March 21st, 2008
Touchdown. It’s slate gray outside, 18.41 local time, and it looks cold. There is no orange light, no heat radiating from the pavement. 30 minutes ago we began our descent; the flight attendants on the Taiwanese airline, stern in their efficiency, sent us to our seats. Again, my gut sent me to the toilet thinking of a climber friend returning from Pakistan; he either took off or landed in the bathroom. It’s not that bad for me, it’s just not right, so on my way to the airport I grabbed a de-worming regimen from the pharmacy. The local expats do this every few months and said I’d been around long enough to pick something up. I hope it’s that simple.
Most of the flight I’ve been staring at the back of the seat in front of me. Since leaving Phnom Penh 15 hours ago I’ve been wondering about the stories. There are so many; some are bigger and complex, others just moments. If asked “how was it?” I’m afraid I’ll just stare, wondering what to say. (Above: Srey Neth, 19, and Transitions Cambodia Executive Director James Pond visit Neth’s old home and place of capitivity, the impoverished Group78 slum in Phnom Penh.)
I met a woman who I connected with; we spent nearly two days straight just hanging out. She had stories; some were cohesive and some scattered as thoughts bubbled forth. As we drank later and later into that first night, she shared a beautiful mix of moments from her backpacking days, both scary as hell and funny beyond belief. There was the tourist bus that left her and two companions somewhere in remote Pakistan; the next one was in 10 days. Instead of hiking out by the road, they went cross-country for 12 days. (At left: 19 year-old Srey Neth in the slum where, at 14, she was sold into sexual slavery. Neth is now on staff with the victim aftercare NGO Transitions Cambodia.)
Or when she heard the Iraq border was open–no visa fees–she grabbed a taxi and was halfway there before hearing about a guy who nearly made it. He turned around, several thousand dollars poorer, but alive. There was a guest house where, fortunately, she barricaded the door. And the time she cut her dreads with a pocket knife, ate half her journal, and sat awake with the embassy number written on her arm. Her travels took her from Japan to Jordan, and many countries in between. Some of the stories are on her blog and some are more private; at least two countries have files on her and, today, seeing men with guns gives her flashbacks.
At one point I shook my head. “You’ve got balls,” I said.
“Yeah I do,” she replied proudly, cupping an imaginary basketball. “This big!”
In Phnom Penh, when things got safe, everything caught up to her. Underweight and self medicating, she sought out counseling and now can name what she has: post traumatic stress. She knows some of her triggers, but some things are blocked; when she gave me her blog she read a few entries. At one point she exclaimed, “There was a man with a gun outside my door! I didn’t remember the gun, but it’s right here.”
What has festered deep within her psyche, what has governed her subconscious, is emerging. I think parts of the adventures were hard, but I think the real work is happening now. I’ve met others like her; some, just so they can function, run from the painful mess of their experience–either knowingly or unknowingly. PTSD is difficult, for everyone involved, and her efforts to heal have my respect, for the process means reliving every trauma. She has to stand firm and face it. (At right: Tieng, 18, a resident and good friend of Neth’s outside the after care center on Valentine’s Day.)
As I pulled my gear out of the overhead compartment and crowded out of the aircraft, I realized this woman is now part of my story. But I have only been on the baby-soft edge of the place she went. I’m afraid of the pain, struggle, and risk that comes from reaching deeper. I am more cautious than others who’ve thrown themselves in for I know it’s not just the physical self that can be lost. Yet in some of the work I’ve done, I have felt a certain power in the idealism, the hope, the reward of having an effect–however small–and it is not something I can turn away from. At least not yet. Maybe not until I know how far is too far, even if that leaves me standing, shaking, in that same chaotic place she was.
The warnings are written clearly in a book a traveler gave me; it is about three idealistic twenty-somethings who meet in Phnom Penh. They end up working for the UN, through Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, Liberia. It is a story about their descent into the hell of bureaucratic apathy, political inaction, professional incompetence, and genocide. It’s as much a story about the places they’ve seen as it is their experience, justification, struggle, and reward wrought from the trauma they endure. All three were nearly lost to themselves. The book is titled “Emergency Sex,” for that moment when you’ve narrowly escaped death, when the emotion is so intense you have to fuck to prove your existence. To release. (At left: Orphans who once lived at the city dump pose as human traffickers prior to the educational CCH “Roadshow” performance to rural community members. 14 year-old Sayorn is second from right.)
My friend gave me the book after we visited the landfill together; we had been talking at length about sexual exploitation, trafficking, and the NGO world in Phnom Penh. She understood the urgency in the work, the intensity of a moment; her ‘day job’ is fighting organized crime.
