube on the end of a long extension cord. The woman is at least 80 years old, white hair, skin and bones, lying on a wooden bed without a mattress, blanket, or pillow. Her eyes are moist and cloudy. She sits up and holds her arms around her shins. The toes on her right foot have swollen to twice the size of the toes on her left foot, and there’s a three-inch square of skin on the top of her foot that has turned to mushy liquid, pureed salmon. Above the infection, the skin is a black flame, turning green and yellow. Gangrene.

She says it hurts.

There’s no money for a doctor or a hospital. Traditional ointments and teas did nothing to stop the infection.

Lisa sits down next to the old lady, takes her leg gently in her hands, and speaks to her in Khmer. Lisa is an American who produces public service commercials and documentaries for Cambodian television. She knows nothing of medicine, doesn’t know the woman has gangrene, but she does know she’s dying—slowly and painfully—she can feel it, and she tries to comfort her. I’m frightened by the whole thing and turn around and there are 12 children pressed together just inside the door, all motionless and absolutely quiet, eyes fixed on Lisa’s hands, all wondering if this American woman who is tall and beautiful can cure their great-grandmother. Maybe she has magical power. I can’t quite take it and step through the kids to get some fresh air and listen to the dogs bark. Next door there’s another, larger hut, and inside a man is sitting on a stool two feet from a 12-inch television screen. He’s glued to it, as if manning a periscope. The screen shows new cars and houses with carpets and refrigerators, beautiful people with stylish clothes, women with lipstick. It shows this world, another planet, where there’s lots of cool stuff and money, a place where grandmothers do not die slowly, painfully, in the dark, from gangrene.


THIS IS HOW what we now call human trafficking begins. It’s an awkward term, borrowed from the black market for drugs and guns, only in this case it means the buying and selling of human beings. We used to call it slavery, but the United Nations and the U.S. State Department thought we needed a new name because it’s become such a big business. Worldwide, people are cheaper now than ever before, and there seems to be an endless supply as well as an endless demand.

The causes are said to be exploding populations, increasing power differentials between the rich and the poor, corrupt governments, failed states…and television, which functions like a huge suction machine, a black hole, pulling people away from shrinking farms and into swollen cities. It starts as migration, a children’s crusade for some of that stuff to bring back home. They leave the village and give themselves up to the great sky of luck; they take a chance. And it ends, too often, with young people being bought and consumed and thrown away like a candy bar and its wrapper. And this is also a cause: the desire, the pull for more cheap bodies, whether they are put to work in garment factories and paid 15 cents an hour for 90 hours a week, or thrown onto Thai fishing boats and fed methamphetamines for a few years then shot and thrown overboard, or sold into prostitution or domestic service in Sweden, the United States, or Saudi Arabia. The supply and the demand, the push and the pull, are inseparable.

Nobody knows the numbers. Slaves, unlike guns or drugs, are hard to see and count. Is this boy on your fishing boat an employee? Is this girl a willing prostitute? Is your maid free to leave the house? No one tells the truth. The United Nations claims that every year 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children are trafficked as slaves across international boundaries and millions more are sold as slaves within their own countries, but experts in the field say these numbers are inflated to gather public awareness. None of the experts, however, deny that there is a serious problem. And many, if not most, have gone past the point of believing in a solution.

When I spoke with Cambodians about slavery, they very often didn’t know what I was talking about. They answered questions I didn’t ask, and I asked questions they didn’t understand, back and forth. It was very frustrating. Then I found out that in Khmer there is no word for “slavery.” No word for slavery, but there is a word for “slave”—khiom, an old word from back in the days of Angkor Wat and the God/Kingdom. Now the word has a new meaning: It means “I.” A young Cambodian art historian told me this. Maybe he was stretching an etymology, but it seemed to make sense to me. We think of slavery as the practice of depriving people of their individual rights and liberties, turning them into objects that can be bought and sold. But Cambodians have never had a concept of individual rights and liberties, so how can they be deprived of them? To them it’s like, “Of course people can be bought and sold. It happens all the time. What’s your problem?” They think of slavery as cheating, a business deal gone bad—one person lies and tricks another into bondage or work with no pay. And cheating they know very well. They’ll talk about being cheated all day long—out of houses, food, cars, children. But I didn’t want to know about cheating. I wanted to know about slavery. I’d try to make the point that human beings are different from used cars. “To buy and sell people—isn’t this a bad thing?” And they’d say, “Yes, sometimes, when the person is cheated.”

