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"A high action memoir of a commendable life." — Kirkus Reviews
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
I don't feel like I can change the world. I don't even try. I only want to change this small life that I see standing in front of me, which is suffering. I want to change this real small thing that is the destiny of one little girl. And then another, and another, because if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to live with myself or sleep at night.
— Somaly Mam, The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine
THE CRESCENT MOON HAS ALREADY RISEN, AND Venus is shining brightly in the night sky. I'm following the commander and his men down an unlit back street. At this hour, the metal gates on the neighborhood's living room emporiums are all down. The relative quiet belies the not-soclandestine activities of the city's shadow world, which bursts into life after dark. I watch drunken men stagger away from makeshift street bars and roar off into the dark on throaty Chinese motorbikes. Children in dirty T-shirts and plastic sandals are splashing in swampy puddles created by a combination of daily rain and ruts deep enough to lose sight of a rat, of which there are more than a few.
We pass a small night market, with a cluster of low red and blue plastic tables and stools where small groups of men have gathered to slurp soup and homemade rice moonshine. The vendors' candles flicker and cast a dim glow on some of the exotic delicacies on offer. Locusts roasted on tiny coal grills. Duck blood with fresh herbs. Deep-fried tarantulas.
Toward the back of this makeshift market, I spot a dozen or so dogs crammed into cages, ready and waiting for the hot pot. I can hear a few of the puppies whimpering in the darkness, see them chewing at their chains. I wonder if they slaughter them right here, too. No one else seems to notice. We enter our fourth karaoke bar of the night through a door so low I have to fold my six-foot-fiveinch frame almost in half to make it through.
The darkened room is long and narrow, with a U-shaped leather sectional facing a large-screen TV blaring karaoke in Khmer, the Cambodian language. A young Vietnamese woman in a short blue dress grabs my elbow and leads me to a spot in the middle of the couch. Other hostesses seat the commander and his men — all in Royal Cambodian Armed Forces uniform — on either side of me. These guys are the Cambodian elite, and I need their approval. Although I'm dressed up in a collared white shirt, I'm suddenly self-conscious about my unruly hair and dark jeans next to their pressed fatigues and linear haircuts.
The images of the dogs don't go away when I close my eyes for a second. I feel for the tiny bottle of green eucalyptus oil in my jacket, shake out a few drops, and slowly rub it into my temples, but it can't prevent the slideshow of canine slaughter scenarios flickering behind my closed eyelids. It's after midnight and there's a full glass of Johnnie Walker Black on the table in front of me, next to a stack of thick plastic binders bursting with photocopied lyrics in six different languages. The table is so low it barely hits my shins.
The rest of the men in the room, whose faces I can't make out in the dim light, are waiting for me to sing. One of them hands me a microphone.
"U.S.A. song," the man in the uniform insists, nudging me. I don't want to sing, not now, not here. I need to focus on the long and ugly night ahead, and it's hard to keep the mood light. But everyone is smiling, prodding me to go on. This is part of the game I've played for the last few years in a dozen other countries. Now I'll sing "Peace Frog" or "Sounds of Silence," and the commander will applaud, smile encouragingly, and pass me the dried squid as if to tell me not to worry. Life here is like this. Sing another karaoke number to take your mind off reality.
Blood in the streets it's up to my ankles
I'm the only one in the room who knows what I'm singing about — the only one seemingly bothered by the room's crimson bulbs casting a bloody glow over our gathering. I've got to smile, to reassure these men that I can party with them, show them I am not shaken by any of what we've seen or are about to see. No one goes home until the commander says it's time.
As I continue to sing, I notice a young, pretty girl wearing too much lip gloss. She pours more whiskey over a big chunk of ice, picks up the glass with both hands, and offers it to me with a winning smile. I accept it with a nod, then put the glass down immediately and go for the beer instead, which seems more reasonable considering my physical condition. I never get enough time in one place to recover from the jet lag. I haven't fully unpacked my suitcase for a long time now.
The girl with the lip gloss's name is Mai and her English is pretty good. She has been translating for Commander Nam, along with Anh, who's sitting on Nam's other side, feeding him spicy dried peas.
Bloody red sun of phantastic L.A....
Only I'm not Jim Morrison in fantastic seventies L.A. I haven't been home for two weeks now, and haven't had a good night's sleep in even longer.
The commander's men are clapping and humming along to the guitar licks, and I almost start to enjoy myself. But after the familiar Doors lyrics flow out of my mouth, the words of a Cambodian song I heard last night come back to torment my addled mind:
Bright red blood splatters the cities and plains And over the plain of Kampuchea, our motherland. The blood of good workers and peasants...Blood spills out into great indignation...Blood that frees us from slavery.
They are part of the national anthem the Khmer Rouge adopted when they took power in 1975, turning the country's clock back to "Year Zero" and unleashing four years of genocidal terror on their people. Yesterday I watched a bootleg copy of a new documentary on the Khmer Rouge's tragic reign that brought all the horror back to the forefront.
Shaken by the resurgence of the film's images and sound, I forfeit the microphone to the soldier next to me, who passes it directly to Commander Nam. He's already programmed in the next song, a thumping Thai love anthem that has the girls shimmying in their seats.
"Cheers!" Nam turns to me, holding up an Angkor beer with a muscular arm and waiting for me to clink my bottle with his. The aged whiskey's presence on the table indicates Nam's high status, as do the abundant tiny plates of salty snacks and spicy dipping sauces. There is an assault rifle leaning up against the sofa next to a squareshouldered bodyguard. The inevitable strains of what seems to be every Southeast Asian man's favorite American song echo from the huge TV speakers:
On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair...
It's my turn again, and I sing the verses by heart without even looking at the screen, stopping every so often to answer Nam's pointed questions about my past. He listens intently as Mai translates the encapsulated version: my years at the U.S. Air Force Academy, slave retrievals in Sudan, the work with human trafficking victims. I intentionally leave out the part about Jane's Addiction — the proverbial sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave...
