This story originally aired Dateline NBC on July 25, 2008. Hidden camera footage is in italics.
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — To a foreign tourist, this Cambodian village may look like a typical sleepy town. A few outdoor cafes. Farm animals in the alleys. And friendly children.
And even though these girls appear to be happy, they have little to celebrate.
They are child sex slaves.
Girl: One girl, 30.
Dateline: One girl, 30? And two girls?
Trapped in brothels where they're exploited, abused, and raped by the adults around them...
Bob Mosier: Mr. Kha, I've heard a lot about you.
The disgrace of a nation, the shame of the world.
Madame Lang: No. She virgin girl.
It's a tragedy our undercover cameras first captured in March 2003.
Five years ago, we came to Cambodia to investigate the sale of children for sex. What we found was absolutely horrifying: children as young as five being trafficked to Europeans and Americans for as little as $30.
This is one of the girls we met back in 2003. Her name is Loeum.
Dateline: How old are you?
Dateline: How old?
She should be in elementary school, instead she's being offered for sale for sex.
Tonight we're going to tell you the moving story of Loeum and other girls like her.
Dateline: What's your name?
Tau who says she's also 10, and some who are even younger.
And this little girl - Tieng.
When we first meet these girls - in 2003 - we're in Cambodia undercover because we've heard that this country is a magnet for people who prey on the young and innocent.
Who travel here from thousands of miles away, so-called sex tourists.
We've decided to follow their trail and infiltrate their perverted world.
Dateline: I just look.
It's the only way to expose their crimes, crimes the whole world abhors.
President Bush at U.N.: There's a special evil in the abuse and exploitation of the most innocent and vulnerable.
Combating sex trafficking has been an important priority for President Bush. For help, his administration has turned to people like Gary Haugen, a former federal prosecutor who runs a human rights group called the International Justice Mission.
Gary Haugen: This is the kind of brutal ugliness that is sort of hard to open your eyes to. But once you do, I think as a human being, you've got to take responsibility for it.
Haugen's group uses tactics that are considered controversial by some in the human rights community.
Chris Hansen: You basically run a sting operation.
Gary Haugen: Sure.
He sends his investigators undercover to gather evidence of sex slavery in other countries, then takes the evidence to local authorities to persuade them to take action. Their work has helped rescue more than a thousand women and children around the world, including these women from a dungeon in India.
It's 2003, and Haugen's target is Cambodia. Our Dateline team is going along with his investigators.
We find a nation still suffering from the trauma of the 1970s and 80s, when an estimated 2 million Cambodians died because of war, famine, and a ruthless dictatorship.
But there are also signs of recovery here - more tourists, for instance.
Like Jerry Albom, a doctor from Oklahoma our camera crew meets up with in the heart of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
He says he likes the country so much, he visits several times a year...
Jerry Albom: The Cambodian people have been most welcome, and most courteous at all times, and they've got some of the most remarkable architectural finds here, most notably the temples of Angkor Wat.
But it's not only the legendary temples of Angkor Wat that draw Dr. Albom to Cambodia. With our undercover cameras we soon find out like thousands of other tourists, Dr. Albom is here for another purpose.
This is Martinis. It's a nightclub where young women outnumber men 10 to one. Many of the women are for sale.
Man: I think you like me.
It's also a favorite hangout of Dr. Albom, as we witness more than once during our stay.
Even though prostitution is illegal in Cambodia, finding a girlfriend for the night at Martinis takes just a few words, a few dollars, and a stroll out the door.
But the action at Martinis pales compared with what else we see in this country...
Everyone here seems to know about the child sex trade.
Even this motorbike taxi driver right outside our hotel.
Dateline: Speak English?
Driver: Yeah, I can speak.
He offers to show us.
Driver: Many, many, many girls.
Dateline: Young girls?
Dateline: How young?
Driver: Young, maybe, uh,... 12.
Dateline: No problem?
Driver: Yeah. No problem in Cambodia.
But children being sold for sex is a big problem in Cambodia - thousands of them - condemned early on to a life of slavery. Is there a way to help any of them escape that dismal fate? We're about to find out, as we take you inside a dangerous mission to rescue the children.
