In a dilapidated hospital ward inPhnom 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.
In 1996, a year after she and Pierre had the first of their three children, the couple founded a registered charity, AFESIP (a French acronym for Acting For Women in Distressing Situations). Over the last decade AFESIP has rescued, sheltered and educated more than 5000 children. Today it operates three shelters in Cambodia for more than 200 girls and employs more than 100 staff.
After a long separation, Somaly and Pierre divorced in 2007, and Somaly now heads AFESIP alone, working 20-hour days rescuing Cambodian girls trapped in prostitution.
In a Phnom Penh shantytown, Somaly steps around piles of tin cans and rotting garbage to reach the “White Building”, a landmark city brothel. Dogs scavenge through the trash; flies are everywhere. Children, some naked and barefoot, play among the heaps of garbage. Several women and girls see Somaly and, grinning, rush up to her. “Our sister,” says one as she takes the 38-year-old Somaly by her hand.
“How are you? Is anyone seriously ill?” Somaly asks. Soon she is talking with a group of 30 girls and women, all prostitutes.
An emaciated girl in a filthy T-shirt and a wraparound sarong confides to Somaly that she is forced to sleep with as many as 20 men in one night. As Somaly listens, her eyes tear up. An older woman approaches Somaly and tells her, through tears, that her 16-year-old daughter disappeared a few days ago. She grabs Somaly’s hand. “Please help,” she begs.
As Somaly comforts the woman, promising to intervene personally with police, a group of men nearby are watching intently. Somaly’s life is constantly threatened. In 2005, after she helped rescue more than 200 girls, Phnom Penh gangsters armed with AK-47 rifles broke into her shelter, beat up staffers and re-kidnapped the girls. Pimps have even held a gun to her head. She now usually travels with bodyguards and her home is walled and guarded around the clock.
Sometimes the danger strikes close to home. In 2006, one of her children was kidnapped by traffickers. Thanks to Somaly’s contacts with the police, her daughter was rescued after three days. Now, to protect her children, she sends them to school in France. When asked if she fears for her own life, she responds, “How can they kill me if I’m already dead? They killed me a long time ago.”
At times, Somaly seems to have survived her nightmare childhood unscathed. But the scars still run deep. Nights are especially difficult for her. As she drives through Phnom Penh’s chaotic streets, she confides that she still has nightmares and rarely gets more than three or four hours’ sleep at a stretch. “I cannot get the girls out of my mind,” she says. “They are my girls, victims like me.”
Nor has she ever overcome the fear and nausea she feels when entering brothels. “The smells bring memories I have tried to put away,” she says. She confesses that she cannot bring herself to return to the site of the Phnom Penh brothel she was imprisoned in.
Passing a once-infamous brothel, now shuttered thanks to pressure from Somaly, she is reminded of a girl she recently helped. “Malis* was just 11 when her aunt sold her to a foreigner for $1000,” says Somaly. She was imprisoned in the man’s Phnom Penh apartment for a week until she escaped.
“He thought having sex with a virgin could make him stronger. It happens a lot.” Incredibly, many times the girls will then be sewn up, in a procedure known as a hymenoplasty, and sold again as virgins.
Another girl, Normana*, who has only one eye, was just 13 when she was kidnapped and sold into a brothel. She was sold as a virgin, then sewn up and sold again. Pregnant twice, she was forced to undergo two amateur abortions. But the worst was to come. A woman bought her to work as an unpaid servant. Angered when Normana pleaded for rest, the woman took a sharp piece of metal and, as punishment, gouged out her right eye.
Somaly Mam knows that her work will never be finished. Traffickers still travel from village to village luring unsuspecting girls with promises of high-paying jobs that never materialise. In AFESIP’s Siem Reap shelter, a few miles from Angkor Wat, an attraction visited by thousands of tourists every year, lives Sanbo. When she was 18, she was told she could work as a waitress at a Phnom Penh restaurant to pay off a family debt.
First, she was sold for $500 to a Chinese client who demanded a virgin. She was imprisoned in a brothel for two years. “They beat me often with an electrical cord,” she says in a shy, halting voice. “I had nowhere to go. If I went back to my village I would be shamed because I had been a prostitute. I had no-one.” Today she lives in AFESIP’s shelter and works on the staff as a counsellor.
“We are saving many but there are still so many girls in brothels,” says Somaly. Once a girl enters one of AFESIP’s three shelters, she gets medical attention and can attend public schools while also learning a vocation such as hairdressing or dressmaking. The organisation then helps the girl’s “reintegration” into society by helping her get a job, or start a small business. About 80% of the girls never return to prostitution.
Somaly Mam has changed the lives of thousands of young girls. Malis, the 11-year-old girl she rescued, is typical of many of those she has helped. Now a bright-eyed 14-year-old, quick to smile, Malis lives in AFESIP’s shelter in Kampong Cham. As she walks among the lush papaya and mango trees of the centre gardens, home to 38 other rescued girls, she confides to a visitor, “I have a special dream.” She pauses and sits on a concrete bench as she continues, “I want to be a journalist. I want to write about what happens here to girls like me.”
Malis takes a Buddhist macramé bracelet from her wrist and presses it into the visitor’s hand. “This is for you,” she says in strong, clear English she has been taught at the shelter. “Thank you for talking to someone like me.”
Told about the visit with Malis, Somaly smiles and says, “I don’t want to change the world. I just want to change the destiny of one girl. Then another. And another.”
Last May she travelled to a small village in south-eastern Cambodia for a special event. One of her girls, who had graduated from AFESIP’s vocational training programme, had just opened a dressmaking shop. Better yet, she was getting married. “It’s almost unbelievable,” Somaly says. “It’s very rare for a former prostitute to be accepted back into her village.”
During the reception Somaly, the guest of honour, stood up and toasted the couple. Then she singled out the groom and added, “You better be good to my girl. Or I am going to come back here and get you!” She smiled, but she wasn’t kidding.
Several times a week, Somaly drives a few hours north of Phnom Penh, along bumpy, dusty back roads, to the Kampong Cham shelter. It was set up especially for girls under 16 rescued from child brothels.
The minute her car drives through the front gate, the shelter comes alive with shouting girls, all clamouring, “Mum! Mummy is here!” She cooks for them, chats with them, plays with them. And, most importantly, laughs and giggles with them. “I am so happy to see them be children again,” she says, “I want them to have the childhood I didn’t have.” All the girls here go to the local public school and also learn English, sewing and other trades. At 16, they will go to AFESIP’s shelter near Angkor Wat.
Often a new girl at the Kampong Cham shelter will be too traumatised to talk. Somaly understands that words aren’t always necessary. A simple embrace, a kiss is enough. As she says, “Sometimes when you are talking, you can say something that is not true. But the heart talking is always true.”
A little seven-year-old girl rushes over and jumps into Somaly’s arms. It is Sreytouch, the battered child hugging a teddy bear, who Somaly first met in hospital. Today she is vibrant, healthy and her eyes shine with joy at seeing Somaly, who holds her, kisses her and – with a touching echo of their first meeting – whispers, “I love you, Sreytouch.”
* NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT IDENTITIES