My opportunity comes during the long guitar solo.
"Commander, I'm going to Siem Reap to retrieve slave girls," I ay. "I'd like your authorization, sir, and a unit to back me up."
I can't do this kind of work alone or extrajudicially. In order to escape jail, kidnapping charges, or mafia bullets, I have to put together my own paramilitary team before leaving Phnom Penh. No matter how anarchic it seems to the outside observer, Cambodia still has its own rules — ones that have to be learned and followed. I can't just crash into a brothel on a white horse and break out some girls.
The Cambodian equivalent of a written warrant is an official authorization from within the ranks of the police or the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, the select corps of men with the access I need. Which is why I have been introduced to Commander Nam.
Nam just nods and makes "Mmm" noises while flipping through the plastic binder, making his next selection. I ask him about a raid my contacts at the American Embassy have told me about in the infamous brothel town of Svay Pak, known to locals as K11 — named after its location eleven kilometers from the city center. I've heard there were hundreds of young children enslaved there.
After a long, uneasy silence, Nam makes eye contact with me. Yes, he says, his military unit participated in that bust, which was successful in that most of the brothels there have been forced to temporarily shut their doors. But the traffickers simply found a new location, known as Two o'Clock, which he calls "worse than K11." There's not a lot he can do about it.
One of my friends in the charity world has recommended Nam, so I'm sure he's one of the good guys. Unfortunately, it seems there are plenty of men wearing the same uniform who are not on our side.
Nam watches me consider this, then taps my knee and says in English, "Don't worry, don't worry, my friend, my friend."
Anh is translating now. "Mr. Nam say you want his men help you, you must to do some thing for him before."
"Of course," I say.
"Okay. You get for him girls on video, say what bad things happen, names of who big boss, pictures where the rooms, what look like, where mamasan, where big boss sleeping."
"I can do that," I say. I can start to feel the adrenaline flowing. We're going to do this.
Nam reaches into his pocket, pulls out a silver pen, and writes down a phone number on a paper napkin. "You call Mr. Heng," he says, putting his index and pinkie to his ear as though talking on the phone. Mai and Anh beam at the commander's successful utterance of a complete English sentence. Anh hand-feeds him a morsel of seaweed while Mai pours us both a celebratory glass of whiskey. Both girls take sips from their tall glasses of orange soda.
"Mr. Heng speak good English," says Mai. "Better than me. You call him tomorrow."
"Okay," I say, after telling Mai that her English is very, very good — at least better than my Khmer or Vietnamese — and we all laugh and clink glasses again. Our meeting is over, and — as my military education has taught me to do — I wait for Commander Nam to stand up before me. But first he has a parting song in mind for us.
I recognize the opening bars of a song from my childhood, written by David Gates. It's hard to imagine that while my brother, sister, and I were gathered around our turntable in Southern California singing Bread songs, half a world away hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were being summarily exterminated, tortured, or starved to death.
There's no one home but you...you're all that's left me too.
Sappy as the song may be, I'm suddenly singing my heart out, forgetting my surroundings, and drifting away to thoughts of my bedridden father in California. I know he's probably asking Juanita and Maxima, his live-in nurses, how much longer it will be until I come home to take care of him. I miss him, too. Our relationship has grown stronger as his body and mind have grown weaker. Missing him this way, I can't help but sing the song to Papa in my heart.
Commander Nam grabs my arm and shakes me out of my reverie. Concern for my father is rising up in my chest, but I can't let Nam see that my thoughts have drifted elsewhere. He's decided it's time to go, even though the song is only half through. I quietly lay down the microphone and do my best to tidy up the table while I wait for the signal. I'm used to dealing with military men, and have learned how to follow their sometimes capricious orders.
We walk out of the karaoke room through a different door than the one we entered and find ourselves standing in a modest family kitchen. The folding table is sticky with fish sauce and littered with used rice bowls and chopsticks. The karaoke parlor must be this family's living room. Mai and Anh will probably have to wash these dishes and clean up our mess, too. But I can't bother the commander with thoughts like this. He brushes past me and slides up the metal grill, stepping into the empty street. It's 3 A.M. and we both want to get some sleep.
Nam's driver opens the back door of his black Mercedes and gestures for us to slide in. We bump through the side streets of the city for a few minutes before bursting onto the smooth tarmac of Norodom Boulevard. Now we're back in the other Phnom Penh, where shiny SUVs with tinted windows are starting to outnumber cheap imitation-Honda motorbikes. The contrast between Phnom Penh's dusty back alleys and its revamped riverfront is jarring. On the way back to the Phnom Penh Hotel, my tired eyes take in Independence Monument, Wat Phnom, and a shiny, ultramodern shopping mall complete with pop music blasting from outdoor speakers. The display of wealth is harder to swallow when it's juxtaposed with the kind of desperation I've witnessed today. But a small part of me wants to find an air-conditioned bookstore, sit down to sip a chai latte and block out the present for a few moments.
The next morning I wake up in my hotel room with a slight hangover. It's only eight o'clock, but the humidity is already heavy on the flimsy rayon curtain half covering the window. I may still look the part, but at thirty-nine I just don't feel like a party boy in the mornings anymore. Regardless, a party boy looking for underage girls has to appear to be drinking while he thinks — it's part of the image. Guys ordering round after round of Pepsi might as well be admitting they're vice agents.
No matter how exhausted I am, I always make time for my morning ritual. Reading scripture, meditating, and praying immediately after waking centers me and gives me the perspective to face the challenges of days like these. I flip open to the book of Exodus, and reread the passage where Moses confronts Pharaoh and the magicians about the slaves in Egypt, asking them to "let my people go." But today there isn't time for as much study or reflection as I'd like. I've got to move before the heat reaches its peak. I dress quickly in jeans and a loose-fitting cotton shirt and take the back stairs so as to avoid the lobby staff. I'm still not sure whom I can trust.