March 2003. A Dateline producer and cameraman are undercover with human rights investigators in Cambodia posing as tourists looking to have sex with children. A human rights investigator we'll call Robert, is acting as their sex tour guide. He's a police detective from New Zealand. We agreed to protect his identity.
Robert: As far as anyone here is concerned, I'm a sex tour operator or broker who is coming here on behalf of a lot of wealthy westerners, in particular American men. And I'm here to set up this sex experience for them.
Robert: Do you have a cell phone number?
Robert has developed local contacts who know where to go and who to see.
All it takes is a quick phone call for this man to arrange a visit to a brothel in Phnom Penh.
Interpreter: Thank you. She's waiting.
Robert: She's waiting?
The producers and investigators arrive across from what looks like a local café, but it's really a brothel. The owner is a woman who goes by the name Madam Lang.
Dateline: Hi there.
Dateline: How are you?
Robert: She organize all girls for us.
She's eager to do business. She leads the group through the cafe and up a back staircase to meet some girls for hire. And when she says they're girls, she means it literally: young girls, younger than we even imagined. And as an extra attraction, she says they're still virgins.
Madame Lang: No. She virgin girl, not yet open.
Many sex tourists come to Cambodia for exactly that reason, and they're willing to pay a premium. Madam Lang tells us her virgins go for $600 - and for that price she says we can take this girl back to the hotel and keep her there for up to three days.
Investigator: What's her name?
A few minutes later, she brings out this girl, another virgin.
Interpreter: She never do nothing.
She's 15 years old, and she looks paralyzed with fear.
Our crew was there with hidden cameras.
All this comes as no secret to the Cambodian government. Mu Soc Hua served as Cambodia’s Minister of Women's Affairs.
Chris Hansen: Cambodia has a lot of problems. Where do you rank the child sex trade?
Mu Soc Hua: I rank sexual trade, sexual exploitation of our children on the top of my list.
Chris Hansen: Is there any way to even attach a number to this to say how many children?
Mu Soc Hua: Around 30,000.
Chris Hansen: 30,000.
Mu Soc Hua: Yes.
Chris Hansen: That's a staggering number.
Mu Soc Hua: Yes. Yes.
The problem is driven by Cambodia’s extreme poverty.
Some parents are so desperate that they sell their own children into slavery.
It’s happening all over Cambodia, but there’s one place that is notorious, a run down village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Any taxi driver can tell you it's the place to go if you're looking for the youngest girls.
Dateline: Young, young girl?
Driver: Oh, young girls, uh, the 11 Kilometer.
Dateline: Uh-huh. What's the name of that place?
Driver: Uh, Svay Pak.
Svay Pak is a 20-minute drive and we're on a dirt road dotted with cafes and gated storefronts.
Bob Mosier: Stop right here.
It takes just a second for a pimp to approach.
Bob Mosier: Hey man.
Dateline: Hi. How you?
Everyone in Svay Pak assumes we are here for sex. When we sit down at one of the cafes, we're greeted by a young hustler named Po.
Po: New girls, too much for you.
Bob Mosier: Too much?
Po: Girls. Too much girls, too much.
He's only 15, but already a real operator. He tells us he's grown up in the village and introduces his mother, who knows exactly what he's up to and takes a cut of the money he brings in.
Po: Okay. You give me, I give Mama.
Po says he can get us girls who are even younger than the ones we saw at that brothel in the city. And despite all we've seen, we're stunned at just how young he says they are.
Po: 8, 8.
8-year olds. It's hard to believe. He tells us to come see for ourselves.
Along with a human rights investigator, we follow Po through some alleys into a ramshackle house.
We think we've already seen it all. But who could be prepared for this?
Po: New girls, new girls.
Girls - some so young they could be in kindergarten - are all for sale.
Throughout the village, we see the same scene at one brothel after another.
Dateline: Hi. How are you?
Over the course of several visits, we meet dozens of children.
Including those girls we mentioned earlier.
For girls their age, they know far too much.
This girl, Tau, tells us that at age 10 she's old enough oral sex, but not intercourse.
Tau: Big girl.
That's for older kids.
This pair says they too know how to perform oral sex.
And they even tell us how much it will cost.
Girl: One girl, 30.
Dateline: One girl, 30. And two girls?