A lot of tourists visit Steung Meanchey; it’s a smoking mass of rot where the impoverished collect a living from recyclables they sell. I was working with CCH, an NGO that recruits orphans out of the dump, gives them a home, education, and a chance at a future. All the youth have a dream, which in a country full of victims is no small feat. As far as my trafficking piece goes, this is a preventative measure; it decreases the number of vulnerable children, if only by a few hundred.
Although hot, smokey, and nauseating it wasn’t one of my more intense experiences. But it left me drenched and exhausted with an itch in my lungs; I can see why so many of the dump residents develop respiratory problems. Standing in the midst of the slick mess my friend surveyed the scene.
“It’s awful,” she said over the roar of the garbage trucks. I turned to our guide, 14 year-old Sayorn, who shrugged shyly. “No problem.” He was in flip-flops. He lived here until CCH offered him a new life. (At right: In the wake of the bulldozer, a young boy picks recyclables out of the Stueng Meanchey landfill.)
When I returned to the guest house my pants smelled so bad I left them soaking in the sink. Two days later, in the cool confines of the French embassy talking about pedophiles, I pushed my feet across the hardwood floor as far as I could. My shoes stank of rot, just as they would on the plane.
But these are just moments.
What is our capacity to understand? What is just another day in Cambodia, Nigeria, Burma, Somalia; what is just another day when you live it? My stories are nothing compared to cataloging corpses for a genocide trial; nothing compared to the everyday life of kicking in doors, shooting people and getting shot at; nothing compared to the experiences of some of the people I’ve met. (Acid burn survivors pose for a portrait near the offices of the Cambodia Acid Survivor’s Charity, Phnom Penh.)
Yet by my second night in Seattle I’d already had moments where I’d stare into the past and start speaking about something I saw. I often falter when I do this, snapping back to the present to find concerned looks of people whose evening I might have spoiled. In Cambodia, it’s just another day.
Phnom Penh is rich with stories, as are many other parts of the developing world. Roslyn is going to another UN post in Kandahar. Gillian to Sri Lanka. Romy is thinking about Africa. Others are re-upping their contracts, staying another year; things in Phnom Penh are mellowing out, creature comforts more prolific, but there is no shortage of work for the well intentioned. It’s just a little less likely you’ll be shot off your motorbike, fight a second assailant, then drive off with bullet holes in your forearm and ass. It sounds odd, but it happens. I can introduce you to the guy. (At left: Son and daughter watch over their dying mother, a victim of an acid attack, at the Children’s Surgical Center, Phnom Penh.)
Sometimes I wonder what people really want to hear. I might reply “intense, frustrating, emotional, beautiful, satisfying” and smile that empty smile. Because maybe in that moment I’m thinking of the story about victims of acid attack. It’s about the stench of burned flesh; the sound of rapid, shallow breath; the sight of a semi-conscious woman and the deflated, resigned look of her adult children. It’s about her grand daughter, who at three years died in the attack. Five days later the woman died too.
It makes me think about Cambodians as victims, but also Cambodians as survivors. There are some who seek to heal, to move into that realm where trauma no longer controls them. I made portraits of acid attack survivors, of women so scarred it was difficult to look. But the more time we were together, the more I saw their confidence as survivors. They laugh, they flirt, they are feminine, they will look you intently in the eye–those who still have them–as if to say “I am a person, see me as one.”
Not long ago the NGO CASC set up an acid burn hotline; more women are coming forward. Data about victims is not terribly reliable; hospitals don’t classify burns, people tend not to report the cause of death, and victims hide in shame, but it is estimated that Cambodia has a higher per-capita number of acid attacks than Bangladesh, the poster child of acid attacks. (At right: Acid attack survivor, 28 year-old Srey Own, is now the and BABS bag-making trainier at the CASC.)
This had an impact, on a personal level, for I smelled that woman’s flesh for a week. But it’s just another story, just another moment.
I spent some time with an investigative organization focusing on street-based foreign pedophiles; a very narrow subset of the Cambodian sex industry, but one which attracts more attention than the neighborhood brothels servicing thousands of Khmer men. (at left: Handcuffed to the truck, the suspected American pedophile returns to the jail after a day in court.)
One evening we motoed around, following a suspect who repeatedly returned to Cambodia, ostensibly to groom one child in particular. The child, according the NGO, didn’t receive much kissy-kiss until after dark. They were waiting for the suspect to take the child to a guest house, at which point they would call the police. I asked to be informed when this occurred.
The Cambodian police kicked in the unlocked door of a guesthouse on the Lakeside. Inside was the American, without his shirt, and two girls age 12 and 16. The American and his friends say it was a set up, that the girls offered him a massage, that they were paid by the NGO to trick him into extortion. The NGO and the police say he is a pedophile, that they’ve built a substantial case against him. (At right: Another suspected American pedophile exhibits grooming behavior with a Cambodian child, Phnom Penh.)