A motodop driver is straddling his motorbike just outside the front door, waiting for me. "Today Mr. A-Ron I take you to Killing Fields! You understand Cam-BO-DYA, you go Killing Fields very important," he says enthusiastically.
Rith was my driver the night before last. He thinks I'm an American tourist here to have a good time — see the sights, maybe find a nice girl to hang out with for a couple of days. He took me to what he called the "best" party places and then waited outside for me for hours, purely in the hope of getting the onedollar fare home. "I must to eat!" Rith had said with a smile when he saw me nod in his direction. I had just stepped out of my fifth and final karaoke parlor of the night — bleary-eyed from all the whiskey and Cokes — and it was good to see a familiar face. I had paid Rith twice the regular price — so it's only normal he should want to be my escort today at his country's most notorious tourist attraction.
But I wave him off. It's not safe to spend too much time with one driver. I can never be sure if they're working for someone else. At any rate, it's too risky to be a moving target today, so I've promised myself the luxury of a real taxi.
I walk a couple of blocks to the Psar Thmei Market and mix in with the crowd as best I can to make sure I'm not being followed. I spot a white taxi making its way over the potholes, flag it down, and ask the driver to take me to the Killing Fields. Every Cambodian taxi driver knows at least this much English. In a few minutes we've left the polluted city behind and are driving on a paved road in the countryside. The landscape is peaceful and dotted with coconut palms, skinny white cows, and temples. We pass women bent over tending their rice paddies, knee-deep in muddy water. I see men plowing fields with water buffalo and rusty primitive equipment I never would have imagined still existed. It feels like I'm watching a film about life three hundred years ago.
But the tranquil journey has not prepared me for what I see when I walk out onto the fields of Choeung Ek, which used to be n orchard. Inside a Buddhist stupa memorializing the dead, I scan a vast collection of skulls, stacked to overflowing in glass-sided cabinets. My guidebook tells me the stupa holds more than five thousand skulls, although it is estimated that as many as twenty thousand people were executed here alone.
And many of their remains have been left undisturbed. As I walk around the fields, my boots stop short every few seconds to avoid stepping on a fragment of bone.
Between 1975 and 1979, thousands of prisoners being held at Tuol Sleng (a former Phnom Penh high school converted into the Khmer Rouge's infamous Security Prison 21, S-21) were brought here at night and then bludgeoned to death with the butt of a gun, an ax, or any weapon the executioners had handy. Few bullets were sed. Babies and children had their heads smashed against the trees. The murderers blasted revolutionary music over loudspeakers to cover the screams of parents forced to watch children meet their violent and senseless deaths. Adults were often sent to their own raves for "betraying the revolution" — manifested by such crimes as wearing glasses, being a teacher, or having learned a foreign language. Tens of thousands more died from disease, overwork, or famine. Over the course of four years, as many as 2 million people, or one-quarter of the population, were lost as a direct result of Khmer Rouge policies.
How can the survivors handle this knowledge? And accept that some of the perpetrators of these incomprehensible crimes still walk among them, and even hold positions of power?
The answer, I think, is that they can't. Only one generation out, Cambodians suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder at rates much higher than the rest of the world.
I crisscross the lumpy earth and mass graves, longing for a shady spot to escape the mean sun that bleaches the sky of its color. I close my eyes and pray for these souls. When I open my eyes again, a small girl is standing there, blinking up at me.
"You buy T-shirt," she says, listlessly pushing her merchandise into my hands. The shirt isn't big enough to fit over my head. And it's covered with pictures of skulls. Not exactly the kind of souvenir I've been thinking of bringing home. But I can't turn her away.
I buy a pack of chewing gum instead, even though I know that the purchase will likely do little to change her condition. She seems drugged and likely belongs to a gang of street beggars run by so-called "aunts" and "uncles" who force children to sell lottery tickets and T-shirts to tourists in exchange for a sleeping spot on the floor and an occasional bowl of meatless broth. She scurries away with a smile, waving the pair of two-thousand-riel bills I've given her — roughly one dollar. With that she can buy a bowl of noodle soup with meat and vegetables, I think. But I quickly realize my mistake as I watch her run up to a stern-faced older boy, who pockets the bill and barks an order, or more likely a rebuke, at her. My heart breaks for the millionth time.
Back in Phnom Penh, I forget my sadness for a moment as I stroll down Sisowath Quay along the river, looking up at the select buildings that escaped the Khmer Rouge's wrath, and noting their beauty for the first time. After bathing in French colonial architecture for a few minutes, I'm joined by another young girl, not unlike the first — but with wide, intelligent eyes that seem amphetamine free. She's tiny enough to be about six, but I know she is probably closer to eight years old. Generational malnutrition has prevented Cambodian children from growing to their full potential.
Bouncing up and down like a grasshopper as we walk, she slaps her merchandise — a paperback book — against my leg. "You you you! Buy me book!" she insists. I realize that she is not going to let me get away with buying a pack of gum.
Her "book," like most of the foreign language titles sold on the streets and in the bookshops of Southeast Asia, is a pirate edition, painstakingly photocopied and reproduced so that at first glance it appears to be a standard paperback. But it isn't the usual fare: a Graham Greene novel or the latest edition of Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring so eagerly snapped up for three dollars by curious backpackers.
I ask her name, but she ignores me and continues to make her sales pitch: "You buy me book!"
"You're a good saleswoman," I say. "But I feel funny buying your book when I don't even know your name."
"My name Sok Lin," she says.
"Sues'sday, Sok Lin. My name's Aaron," I say, using a Cambodian greeting and reaching down to shake her hand.
Lin flashes me a gap-toothed grin now. "You call me Lin, okay. A-ron what mean?" Cambodian people are always asking what my name means.