An example of how it happens: A 14-year-old girl is bored with living on the farm in the countryside. She has an older sister who left and went to Phnom Penh and hasn’t been heard from since, but the girl believes if she can get to Phnom Penh, she can find her sister and live with her and maybe get a job in a garment factory. So she sneaks away and gets on a bus and meets a woman who says she can help. She knows a restaurant that needs a dishwasher, and she’ll take her there. The girl thinks, great, what good fortune. But the restaurant turns out to be a brothel, and the woman sells the girl for $300 and walks away. The girl, being from a poor farm village and knowing virtually nothing of the world, believes this is a debt she has to pay back. It was just a woman on a bus, and the girl to her was like a wallet found on the street.

Up until recently, experts in the field of human trafficking believed that members of crime organizations came to the villages and recruited young bodies with deceits and lies. They called it “stranger danger.” But now they are starting to believe that most of the time the young people are tricked into slavery by people they know—an aunt, a boyfriend, even their own mother. It’s more like everybody knows how to do it, and usually people are betrayed by those whom they trust.

Another example: There’s a family of Vietnamese immigrants living in a wooden shack next to abandoned railroad tracks on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The mother, who says she is 70, though I peg her as closer to 50, has 13 children, none of whom have an income except for her two youngest daughters, whom she periodically sells into debt bondage as prostitutes. With this many kids and lots of grandkids and cousins, somebody is always getting sick or hurt and needing medical attention. So the mother borrows money from her neighbors at the going rate of interest—20 percent a month. Soon she is way over her head in debt and has no way to pay it off except by selling her daughters again. She’s been doing it since they were about 10. She recently sold the older one, her name is Nee, now 17 years old, to a brothel in Taiwan for $1,000, and was getting ready to sell the youngest one, Auk, now 15 years old, in the same way for the same amount, but Auk ran away. Now, the mother says, she is worried sick about her. Auk, hidden away in a house on the other side of town, is also worried and scared. If she refuses to do her mother’s bidding, she will risk breaking her “mother-daughter relationship,” essentially cutting herself off from her family forever, meaning she will live and die alone and then spend many rebirths in pain and suffering. Nee was a good girl and willingly left home to work in Taiwan. She calls Auk on her cell phone and says she doesn’t know what city she’s in and has to sleep with six or seven men a night and that her stomach hurts, but she’s not going to come home until the $1,000 is paid back because their mother needs her help. The mother says she cries for her daughter in Taiwan every night, but what can she do? She owes money that must be paid back, and there is no other way.

It’s like a soap opera, and it gets worse. Enter Mark, an American, early 50s, living in Phnom Penh. Five years ago, he was living in Florida and had arthritis so bad he couldn’t walk one block. So he quit his job and flew to Thailand, where he exercised every day, drank lots of tea, and had a lot of sex with young prostitutes. He cured himself in a few months. He says, “Everybody should have a regular sex life. Jesus, when I was living in the States, I couldn’t get nothing. I might go six months without getting laid.”

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.

IN 1979, WHEN THE KHMER ROUGE FELL from power, the population of Cambodia was 5.2 million people. This number was down by about 2.5 million from the previous decade, due to a three-year bombing campaign by the United States that killed up to 500,000 people, followed by the Khmer Rouge’s three-year experiment with agrarian reform when up to 2 million people died from execution, starvation, or disease. But since that time, in only 26 years, the time frame we think of as one generation, the population of Cambodia has nearly tripled, approaching 14 million. It’s now a country where 60 percent of the people are under the age of 20.

You stand on the street, say Sisowath Quay, on a Sunday afternoon, and it seems no one is over the age of 30, and all around there are young couples in love. A boy on a scooter, shirt unbuttoned, hair blowing in the wind, a girl with her arms around his waist, her head on his shoulder, flapper girl hat pulled down tight on her head, contented. Couple after couple holding hands in the park along the river, each living out their own private karaoke video. Families having picnics on the grass in the park outside the Royal Palace. They bring out the elephant. Mothers and fathers buy incense to burn at the Buddhist shrine for their dead relatives. The kids get candy and cheap toys.

