Mira’s Cambodia Journal – Day Three: The Front Lines

By Mira Sorvino, Special to CNN

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN) – This morning Don Brewster takes us to the Agape Restoration Center, a secure facility in Phnom Penh for the protection and development of the most-at-risk girls. We are brought through gates into a lush courtyard with pools and a gaggle of smiling young girls, awaiting our arrival.

I’m experiencing déjà vu ; the very first time I met young survivors of sex trafficking was when I pulled into a secret shelter deep in the heart of Mexico City, and hoped desperately that the smallest kids I saw were the sisters or daughters of victims. This time I know better: At least three girls I met today were just six years old and had been rescued from sex trafficking.

In the courtyard, we interviewed another young virgin sale victim.  Kieu was probably somewhere between 13 and 14 (they have few birth records).  She was very lovely with the shy expression of a young doe. She wore an intricate braid plaited in her hair, and a pretty green dress.  She told of how she had been sold by her mother to a Khmer man of “maybe more than 50” who had three children of his own. The price set in advance for her virginity: $1,500, though she was ultimately only given $1,000, of which she had to give $400 to the woman who brought her to the man. Her mother used the money to pay down a debt and for food for the fish they raise under their floating house-their primary income source.

Beforehand, Kieu said, “I did not know what the job was and whether it was good for me.  I had no idea what to expect.  But now I know the job was not good for me.”  After she lost her virginity to the man, she felt “very heartbroken.” Her mother supposedly felt bad too, but still sent her to work in a brothel.  Kieu said she did not want to go, but had to.  She said, “They held me like I was in prison.”

I asked “When you were at the brothel, were there ever any policemen who came in that knew about the brothel or were working somehow with the brothel owner?”

“There were, so the young girls in the brothel were not allowed to come out.  They only allowed the older girls to be seen,” she said. “They young girls had to stay inside the brothel, they were not allowed to go downstairs.”

“So how did that make you feel, that the police were helping them?” I asked.

“I feel very bad,” she said. She told me that on her first day there, the brothel owners yelled at her and her friend for trying to go downstairs, “because if the police see us, the owners will get in trouble.”  She wanted to ask them for help but then was afraid that they might not help her.  I then asked if the police saw them they would “catch you but not help you, is that right?” She responded yes.

She was contemplating begging them to help her escape but the police were the ones who would actually fetch the girls who were trying to run away and put them back in. Not only were the police in tacit collusion, tipping the traffickers off to help them evade justice, but actively enforcing the girls’ continued enslavement. Unbelievable. That brought me back to what we heard the first day, that corruption is endemic and that no brothel or trafficking operation can conduct business without the support of the police or military officers.  It is estimated that the child sex trade in Cambodia makes $500 million annually; this means a lot of high-level investment in this lucrative business.

In the brothel, she was told to dress provocatively: “They told me when the client is there, I have to wear short shorts and a skimpy top, but I didn’t want to wear them and then I got blamed.” Her clients were Thai and Khmer men.  They knew she was very young.

I never want to press for details on these rape cases, but I did have one question that stymies me that I thought she could handle: “Can men really enjoy what they are doing when they know they are raping these young girls, that they are not there willingly?”

“When they sleep with me, they feel very happy,” she said. “But for me, I feel very bad.”

I had asked all three girls that we interviewed what they would want to tell the Prime Minister. Kieu’s answer was: “I would like to help the younger generation not to be sold, like me.  I don’t want them to be like me.”  I hope the Prime Minister hears their answers because I don’t know a heart that couldn’t be melted by hearing their sweet, innocent voices plead for the government to protect and save these girls and to stop this practice.

Before leaving the center, we watched as Kieu packed her bags and moved out. Today she moved into the same new residence in Svay Pak that opened the night before!  She really missed her friends and wanted to move home to Svay Pak, but Don had to first make sure her mother was not going to try to re-traffick her.

“They (the people at AIM) help me, I feel very happy… I never have to go there (to the brothel) again.  I live in a good place and I have good food to eat and have a nice, happy place to sleep,” she said. “There I will get a job…  I feel very happy.”

After this visit to the very on-the-ground level rehab and protection center, it was off to a high level meeting with General Pol Pie They, the man in charge of the national police anti-trafficking unit. We got to the police station early, (which with its crème-colored halls and decorated uniformed staff seemed very far away from the world the girls had come from and landed in) but the General immediately came out to greet us.

Initially, his party line was that they had made many improvements; he cited the fact that the brothels that sell young girls no longer had open storefronts visible everywhere in the streets.  To my mind this was not necessarily an improvement for the girls; more of a clandestine atmosphere made them harder to find, harder to rescue.

Next: Day Four – Holding Feet to the Fire

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