"Well, it's a Hebrew name that means 'high,'" I say, pointing at the sky as Lin's bright eyes blink back at me. "And my last name, Cohen, means 'priest.' In the Bible, Aaron was the high priest of Israel, Moses's brother and prophet..."
I stop here, realizing that Lin's vocabulary won't permit us to have this conversation — at least not yet.
I look down at the book in her hand, which is titled Sex Slaves. She gazes up at me, and is apparently oblivious to the impact those two words have just had on my mental state. My left brain insists it's just a coincidence that this child — at the prime age to be targeted by human traffickers — has handed me a book about the very subject I've come to Cambodia to address. But my intuition tells me to be careful. Could this tiny angel also be delivering a message for someone else, someone who's been clocking my every move since my arrival in Phnom Penh?
Seeing my hesitation, Lin switches tactics. "You buy me food," she says, driving home her request with an unmistakable hand-tomouth gesture. Always a sucker for feminine wiles, I tell her I'll take the book and buy her lunch. She's beaming as we cross the street together. No one can smile like Cambodians, and they all seem to engage in the act of smiling unconsciously and utterly without guile. The effect these smiles have had on foreigners is legendary in expatriate circles. Some expats claim the smiles alone are what keep them here.
We sit down at one of several canteens along the quay serving up everything from banana pancakes to pad Thai at prices only Westerners can afford. But Lin seems to have been here before and knows exactly what she wants.
"Hamburger, Coke!" she orders with authority. I sheepishly ask for a plate of stir-fried vegetables and coconut juice, waxing reflective for a moment on Westerners' predilection for healthy Asian food compared to the local tendency to seek out our junk food at any opportunity.
Lin begins to devour her burger, which is three times the size of her tiny hands. At the same time she keeps up a steady stream of small talk:
"How old you, Mr. A-RON?"
"Why you come Cambodia?"
"How much money you get one month?"
"How big you house?"
"You have big car?"
"Why you long hair, like lady boy?"
And, most importantly, "Why you no girlfriend?" Lin stares right through me as she waits for an answer to this one.
I have become used to this form of interrogation from everyone in Southeast Asia. In their culture, pointed personal questions are not considered intrusive, but rather necessary in order to place each person in the grand hierarchy that makes society fathomable.
I do manage to learn that, like many girls in developing countries, Lin does not go to school. "No time, no money, honey!" is her sassy answer. But she deftly manages to avoid responding to my own questions about her life, and so I struggle with the answer to her last one.
Lin's not the first person to ask why I can't seem to keep a steady female presence in my life. The short answer is that most women have a hard time accepting that I spend my time in brothels looking for underage sex slaves. The long answer is more complicated.
Moving from brothel to brothel gathering information, finding lost or enslaved children, and taking care of my ailing father are the only life I've had for eight years now. In many ways I am responsible for an extended family of trafficking victims all over the world. Women who express an interest in me quickly figure out that I am already married to my own father — constantly thinking of him, making sure he is comfortable and has everything he needs. I moved back into my childhood bedroom and became Papa's live-in caretaker three years ago. The fact that Papa's been spared a nursing home sentence is enough for me to forget, most of the time, that I have no real life of my own. This is more than most women can accept.
Sok Lin's question also reminds me that I've got a lot of emotions simmering on the back burner, continually being pushed away to deal with "later" — as soon as I know Papa is comfortable, as soon as I get back from the next trip, as soon as I'm sure the last group of girls are safe. I know that the daily traumas of my existence preclude a "normal" life with wife and family, but that simplicity is something I long for.
For now, little Lin, there's the mission to concentrate on. Then Papa will inevitably be calling, wanting reassurance that I haven't forgotten him.
Midway through our lunch, we are joined by a boy Lin introduces as her younger brother. Eyes permanently focused on his worn plastic sandals, he sits on a tiny stool next to Lin, who offers to share her hamburger with him. I tell him to order what he likes. Another hamburger is on its way when another brother magically appears, followed a few minutes later by Lin's mother with another girl. Everyone politely requests hamburgers except her older brother, Snar, who orders a steak. They consume their food in silence, thank me, and leave as quickly as they came. All except Lin. She hasn't finished talking.
"You know," she says, draining her second Coke. "Here notgood place for you to eat. You should go F-C-C." I don't know what she's talking about.
"FCC where all important foreigner go!" she explains in disbelief. "You go there, talk business."
What kind of business Lin imagines I'm in, I'm still not sure. But she obviously knows what's good for me. She takes my arm and leads me down the quay to a magnificent French colonial building and points to the second floor, which has big arched windows overlooking the river.
"That FCC," she says. "Now I go working. You bye-bye." We wave to each other as I mount the stairs. I'm sure she'll have no trouble finding me again.
After several days of breathing in the raw sewage and other indescribable odors on the capital's dusty sun-baked streets and spending my nights trolling brothels and squalid karaoke parlors, the airy sunlit interior of the Foreign Correspondents' Club is a bit of a shock. It immediately feels to me like Rick's in Casablanca — a mixture of the exotic and familiar, a refuge from the chaos.
I take a seat at the horseshoe-shaped bar and order a beer, hich is a daytime beverage in this impossibly humid climate. An entire wall of the restaurant is completely open to the riverfront. Ceiling fans are turning overhead, and for the first time in many days I feel a relaxing breeze on my sticky neck. Birds are chirping in unseen trees, and I can hear the chatter of pet monkeys own on the pavement, entertaining passersby for their supper. s if to complete the jungle scenario, an elephant saunters by on the street below. He's being led by a young boy who makes his living selling bags of peanuts to well-dressed Cambodians — who giggle as the elephant snuffles unshelled nuts from their children's palms.
Although I've walked up and down this promenade a dozen times, I haven't really looked at the river or thought about its significance. I'm looking down at the confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap, and from up here the fabled river shimmers, seeming placid and almost swimmable. Rustic wooden fishing boats float by, painted in bright colors to ward off evil spirits. It's a bucolic scene.