It may have been fortunate that I wasn’t in on the arrest for I think it allowed me a relationship with the accused and his friends. I presented myself as who I am: an American journalist wanting to document their side of the events. They were quite open and hospitable and shared a lot with me; at the same time I was receiving a lot of prosecution information through back channels. It is an odd position to straddle and, at times, required me to clarify my boundaries; I can only observe.
So I watched; at the courthouse he sat in his rumpled suit and tennis shoes, staring at the handcuffs he wore, gently testing the steel. Later, in the jail cell, I saw false bravado as he told his friends they should leave. The next moment he shuddered with sobs and embraced their hands through the heavy steel bars. On my first jail cell visit, he was weak and sick. Unable even to hold water, he gently vomited in front of us. It was a surprising hiccup of embarrassment he rushed to clean. He slept on the floor with no blanket; the guard, through pantomime, said he might tear it into strips and hang himself.
According to the American, after hours of questioning the police handed him a statement written in Khmer–which he can’t read or speak–and asked him to sign it. He refused, asking for a lawyer and interpreter they did not provide; his friends then hired an attorney and later an interpreter. Last I heard, his friends paid $200 to have him moved from the cockroach and mosquito infested police jail to a more accommodating prison just outside the city. He will wait a month until his case is brought to trial. (At right: Mike, a friend of the jailed suspect, at their nascent NGO office and residence. The NGO, if established, will mimic the suspect’s retreat in India where residents live an agrarian life under Hari Krishna principles.)
The US Embassy contacted his friends but is fairly hands off, issuing a statement that “American citizens charged with criminal offenses in Cambodia are fully subject to the Cambodian judicial process.”
Without his friends I’m not sure he’d have legal representation, an interpreter, or anything but the simplest of foods and human comforts. At the moment, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to say more about the case.
I had a brush with Cambodian bureaucracy as I tried to make a portrait of General Bith Kim Hong, Director of the Cambodian National Police Anti Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department. I wanted to make a power-portrait of him, for multiple sources credit him with ensuring the arrest of “Sasa,” a convicted Russian pedophile. He was recently sentenced; 13 years and $100,000 for victim number one. There are 18 more victims to go. (At left: Police General Bith Kim Hong, Director of the National Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department)
The day before I left Cambodia we had tea in the General’s office; no interview, but portraits were ok. Permission, which took six weeks, was personally approved by the Minister of the Interior, Hok Lundy. The email proposal I sent was translated then reviewed by the same guy whose stamped signature adorns my visa. Lundy is so far up the government chain I am surprised he reviewed the proposal but, on the other hand, this is a sensitive topic for which he has received bad press. None the less, I was happy to meet the General for if Cambodia is going to pick itself up it has to have strong, incorruptible leadership; something the General seems to represent. I hope to work with him again.
Yet this moment is coupled with many others; tales from sources illustrating how difficult it will be in the current political and economic climate to make a positive difference for the people of Cambodia. None of the sources would go on record but one person told me a little anecdote: the tiger is strong and powerful. If you get on the back of the tiger you are strong and powerful too, but you have to go where the tiger goes. If you get off, he will turn and eat you. Working with the government, he said, is like that.
Politics play out in the NGO community as well. There is an issue that too many brothel raids will net too many girls, taxing the aftercare system, but recently there was a struggle over which NGO would get some rescued girls. It was expressed to me by several people that numbers matter to donors and donor dollars–but shouldn’t it be about the victims?
There’s also a chasm in the anti-trafficking community, seemingly bridged only by professional necessity, as judgments are cast out by the more conservative faith community while the non-faith community returns with its own opinions of the religious. This split crosses the Pacific; some donors prefer proselytization while others are adamantly opposed to anything smelling of religion. But it’s not just faith dividing the ranks; I can’t forget the distrust between some Cambodian and foreign NGO’s.
I walked into this with several endorsements and introductions; I became the photojournalist poking around the anti-trafficking community. This led to questions about me and not all the answers were positive; I have an ex in Phnom Penh. I hadn’t been in-country but two and-a-half weeks and I had a reputation.
It was limited to the faith community, but phone calls and emails propagated, reaching as far as Washington D.C. I think the themes were about me being unethical and exploitive, which were probably compounded and twisted by others, but I can’t say for sure. In one low point, I made a phone call to an NGO which the week prior had been positive and receptive. What I heard this time, in a cold, shaking voice was “I’ve been told not to speak with you.”
It’s kind of awkward to start a professional relationship with “So, those things you might have heard about me–I don’t know what they are, because the source won’t say–but I’m really not a bad person. If you have any concerns I’m happy to discuss them.” But a few went that way. One director, after meeting me, essentially shrugged; he hadn’t paid much attention because he’s been a victim of slander in the past. It must come with the turf.
