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Sex Trafficking in Cambodia: Liya’s Story

I’ve been struggling to know what to post about my actual work in Cambodia and Thailand, related to human trafficking and child sex slavery. I’ve talked about it only briefly in previous posts, regarding red light districts and some of the outreaches for whom I was creating imagery.

In preparing for this trip, I spent a lot of time talking with Seth Johnson (of For Their Rescue), James Pond (of Transitions Global), and Brenda Dolan (also of FTR). I also did other research, reading, and viewing of other documentaries on the subject, including Tim Matsui’s photographic work there. It became difficult to think of the issue–and of portraying it–without seeing everything in dark and depressing hues. The atrocities humans commit against other humans is mind-boggling and gut-wrenching. And the statistics are overwhelming: 27 million people are currently enslaved around the world. Human trafficking is the third most profitable crime in the world, right after dealing in drugs and weapons; billions of dollars a year are made in the trade of human lives.

Yet I’ve been frequently reminded of a quote from, of all people, Josef Stalin, in which he said, “One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.” And it’s true: any number more than one is an abstract statistic to us. To say that six million Jews died in the Holocaust is a number we grimace at; but to watch the life of Wladek and his family in The Pianist makes us weep and have nightmares. We empathize, and think to ourselves, “That could have been me, or my family. What would I have done?”

Liya ran into her mom as we were filming outside of the slum where she grew up.

This has been my approach to the brief documentary I’ve been working on during this trip. Among other things, I have endeavored to tell the story of one girl, Liya. Her story is both common in its elements, and uniquely hers in its particulars. She grew up in a slum, was tricked and sold into a brothel at 16, was forced to service men who paid for her every day and night, was beaten and drugged and abandoned and abused. One day the police raided the brothel, and she was pulled from its grip, abused by the police, put in the system, and eventually placed at Transitions. A year later, I met her.

Liya at the slum where she grew up and worked at the brothel, also known as The Gray Buildings, and Anarchy.

To hear her tell her story is painful. Yet even as we interviewed her and recorded her story, in the background we could clearly hear the other 14 girls and staff giggling and playing and reciting their ABCs. It was a beautiful meld of the past and present.

As I spent a couple weeks with the girls and staff at the house, it became difficult to view these 14-19 year olds as victims or prey or prostitutes, and not just average teenagers who like to listen to music, make braided bracelets, and dream about their futures. In fact, the only visible reminder of their past in the house are the scars on their faces and arms, and the drawings in the Counseling Room depicting beatings by pimps and being chained to their brothels.

As I hung out in their schoolroom listening to their English practice, and in the yoga studio watching them learn medical basics and yoga instruction, I found myself thinking a lot more about their futures than their pasts. While they certainly carry around the scars of their past, at least they have counseling to help begin the healing process, and education and support to help them move forward. I begin to see why so many agencies make photographers sign forms promising not to portray their kids as victims. They aren’t victims, they’re people.

Last weekend, Liya moved from the Transitions house into an apartment with one of the other ‘graduates’ of the house. She has a job, she’s still going to school, and some day she wants to be able to afford to have her family move in with her. She’s not defined by her horrendous past, nor is her story really all that unique in her world.

The last afternoon I spent with her, Liya told me this: “Before I came here, I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t control my emotions. Sometimes I get really angry and I want to let it out. But now I can control my feelings, and I know who I am. It’s all because of my ‘Mom’ Jaya [the director at TLC].” Jaya had just told me the same thing: when Liya first arrived, she was mean to everyone. As the year went on, she became more mature and calm. Now she’s a real sweetheart.

We’ve created a powerful documentary, telling her story, which Transitions shares in their presentations on human trafficking.  For me, it feels like a way of fighting back against the darkness by letting her voice speak into it. It’s a way of humanizing an otherwise impersonal ‘issue.’ It’s a way of drawing out from the mass of statistics a single tragedy, and finding that it doesn’t end with tragedy, but with hope.

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