But dip just below the surface, and there are wretched currents and whirlpools that can drown a man in a matter of seconds. I'm watching the river that enables millions of Cambodians to move their fish, rice, and vegetables down to Vietnam and all the way up through Laos and Burma to China. Looking out at those boats loaded down with coconuts and dragon fruit, I find it difficult to turn off my X-ray vision. The kind of vision that, even from this distance, can see the guns, the heroin, methamphetamines, and human beings packed into the hulls, silently and lethally making their way to their intended destination. There is blood on the rocky banks of this river.
I sip my beer and take in the crowd at the FCC: mostly non-Cambodians — nongovernmental organization (NGO) policy wonks, U.N. employees, and a handful of men and women with the distinctive look of intelligence agents trying not to look like intelligence agents. I chat with a couple of Caucasian guys smoking cigars at the bar. One's a British police officer here to show his Cambodian counterparts how to conduct a human trafficking investigation. His Australian colleague is training Phnom Penh police officers. Both tell me they're being paid via an international grant processed through London's Metropolitan Police Service.
On my other side, a distinguished-looking gentleman from Vienna turns out to be a prosecutor for Cambodia's War Crimes Tribunal, which is finally going after the few remaining Khmer Rouge cadres who oversaw the four terrible years of execution, torture, forced labor, and starvation that deprived nearly 2 million Cambodians of their lives. They're only three decades late.
Although on the surface the atmosphere is relaxed, I can't completely enjoy myself at the FCC. Despite the decade-long presence of the United Nations, this country still seems to exist in a state of lawlessness and immorality. Many of the influential foreigners in this room have come to Cambodia with the best of intentions, but I sense the chaos has corrupted far too many of them.
I start to feel the full weight of the terror campaign over which Pol Pot and the henchmen of Democratic Kampuchea presided. Although a quarter century has passed since their fall from power, the dread they instilled in the populace still hangs in the air. I turn away from the conversation, which has devolved into an analysis of the "lovely ladies" the men know at their favorite bar, Heart of Darkness. They seem oblivious to the connection between their work and their extracurricular lives. Soon they are animatedly rehashing a recent gunfight that left several people dead on the street outside the bar. The banality of violence in Cambodia is such that decent people seem to have lost their capacity for moral outrage. Tonight I just don't have the energy to make small talk with these gentlemen, no matter how amiable they seem.
I take my drink and move to a seat by the open windows, where I can watch the riverfront action. Beggars, their limbs missing or stunted from run-ins with mines, work the crowd along with tiny street urchins selling single cigarettes and flimsy paper lottery tickets. Like me, a few other foreigners are lined up on barstools, drinking with abandon and looking down at the tableau. No one on the street returns our gaze. They are far too busy worrying about where dinner's coming from to concern themselves with the leisure class. Thirty-five percent of Cambodians live below the national poverty line. In other words, more than a third of these people are forced to live on less than forty-five cents a day.
Two well-dressed European women come in and sit nearby. I recognize one of them as Nina, a French aid worker I met yesterday at the Hagar Shelter, where she coordinates vocational training programs. I go over to say hello, and am introduced to Nina's friend, Juliette, a willowy French beauty.
Juliette is an administrator at a Phnom Penh shelter run by Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire (AFESIP), a French NGO known in English as Acting for Women in Distressing Situations.They've just won a grant to care for and rehabilitate victims of sex slavery. Her sentences are the kind that can only be constructed by a humanitarian. I tell her I'm heading up north to research temples — a story I use with everyone not directly related to the mission.
"Naturally," she says dryly. She gets it. But I still have to keep up my cover. She gives me some useful information about the Vietnamese and Chinese Triads and their involvement in human trafficking in the region, and then slides her card across the bar.
"If you have some luck up north," she says, "then it's possible we'll wind up taking care of some of the girls you find at our shelter." Most of the shelters in Phnom Penh, she explains, are full — and even if they're not, Vietnamese girls are often turned away from Cambodian shelters. Despite the fact that they are usually brought into the country against their will, they are still considered illegal aliens and therefore treated as criminals once they are "liberated" from bondage.
Her face twists in emotional anguish as she describes how these girls are sometimes deported to Vietnam, only to get sold back into the system.
"Be careful," she says with a motherly look. She doesn't have to say any more.
We finish the last of our drinks and simultaneously let out audible sighs, which lighten the mood at last. I give Juliette a hug and my card, and head out into the street where the sun is setting behind the National Museum.
I wander the streets for a while and end up in an Internet café, numbly checking emails from friends back in California. While they love and support me, most of them live in a world vastly different from the one I now inhabit. My old friend Darrel Adams tells me about a few high-profile parties I've been missing, and it sounds like he's still ruling a stretch of turf from his native Huntington Beach all the way up to West Hollywood. The old Wedge crew guys — Phil, Tom, and Mel — describe the unseasonably big waves they've been surfing this week, and tell me to hurry back to get in on the action. At first, their funny, lighthearted emails cheer me up a bit. But well-intentioned questions like "What's going on over there?" only increase my feelings of alienation. I can't explain. So I send back reassuring notes making light of my work and insisting, "I'm fine." It takes a lot out of me.
I step back out onto the quay and watch a small city of fishing boats bobbing on the water, biding my time until it's early morning in Orange County. Then I go back inside to call Papa from a computer cubicle in the back. His voice, once fierce and determined, now sounds like a child's. I've woken him up, and he's upset with me.
Although my sister Ruthie (an expert at keeping Papa laughing and optimistic) is spending a few days with him now, he is still devastated by my absence.
"Why did you leave me again?" he says weakly. "You said you would never leave me, but I need you now, and you're not here!" His childlike manner is heartbreaking, and I lean my head down on the desk to hide my emotion from the other customers. I try to reassure him. "I love you, Papa, and I promise I'll see you soon. Don't forget about me."