It felt like high school, except it’s not the senior prom at stake: it’s millions of dollars and the lives of vulnerable people. I’m sure the people judging my intentions and work were saying the same. I just wished they could–and would–have an open dialog about their concerns. For the few who responded when I reached out to clarify my ethics and intentions, I appreciated their professionalism and respect. But again, in spite of the impact I perceive this had on my work, it’s really just a moment.
I know some people don’t like the intensity and immediacy of this kind of experience; I think it’s offensive that I might expect others to want it. Not everyone wants to face the frustration, bureaucracy, religion, corruption, or the feeling of impotence in the face of great need. And who am I to judge? I’m still on the edge, peering in. Indeed, it would be easier for me to check out, to work a ‘regular’ job, to challenge myself with seemingly important social dilemmas, financial gains or athletic pursuits. Here, in America, it’s hard to see your impact and much easier not to care. (at left: friends of the alleged American pedophile currently in jail awaiting trial.)
But I met a rescued girl whose brother was sold for labor by her mother to pay the girl’s “debt” now that she’s not turning tricks at the brothel. At a shelter a teenage sex trafficking victim held me in goodbye; just as I was beginning to feel uncomfortable she looked up and said “do not forget about us.” And yet another girl, who always put me at arm’s length, ran to her room at the last moment. She came back with the tackiest pink rose in a sea of fiber optics. It now sits on display in my living room, flashing its multi-hued colors.
I watched a village chief, proud of his TV, proud to feed me the fish he caught, brush his teeth in water full of fecal contaminant. There was the couple, forcibly relocated by the government, who showed me their wedding portrait. It hung in a palm-frond hovel squeezed into rows of similar shacks. (At right: Moat Clas village chief.)
And then there are the people committed to the betterment of others–simply because. The younger, the more idealistic, but even the jaded and cynical seem to keep at it. When “Cambodia Wins Again” they get back up, brush off the red dust, and go for another round.
This is the theme of “Emergency Sex,” they throw themselves at the world, they do some good, but ultimately get spit back, scarred from the fight. It could be hopeless, except in those moments one makes a difference. And that is the immediacy; there are people willingly fighting for survival, for justice, for opportunity. The difficulties are complex, but there is hope, there is success, and there is more we can do. Now, in this moment.
I am spinning down, readjusting to what “normal” is here in the States, and sifting through all that is swirling in my head. As I struggle to produce a coherent story I realize I float between two places: on one side are the people who cannot engage in the reality of Cambodia–it’s too much–and on the other are people who live a greater horror every day, casually, and for them these stories are inconsequential. (At left: Srey Neth with center director Jaya, left, and executive director James, right, in the building she was held captive.)
My phone beeped the arrival of a text message, waking me. I lay twisted in my flannel-covered duvet, the early morning light soft through the window, a crisp Seattle breeze feathering across my nose and cheeks.
01149…the number started. Germany. It’s Romy, the only woman I kissed while in Phnom Penh, something I’m sure the guest house staff doesn’t believe. Dating, as we know it in the west, isn’t a much practiced social convention for conservative Cambodia. You pretty much have to propose to a girl to ride a motorbike together and not cause scandal–for her. When Kath kissed me on the cheek after our pre-dawn motorbike ride to Oudong the staff wouldn’t let it go for a week.
My last few days in Phnom Penh were as busy as any, both professionally and socially. I made it to my second Elsewhere party, where I met Romy. On the dance floor, of all places. There was a going away party, my own going away bar session, the trip to the dump, the portrait, a Khmer wedding, meetings and introductions, time with the suspected pedophile; it was exhausting. But there was something about stopping and being with her which was calm. Safe.
I sat behind her on the moto as she drove, very Khmer-like into oncoming traffic, and wrapped my arms around her waist. I held her hips, pressed my hand flat against her belly, my muck encrusted shoes on the foot pegs, our helmets bumping gently with every stop and start. We shouted over the wind and the traffic; we hardly knew each other and there was a lot to share. We were both leaving the country.
There wasn’t a moment during the entire trip that I felt relaxed; there was always somewhere to be going or something to be doing. Research, nightly downloads and backups, meetings. Or actually out shooting, building relationships, often hiding my agitation while waiting patiently. Even the social scene, being the new guy in town, meant always being “on.”
Except when I stood in the shower next to her, or lay beside her underneath the mosquito netting, or rode behind her on the moto. It was then that I could relax. Maybe because it was the end of the trip and I was letting go. But I think it was her and it makes me wonder if it’s possible to have that balance; that place of love, respect, tenderness and safety that counters the chaos outside.
There is a balance between the stories and the safety, I know. I just haven’t found it yet.
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