Ina a dilapidated hospital ward in Phnom Penh, Somaly Mam, a slight woman with warm brown eyes, bends over a child’s bed. In it lies a five-year-old girl covered in bandages. She is clutching a teddy bear and staring silently at a stained and peeling ceiling. Her name is Sreytouch*.
When she sees Somaly, her arms tighten around the bear, as if she’s afraid it will be taken from her. Two days ago police had rescued the child from a brothel: her mother had sold Sreytouch to the owner.
Somaly sees her expressionless stare and knows what she must do. She scoops up the limp, unresponsive child and holds her close.
Blinking back tears she rocks Sreytouch as though she were a newborn infant, and whispers: “I love you, Sreytouch,” over and over again. She knows – with certainty – this is what the child truly aches for. She knows because she was once was a silent, brutalised child herself.
Somaly never knew her parents. They vanished when she was just four or five, in the mid-1970s, when the tyrant Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge cadres terrorised all of Cambodia, driving thousands of city dwellers into the countryside to till fields, and slaughtering thousands upon thousands of innocents.
Somaly was left to grow up as an orphan in the tiny village of Bou Sra in the remote forests of Mondulkiri province in eastern Cambodia. Villagers lived in bamboo and straw huts, but Somaly, then called Non (“Little One”), usually slept in a hammock in the forest, alone. She foraged for what food she could find and depended on the kindness of villagers for her survival.
One day, a village elder called Somaly into his bamboo hut and introduced her to a visitor. “He knew your father, Little One,” the elder told her. “He will take you to find his family.”
Somaly looked up at the tall man and smiled. For the first time in her life, someone was going to take care of her.
“Call him ‘Grandfather’,” the elder told her.
The two walked for days through the forest until they came to a road where people were clambering aboard a logging truck. Somaly was terrified; she had never seen anything so big and menacing. She tried to run but “Grandfather” grabbed her, knocked her to the ground and dragged her onto the truck with him. She pressed her hand to her bleeding face and shivered. It was the first time she had ever been hit.
“Grandfather” took her to his village near the Vietnam border where he made her clean his hut, wash his clothes and cook for him. He was often drunk and would beat her with a bamboo stick. The villagers mocked her darker skin. “The darker you are, the dumber you are,” they told her.
Eventually, to pay his debts, Grandfather sold Somaly to a brothel owner in Phnom Penh. She was 16. She was told, “Do what the customers tell you, or they will hit you.”
When her first client ordered her to take off her clothes, Somaly refused. The brothel owners decided she needed “breaking in”, and put her in the “punishment room”, a windowless cellar. They tied her to a chair, then dumped a container of snakes on her. The door slammed shut and she screamed in the dark as snakes slithered over her. A day later when they finally pulled her out, she had lost all will to resist.
As the years passed, Somaly was used by thousands of men. Sometimes a client would take Somaly to a room where there would be as many as 20 men waiting. Like the other girls she was forced to wear thick white make-up to make her dark skin more attractive to the customers and to hide her bruises.
Whenever the girls resisted they were taken to the punishment room or were beaten and shocked with cables attached to a car battery. Escape was impossible; there was nowhere safe for an escapee to flee to and brothel owners and pimps ruthlessly tracked them down.
One day, Somaly and a dozen other teenage girls were asleep on woven grass mats when Li, the brothel owner’s husband, burst into the room shouting, “Where is she?”
He was waving a pistol in his right hand and smelled of rice wine. One of the new girls at the brothel, a tall, slim 15-year-old named Sreyoun*, had recently been caught trying to escape.
As Somaly watched, paralysed with horror, the man grabbed Sreyoun, tied her arms behind her back and pressed the gun’s muzzle to her head. She watched Li’s knuckles whiten as his finger tightened around the trigger. There was a deafening explosion and Sreyoun fell to the floor, lifeless. Li shot her two more times.
Somaly watched Li and his guards stuff Sreyoun’s body into a rice sack. Watching Li stagger out of the room, Somaly vowed to herself, One day I will come back here and kill you.
The shooting had triggered long-suppressed feelings in Somaly. For the first time in years, she felt some emotion: a confused mixture of anger and hate for Li, and compassion for her companions.
As she got older, she was freer to leave the brothel. She met foreigners, including one who brought her to his home and paid for her to learn French. Other foreigners hired her from the brothel, including Pierre Legros, a French aid worker who spoke Khmer. He cared about her as a person.
After several meetings, her life story spilled out and she told Pierre how much she wanted to stop being a prostitute. She told him about the rapes, the beatings and the hundreds of other girls she had seen in the brothels.
Tears came to her eyes when she described the night Sreyoun was killed. “I don’t want that to happen to other girls,” she said as she cried openly. “Someone has to speak up for them.” Her own words surprised her.
Now 21, and considered less valuable to the brothel owners, Somaly could move in with Pierre. The pair eventually opened a restaurant in Phnom Penh. When it failed, Pierre decided it was time to return home to France; to obtain a visa for Somaly the two got married in 1993.
Pierre and Somaly moved to France and stayed for a year-and-a-half. For months Pierre had been urging her to make her own decisions and stand up for herself.
At first she protested, “You’re crazy, I’m just a woman,” but eventually she did. She found work as a chambermaid in Nice and gained new-found self-respect.
When they returned to Cambodia for Pierre’s job with a health organisation, Somaly was a far different person from the timid, backward “little savage” as many had called her. She was now the wife of a barang, or foreigner, and she spoke fluent French.
Somaly still felt driven to help the girls she had left behind. How could she, as one person, help? She began by approaching a local medical charity, which took condoms and information about AIDS to prostitutes, and offered her help. She found herself terrified each time she walked into a brothel. Often it made her so nauseous she had to run out and vomit.
On one visit she met a girl who reminded her vividly of herself as a child. She had the same dark skin; the same bruises from being beaten. “Don’t just give me a condom,” the girl pleaded. “If you want to help me, take me out of here.”
Somaly knew what she must do. Emboldened by anger, and ignoring watching pimps, she walked out with the girl and took her home.
In time, Somaly realised that other girls, too, might dare to leave if they did not then have to wander the streets, penniless, to be hunted down by vengeful pimps and tortured, even killed, as a warning to others.
With the promise of safe refuge, more girls began to sneak out with Somaly to stay with her and Pierre. Although he supported her, Pierre’s salary couldn’t stretch very far. Soon, by raising money from friends and aid organisations, she even helped some flee to villages far away from their brothel keepers, or train as seamstresses so they could live independent lives.
|Charmaine McDonald on 18 November 2012 ,13:28 |
May God have mercy on these victims and I pray that this will end by His Mighty Power.
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