It's almost time to head north.
I sleep restlessly, and am awakened by the sound of motorcycle traffic on Monivong Boulevard. Children are yelling and playing badminton on the side street, and adults in exercise gear are walking briskly in pairs, getting their daily gossip fix. It's 5:30 — still dark — and it feels like I'm the last one out of bed.
I spend a couple of hours reading and meditating. I pray that Papa will be comfortable and emotionally stable so that I can finish my work without having to race back to the hospital. If I'm gone for longer than a week now, Papa will often refuse to eat or take his medication — without me, he starts giving up, and so does his body. I've already had to rush home from trips to Sudan and Central America after Papa was suddenly hospitalized. I don't want the same thing to happen again.
Once I've gone through my prayer list, I pick up the worn paperback copy of the Tao I've been meditating on lately and lose myself for another hour in the wisdom of ancient China. But I'm quickly distracted by my own anxieties.
Before a journey like this, I have to come to grips with fear and mortal terror. The cliché is true to a degree...When death is near, your life's big and small moments flash before you until everything comes to a closure of sorts. It is finished.
My big suitcase is waiting for me in the Bangkok hotel I plan to pass through on my way out of here, so all I have to do is pack a small tactical backpack. By force of habit, I can perform this task in a couple of minutes. I'll be wearing the clothes on my back for the next few days. Along with socks and underwear, I take a low-light digital camera, bulletproof vest and plates, two thousand dollars in cash, flashlight, painkillers, and a GPS unit.
This is the first moment I've had to reflect on what I'm about to do. My first few days in Cambodia have been busy — shaking hands with diplomats at the U.S. Embassy, visiting victim shelters, and meeting bigwigs in the local police.
I've had difficulty with the latter task, since it is obvious that some of the men I've been sitting down with are no foes of human trafficking. In fact, the local NGOs have evidence that many of the authorities here are directly involved in the trade — in a country where there are still few, if any, enforceable human rights laws. Corruption is built into a system where salaries are low and a family man is forced to find alternate methods to pad his income.
One of my main objectives is to learn what happens to Vietnamese girls brought into Cambodia. I have been told that although many of these girls are working in the capital city, even more can be found enslaved in Siem Reap. Most tourists pass through Cambodia's second-largest city when visiting the Angkor Wat temple complex. The increase in the number of tourists making temple pilgrimages has injected much-needed cash into Siem Reap's economy but has been accompanied by a spike in sex tourism — with thousands of underage and unwilling children from Vietnam or rural Cambodian settlements as its victims.
Some are sold to traffickers by destitute parents, while others are kidnapped or tricked into the trade. Once these children fall into the black hole of the traffickers and criminal gangs who control them, it is extremely difficult to help them find their way out. I dream of retrieving some of these young women and getting their testimony on tape — evidence that might motivate governments and regular citizens to do more to combat the trade.
My room at the Phnom Penh Hotel is paid up for the next several days, so I leave the rest of my things scattered around the dresser and desk. If anyone comes looking, it will appear as though I've just gone out for a few hours. Plenty of foreign sex tourists don't have time to sleep in their hotel rooms, anyway.
Instead of calling a taxi from the hotel phone, I flag one down at the market again and ask the driver to take me to the airport. Taking out the paper napkin Nam gave me, I make my second call to Commander Heng and let him know I'm on the move. Law officers by day, Heng and his colleagues command two hundred dollars each for a night of special ops work. Moonlighting of this kind is profitable, but extremely risky. I've asked for four off-duty policemen and soldiers to help me take on the armed guards the Triads pay to protect their brothels and valuable human merchandise inside.
Heng gives me the names of the other men who will join us on the raid.
"We meet you hotel Siem Reap," he says. "Eee-leven clock."
Three hours later, I'm sitting in the lobby of my new hotel, pressing a cold welcome washcloth to my forehead when a slight man with smooth skin glides silently toward me and shakes my hand. His fingers are perfectly manicured. At first Heng seems so delicate and humble, it's hard to imagine him commanding a brigade, not to mention heading up a slave retrieval. But as he warms up, his English gets better, and louder. "You pay now," he ays matter-of-factly after asking about my flight and the quality of the air hostesses.
I tell him I can pay four hundred dollars up front and the rest as soon as the girls are turned over to the authorities, and he nods in agreement. I check in, and then get into Heng's truck for a ride to another hotel where he has preregistered my name. I go up to the room, ruffle the sheets, and leave behind a couple of inexpensive personal items to make the place look lived-in. We repeat the process at two more hotels, and Heng explains with a slight smile that anyone following me would have to assign four guys to watch all these rooms — which would put somewhat of a strain on their manpower.
Our last stop is for lunch at the Royal Angkor Resort, a five-star hotel with a sparkling lobby opening onto a gigantic swimming pool. Taking in the splendor while sipping tropical fruit juice, my mind drifts to the young girls I can imagine being kept barely a kilometer away in the most inhumane conditions. The well-heeled foreign tour groups rolling their matching luggage through this lobby will spend three or four days visiting temples, possibly catching a traditional dance performance or cruising Tonle Sap Lake at sunrise. They'll leave with fond memories of the hotel restaurant's spicy fish amok, the plushness of its white terrycloth bathrobes, and the genuine smiles of its helpful staff.
These are not the kind of tourists that frequent the 555 or the Tokyo, two of the city's most infamous brothels. They are too polite to ask questions about uncomfortable subjects, and the staff at Royal Angkor has been trained to keep away the kind of taxi drivers that might offer to show unsuspecting visitors such places.
Heng's men are waiting for us in the café. Despite their efforts to blend in by wearing civilian clothes, their rigid posture and serious demeanor give them away. I shake hands with each one, searching for something to trust in each pair of eyes. I stop just short of asking, "Can I put my life in your hands?" But each man squeezes my forearm with both hands and returns my serious gaze. This I take to mean that he in turn is entrusting me with his own life.