It’s wrong to say the culture was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. It’s too easy an answer. The Khmer Rouge, for instance, never destroyed the Royal Palace. They left the flaring dragon flames along the roof and the snake running around the foundation. And they didn’t destroy the sense of family identity, although they tried. Under the Khmer Rouge, families were purposefully separated and children sometimes killed their own parents, but today there is nothing more important or present for a Cambodian than his or her family. And Cambodians are still animists. They live with ghosts and spirits. The Khmer Rouge only made more of these. Also, Cambodians are still a very warm and compassionate people, gracious in ways that shame most Americans. They smile a lot and are quick to laugh. This is perhaps the most noticeable thing about them as a culture.

But if you look a little more closely, you’ll see that underneath this veneer of a smile is a deep pool of low-grade terror. It comes from knowing you live in a country where there are no jobs, no industry or source of revenue other than through tourism and the money being pumped in by foreign aid, a country where the average wage is less than a dollar a day and nobody expects it to rise any higher, a country where anything can happen and nothing will be done about it. Look closer at the families picnicking on the grass and you’ll see a mother shaking her one-year-old baby and slamming it into the ground like a rag doll. I watch it through a video lens, zoomed in from a distance. The mother is surrounded by other people and yet no one does a thing. Nobody even looks up.

Pick up the recent issue of the Phnom Penh Post and check out the police blotter. There most likely will be at least one report of a mob beating—fights that start small and quickly attract a crowd, everyone beating on one person. A policeman, off duty, uses his gun to hit a motorcycle driver and take his bike. He’s attacked by women on the street—middle-aged, middle-class women who beat him to a pulp, out of control. Lisa saw one. It was during the water festival, which pulls a lot of people into the city, and many of them come to “go crazy.” The streets were packed, traffic at a standstill, Lisa was sitting on the back of a motodop when suddenly a man a few feet away was down on the ground and other men were kicking his head.

“They were taking a few steps for momentum and kicking it like a soccer ball for a free shot.” She jumped off the scooter and ran to the man on the ground and begged the others to stop—a very brave and stupid thing to do—and if not for her motodop driver pulling her out of there, she could have easily been pummeled. “I was so close and the blows were so violent I could feel them in my body. I’ve never felt that kind of violence and hatred. It was fucking surreal.” She went home and curled up like a small child, aching to be held.

The culture was not wiped out, it just has chronic and endemic post-traumatic stress syndrome.


IT COMES TO AN END, FOR ME, late at night in a discotheque, a hip place with murals of fantasy scenes from a tropical island. There’s a dance floor with a mirror ball and strobe lights pulsing to Cambodian disco music, bodies crushed together, writhing like snakes in a pit. I’m sorry but I can’t get into it. I stay in a booth and lie down, looking up and over at a glassed-off private room that’s dark except for a television on the wall showing a National Geographic program on chimpanzees. There are five or six men in the room, customers, sitting in chairs, and four young women serving beer and walking around in high heels and very short skirts. Two men in suits guard the door. The men in the chairs look bored and tired, uninterested in the women, and there’s a chimpanzee on the screen pounding, pounding, pounding a coconut or something like a coconut with a rock. I think it’s a female chimpanzee, and it seems like she is pounding the rock just to show off to the other chimpanzees around her, as if it’s her rock and she is pounding with it and none of the other chimps is going to stop her. She’s happy, she has a tool and she knows how to use it.

I look to the dance floor and it is also pounding. Lisa is dancing with two Cambodian women, her friends, “professional girlfriends” who were both sold into prostitution before they reached puberty and now support their large families as paid mistresses to sad middle-aged Westerners. They are a success, in a way, but still call Lisa to borrow money when things get tight. Lisa’s trying to dance with her friends, but it seems half the men on the floor, all Cambodian, have surrounded her. This bothers me (did I say I am in love with her?), but she’s like, “okay, whatever.” I look back to the National Geographic special and the chimp is still pounding. Enough, we get it—chimps know how to use tools. From the stone to the strobe light, pounding, pounding, pounding. I understand everything. I understand nothing. I close my eyes and try to sleep.


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Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

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And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

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