Written for Tehelka Magazine, New Delhi.
The two of us were posing as American
sex tourists in the middle of the Cambodian jungle, in a brothel called
"Hollywood". Sitting next to us—eyeing the prostitutes and sipping
beer provided by the pimps—were Chinese, Japanese and European
businessmen, mostly middle aged, in slacks and crisp-collared
short-sleeve shirts. But there were also teenage guys: Aussie, Israeli
and Scandinavian student-backpackers. What were they doing in
this fuliginous sideshow? Was "Hollywood" just an add-on novelty to
their daytime excursions to the nearby ruins of Angkor Wat? Surely, at
their age and with their young good looks, hooking up with young women
was monetarily free and joyfully spontaneous.
The males patronizing "Hollywood" were not looking for joy or spontaneity.
Nor were they looking for women.
These guys, young and old, were shopping for girls—very young girls...
Across the darkened room, the prey was arranged in a glassed-in box. They were perched on three-tiered benches. No bunching together. They had been coached to keep themselves distributed to their best visual advantage. Occasionally, one would slide across the bench, or dart two rows up for no apparent reason. They donned identical uniforms: hot pink, short-sleeved, easily removable mini-dresses. The backdrop of their cage was draped, from ceiling to floor, in turquoise swags of satin. A fan rustled the material. The billowing and blue-green sheen created a nautical effect—a not-quite-healthy aquarium. Some of the girls, particularly the youngest—stared back at us through the glass partition. Others ignored us altogether, crossing their legs, wiggling their bare feet impatiently. Plastic broaches were pinned to their bodices—numbers easily read from our side of the room. A client decided on his "date". He finished off his beer and uttered a number that, in turn, was barked out by the pimp. The corresponding girl jumped up, pink-streaked to the side, stopped at the congregation of flip-flops blocking the exit, toed into two, emerged on this side of the fish tank with the easy flash of a child's smile, took the hand of her date and led him down a dim corridor.
"Thirty dollars for yum-yum," the pimp told me. (Oral sex). "Forty dollars for boom-boom." (Vaginal or anal intercourse). And for an extra ten bucks, I could have unprotected sex. No one inquired if I was HIV positive and, in any case, the girl would have been excluded from negotiations. Slaves don't negotiate. In the age of AIDS, pimping children is not only a crime against humanity, but a death sentence as well.
There are child sex slaves very near where you live. It goes on in every nation on this planet. Every night, little girls (and little boys) lead anonymous men down darkened hallways. The situation is now pandemic. There are estimated to be 30,000,000 slaves worldwide—more slaves today than at any other time in human history. Forced prostitution makes up between 50 and 60% of that group, many of them as young as seven and eight years old. As a money-making enterprise, the slavery business has never been more lucrative. It is a multi-billion dollar industry. In fact, it is the number two illegal enterprise in the world, nestled between drugs (number one) and arms (number three). According to US Ex-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, within ten years, trafficking and human slavery will be the biggest illegal business in the world, overtaking drugs.
Where do all these young slaves come from? Many are abducted and trafficked to other countries. Nepali girls being kidnapped then trafficked to Indian brothels and the Middle East has been well documented for decades. Some young girls are sold to agents by their own relatives. Still others are lured by false promises of marriages or legitimate jobs in urban areas. Efforts to educate young girls about the various ruses before they fall victim, has met with some success, but the lures are ever changing, particularly with the arrival of the Internet. Today, girls are entrapped, and then sold via online communities where, by posting a picture and profile of themselves, they can get free email. Even E-Bay has been surreptitiously used to sell child prostitutes. In an Internet cafÃ© in Cambodia I visited, a pop-up window automatically appeared on my screen as I attempted to sign on. The message purported to originate from the US Foreign Immigration Services. It read:
LIVE AND WORK IN AMERICA
DON'T MISS YOUR CHANCE
LIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM
GREEN CARD LOTTERY PROGRAM
I looked around the Internet cafÃ© to see who else would be viewing this on their monitors. Except for me, there wasn't a person older than sixteen—all typing away in search of a better life. Computers: The preferred 21st century site for predatory ambush, especially for victimizing the desperate youth of third world countries.
My buddy, Aaron Cohen, knows the predatory world of sex slaves just about as well as anyone. That was why I was with him in Cambodia: to report about his work. He is a contracted agent for the US State Department, has helped to free slaves in over forty countries, had a fatwa put out on him by Osama Bin Laden's military commander (Ayman-al-Zawahiri) for his undercover work in Sudan—Aaron even took a bullet to the chest last August in a Haitian brothel while trying to free a young girl. He is six-and-a-half feet of fearlessness with broad shoulders, glittery eyes and a Medusa-mop of curly black hair—not easy to forget, once seen. (The girls giggle and whisper to each other when he enters the brothels.)
After three nights of visiting many massage parlors, Aaron and I were becoming a familiar sight to the local underground. It became apparent that some of the brothels were Cambodian owned but that Vietnamese gangs controlled many others. Whatever the exact ratio, ample evidence had been accumulated to warrant calling in Special Ops to raid various brothels that specialized in the very, very young. One particularly egregious establishment called "Massage 333", right on the main tourist street of Siem Reap, showcased girls whose breasts were still unformed. "How old are you?" I asked one little girl who called herself Kimi. "Eighteen," she answered. (My guess was that Kimi was eight, although it was impossible to prove. The first thing that happens when a girl is sold into slavery is that her identification papers are taken away from her.)
The Special Ops raid was conducted later that night. Twenty-eight underage girls, including Kimi, from three brothels were whisked away in vans that took them to safe houses—locations to remain unidentified. Aaron led the raids laden with ordinance. I wasn't cleared for the operation. We agreed to meet at our hotel dining room the next day at 7:00 am.
The following morning, before I could take the first sip of coffee, Aaron asked me how long it would take me to "grab my stuff". I lowered my cup. I had been out for a dawn photography shoot and all of my heavy equipment was still in the boot of my driver's car. The rest of my gear was in the hotel room. "Two minutes, max," I answered. "And I have a driver already waiting. Why? What went down?"
Aaron had just received a call saying that Vietnamese thugs were trawling the Siem Reap airport looking for "the two American guys". It seems that at least one of the brothels had been Vietnamese-owned—perhaps even controlled by the present Vietnamese regime. Each girl represented an annual earning potential of $100,000. Aaron and I had basically taken away a three million dollar business from the gang. They were not happy. No doubt there were an ample supply of young armed punks eager to earn their stripes within the hierarchy of the Vietnamese mafia by taking out a couple of double-crossing Yankees.
I checked out at the front desk, met Aaron at the side of the hotel, and told my driver that there had been a change of plans. He sped off with his American cargo slumped down in the back seat. His order was to head for the capital of Phnom Penh. He didn't ask questions. The wad of money I had placed in his palm cured curiosity.
Twelve evasive hours later, including several switches of drivers, we checked into a Phnom Penh hotel that proved secure. "Twenty-eight girls freed!" We congratulated ourselves. Also, the data accumulated would be integrated into an evidentiary package that would later be incorporated into the annual TIP (Traffic in Persons) Report published by the US State Department. That night over a glass of whisky, we toasted to the girls' escape.
But the truth is that there are thousands upon thousands of unwitting girls waiting to take those twenty-eight girls' places. No town is immune and no plan is in place to stop the growing abomination.
I live in Los Angeles. I could get in my car right now, drive twenty minutes to the real Hollywood, California, and have sex with a girl under the age of twelve. She might hail from Bangkok, Moscow, BogotÃ¡ or New Delhi. Her place of origin would be irrelevant. A child sex slave's final destination is what really counts. She has landed in a place called Hell.