After resting and showering at one of my four hotel rooms, at dusk I hit the streets alone, posing as a sex tourist and starting the process I've come to call "night frighting." Finding the brothels in Siem Reap turns out to be as easy as finding a motodop (motorcycle taxi). The first driver I ask understands very well when I shake my head at the first few brothels he shows me. "Girls not pretty. Too old," I say. "Where are the pretty Vietnamese girls?"
Just as in any other city where underground prostitution is rampant, taxi drivers are offered incentives for connecting sex tourists with their prey. For every client delivered to a brothel's front door, Siem Reap motodop and taxi drivers usually earn a voucher good for a tank of gas.
This driver nods and takes me out of the central city, down a long dirt road and into a shantytown. Here the houses are even more rudimentary than the city's concrete apartment blocks — many are simply a few rotten boards covered with corrugated iron or sheet metal, and I can see that most have an earthen floor. Nearly every home has a telltale blue light glowing from the main room. Although few have electricity, I've been told that people hook their TVs up to old car batteries. There are no streetlights. Only the blue glow and the occasional human form trudging forward in the dim light. Homeless.
We pull up in front of a dilapidated two-story house, and the driver nods in the direction of an armed guard leaning on the door frame. There is no sign. The guard stares at me coolly and steps back to let me pass. His eyes are cold, empty of emotion.
I walk into a small living room, its only furniture a long table serving as a bar and two card tables with plastic chairs. One older man — a Westerner — is slumped behind one of the tables, lost in his own thoughts and sipping an Angkor beer. He looks like the kind of sad-sack, aging backpacker one often sees in Asian capitals. The only light comes from an overhead fluorescent strip that gives the room a purplish tone.
I am met by a hideous sight when I walk up to the "bar" — a dead vulture hanging from the ceiling next to a woman I take to be the mamasan, or slave master. Bald patches and long, greasy hair make her look sixty, although she is probably somewhere in her late forties. Her haggard appearance and pasty skin tell me she's a heroin addict, but there's a glimmer of fire in her yellowed eyes. She must have been beautiful once, I think — a lifetime ago. Whatever beauty she once possessed has been twisted into a mask of resentment and bitterness.
"You like girl?" she says, tapping on the bar with her claws. Up close I can see that the vulture has been ritually sacrificed. There are talismanic trinkets in its dried claws. This mamasan probably uses witchcraft and superstition to control the young women kept here.
"Yeah," I say, surprised at how high my voice sounds. "Not so many, though. Just the pretty ones." I break into a sheepish smile, as if to say, "You know how it is," and absentmindedly finger the Star of David amulet around my neck. It makes me think of home, and the friends who are praying for my safety.
The mamasan nods and disappears behind a flimsy curtain into the rest of the house.
I've met dozens of madams like this one, and most of them have gone through the same hell they put their captives through. Once they get this far, they're dead inside — no empathy or compassion remains. Only a drugged-out empty shell.
When she pokes her head through the curtain again, I say, "First, I want to invite you to have a drink with me."
"Me have drink with you?" she says quizzically, almost blushing.
"Yeah," I say, flashing her my most charming smile and stepping close enough to feel her alcoholic breath on my neck.
"Okay," she says, disarmed, and pours us two tiny shots of Black Label. She doesn't wait for me — just tosses hers back with her eyes open and slams the glass down on the bar. As I drain mine, I hear the sound of engines revving outside. A group of young men with tattoos and punked-out hair burst right through the door on their motorcycles, still gunning their engines. Vietnamese motorcycle mafia. They park their bikes haphazardly around the front room, sniggering meanly at an inside joke. Several push past me, swarming the bar area and grabbing beers by the handful, like a victorious football team in a beer commercial. A few of them disappear into the back room. Probably going to get their rigs — supplies for shooting up heroin. The look in their eyes is all too familiar.
One of the beer drinkers notices me and comes over to try out his English.
"Whassaname?" he asks me, screeching with laughter as though it's the funniest thing anyone's ever said. Out of the corner of my eye I watch the Western man in the corner slink out the door. He probably senses potential trouble.
The gangster's wiry form is teeming with unnatural energy; his eyes are wild. I take in his dragon tattoos, chains, and long fingernails. I tell him my name, but he's decided on a better one.
"Why Rambo come Cambodia?" he asks, chugging his beer in long gulps before burping loudly.
"I love Cambodia," I say. "It's my first time here, and the girls are very beautiful."
He laughs bitterly, spitting droplets of beer on my shirt. "Noooooooo," he says, staggering. "Cambodia lady no bi-you-tiful." He squints and waves his hand in the air. "Vietnam lady very very bi-you-ti-ful. Here..." He shakes his hands around dismissively to indicate his distaste.
I wonder what he means, suggesting it's no good here. He and his pals seem to be having the time of their lives. We finish our beers together and talk about music. He's never heard of Jane's Addiction, but tells me he likes Britney Spears — very bi-you-ti-ful. I nod and smile and make small talk to make him feel comfortable. No matter how repulsed I am, I can't afford to arouse his suspicion.
The mamasan matter-of-factly places a bowl on the bar — full of condoms and blue Viagra pills. A couple of the gang members step up and help themselves. When it's my turn to select a girl, I follow the mamasan through the curtain and down a hallway to the back of the brothel. We enter a dark waiting room where a dozen little girls with numbers on their shirts are standing behind a glass wall. I'm sure all of them are less than sixteen — a few look half that age.
In the four years I have been doing research into sex slavery, I have never seen so many young girls in one place. Not to mention all in one room, sacrificing their bodies to men twice or three times their age. And here they are, in my first brothel of the night, on my first night in Siem Reap, without even having to put much effort into the search. I feel like I've descended into a netherworld.
I tell the mamasan I'd like to meet the group of three young girls standing together, and she brings them out to me, leaving us alone in the corner. I speak to the smallest one first, bending in half to reach her — she's only about four feet tall. I hope she can speak nglish. "How old are you?" I ask.
"Eighteen," she responds in a tiny voice, looking at the ground.
"And who's this?" I ask, indicating the girl next to her, who is slightly taller.
"Sister mine," she says. Her accent and facial features indicate she's Vietnamese, not Cambodian.
I touch the shoulder of the tallest of the three, who comes up to my abdomen. "And is this your sister, too?"
The youngest one nods.
I ask the middle girl, "And how old are you?"
"Eighteen," she responds.
"So you're all sisters, and you're all the same age — eighteen?"
The youngest girl nods.
I tell the mamasan I'll choose her, and we go upstairs. There's no door separating our partition from the others — just a bunch of sheets hanging from the ceiling and bamboo mats on the floor. The unventilated room smells of sweat, sex, and the green eucalyptus oil often used to treat minor ailments here.
Once we're alone, I take my cell phone from my pocket. The little girl doesn't look surprised. Men may have videotaped her before, for other purposes. She is probably about nine years old.
"You're a beautiful girl," I say.
She smiles her innocent smile and looks at the floor again.
"What's your name?" I ask.
"Chau," she says, pronouncing it "Trau." A Vietnamese name indeed.
"Can I take your picture?"
She nods, and I start asking questions about how she got here and where her parents are. Does she have a debt? Does she know how much it is? What does she want to do when she gets older?
I speak quietly to avoid arousing suspicion. But I'm not too worried about the mafia guys. From what I can hear coming from behind the other partitions, they are temporarily distracted. And I've already won over the mamasan.
If I can get a child to express her dreams, then I know the traffickers have not yet managed to completely break her spirit. Chau's life has been full of savagery, but hope is still locked in her soul, and she believes that someday she will have a real life outside these walls. It kills me that I can't help little Chau make that life start right this minute. But I have to be patient. No retrieval without evidence.
Luckily, in a few minutes I have all the proof I need for the authorities to start a trafficking investigation. I get her on tape explaining what she will do for money — the solicitation. To get a trafficking conviction, prosecutors also have to prove the presence of coercion or intimidation. Chau's age alone makes it pretty clear that she has not come to the brothel of her own accord.
Chau goes on to tell me she hopes to leave here someday, as soon as her debt is paid off. "Má need money," she explains, using the South Vietnamese word for mother. Chau says she was brought to iem Reap from Vietnam by boat, with many other girls. She was given pills to make her sleep, and she doesn't remember much else.
It's a classic case.
When we've finished the interview, I send the photos and audio I've recorded to my second cell phone, which I've stashed in the closet in one of my hotel rooms, ready to receive the download.
I remove the memory chip and replace it with a blank one, concealing the used one in a hidden pocket.
"I have girlfriend," I tell Chau, reverting to my own form of pidgin English. "I lonely. Maybe we just sit and talk, okay? Just massage." I put my phone in my pocket and sit next to her on the mat.
Chau looks surprised and relieved. She stands up to reach my shoulders, and starts rubbing them. I close my eyes and memorize the layout of the place.
After twenty minutes, I give Chau a big tip and tell her to share it with her sisters. Downstairs again, I have a Heineken, tip the mamasan and security guard, and walk out with a nod. They nod back. In their minds, I'm a satisfied customer who may become a regular. They have no idea I'll only be back for the raid.
I repeat the same drill in four more sex bars — each worse than he last — and get back to one of my rooms at daybreak. I want to rinse the smell of these places off my body, but first I set up my video camera in one corner. The video journal is perhaps the hardest part of the night — reliving the horror and putting it in words. What I've just seen and heard is too appalling to tell another human being — but it's my responsibility, and the camera takes it all in. I talk until I finally feel sleep coming on. But my dreams are haunted by the faces of the three Vietnamese sisters, condemned so young to a life in hell. Their lives are ruined.
On my subsequent nights in Siem Reap I meet many more children like Chau and her sisters. When I get back to the hotel I take a sleeping pill, the only way to free myself from the real-life nightmares I keep living. Looking out at a sky filled with stars, I wonder how many slave girls are gazing out at the same sky through their barred windows. Thousands more I will never know, servicing man after man, night after night.
Copyright © 2009 by Aaron Cohen
Posted September 1, 2009
"Slave Hunter" is a smart look at the ugly truth of the human flesh trade, told from the front lines of brothels and war zones around the world by human rights activist and author, Aaron Cohen. In this raw memoir, he shares a personal account of his struggle to understand himself and the darkest parts of humanity. Here, we're exposed to the lies and corruption of mafia-driven cultures who view women and young children as commodities to be exploited and traded at whim on the black market. We're shown the positions of government officials, human rights lawyers, and NGOs seeking to help in the aftercare of rescued slaves-positions that often clash by their well-meaning yet different perspectives and that, at times, produce more questions than answers. And, with tenderness, we're exposed to the heart-breaking stories of the young women, children and families who find themselves subjected to the horrors of slave employment and prostitution, and the struggles they continue to face even after they're "free."
But there's more to this book than the action-packed stories of covert operations and rescue missions, for Aaron shares a very personal account of his own human suffering, a kind of enslavement that led him from the darkest recesses of his mind along a winding path to his own liberation, where he gained strength and wisdom that he leverages everyday in this journey to help others. He also gives some practical ideas for how we can be part of the solution.
What I liked most about "Slave Hunter" is its micro and macro perspectives, as Aaron and co-author, Christine Buckley, brilliantly weave together the threads of life, passion, purpose, conviction, intellectual and spiritual understanding to create a rich tapestry of cause and effect. As I turned the pages, I could see that every experience of Aaron's life, even the seemingly unrelated choices and paths that he took (as an artist, musician, photographer, promoter, activist, drug addict, surfer and biblical scholar, to name a few), prepared him for the work he does today as a "Slave Hunter."
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