That's 60 American dollars. A pimp says if two girls aren't enough, how about three?
Boy: Three girl. Happy, happy, happy New Year. Happy, happy.
Dateline: How much three girls?
Boy: Three girl, 90.
This girl promises we'll be happy.
Girl: After if no you like, no you pay.
After a visit to Svay Pak, the grim reality has set in for human rights investigator Bob Mosier. In 20 years as a cop, he says, he's never seen anything like this.
Bob Mosier: You have an 8-year-old or 9-year-old little girl who's looking at you smiling, ok, realizing that you're going to, uh, in just a few moments possibly, probably engage in a sexual act that they're gonna get money for, and they're smiling about it. I mean I see a smile like that on my kids' face when they're find out that they're gonna go to Disney World or something like that.
But the tourists in Svay Pak are a far cry from the ones you see at Disney World, and they're not anxious to talk about why they're here. In a back alley, our producers run into this visitor from Europe.
Dateline: So what do you do down here, chief?
Visitor: Um, I have a friend down here to eat.
Dateline: You come down to Svay Pak to eat?
Visitor: Um, no it's nice, just nice area.
But a human rights investigator with a hidden camera found a visitor who was willing to admit he's not here for the scenic beauty or the local cuisine.
Jerry Albom: Okay. It's the first time here?
Jerry Albom: Okay. Come here for a sec.
When the camera was hidden, this American prowling Svay Pak was happy to brag about his exploits.
Jerry Albom: Usually I buy out three girls for 50 bucks. Take 'em for the whole night.
Look familiar? He should. He's Jerry Albom, the same American doctor we met up with on our arrival in Phnom Penh. And now we know for sure he's interested in more than this country's historic temples.
He says he doesn't go for the youngest of girls - he prefers teenagers.
Jerry Albom: I mean, 15, 16 and older. Maybe a 14-year-old might sneak in if you can't tell the age, but, you know I don't take the little, the really little ones --
Jerry Albom: --back. And that's just a little bit of discretion on my part.
Gary Haugen: He expresses just the whole disgusting arrogance of the whole thing.
Jerry Albom: I think I'm going to go cement a deal for tonight.
Human rights activist Gary Haugen says he'd like to see people like Dr. Albom and the pimps who supply him out of action.
Gary Haugen: The bad guys are committed to what they're doing, somebody has to be as equally committed as the perpetrators to making sure that they stay in trouble every single day.
Haugen has a plan: He wants to mount a daring operation, to bust the pimps and to rescue the children. Now the question is: Can he put his plan into action?
Dateline: What's your name?
Dateline: How old are you.
In March 2003, human rights activist Gary Haugen tells us the situation in Cambodia demands extreme action. And his group will do what it takes to rescue the children being sold for sex.
Chris Hansen: You know that by operating in this manner that you open yourself up to the charge that you guys are cowboys. You're going into another country, doing an investigation, kicking down doors.
Gary Haugen: Cambodia was a place where we got a case referral and where we had knowledge of scores of children who were being molested and raped for a few dollars. And somebody needs to then take responsibility for that and say, "Okay, what can we do for these children?"
What he can do, he hopes, is prompt the government here to join his cause.
To make his case he takes the evidence to a powerful advocate: the U.S. Ambassador, who agrees to press the Cambodians.
Gary Haugen: So, we're in this very tricky stage right now. The embassy is meeting with very high Cambodian authorities today, and we are just hoping and praying that that meeting goes well.
It takes a week, but finally, the Cambodians sign on to Haugen's plan, which involves tricking the pimps into bringing the girls to a supposed sex party at a house outside the village. There it will be easier for the police to arrest the pimps and rescue the children.
To get the pimps on board, Robert, the investigator posing as a sex tour guide, has been telling them that his clients are reluctant to come into the village.
Robert: The village is kind of a little bit dirty and-- a little bit dangerous for them...
Robert has discovered it really is dangerous. When he tried to sell the sex party idea to this pimp, the man asked if Robert had a hidden camera.
Robert: Why do you think I have camera?
Robert: No. I have a cell phone.
Roman: No. [unintel]
Robert: I have a notebook-
Roman: [Unintel…] On top of camera, right?
Robert: I no have a camera.
Then he asked Robert to prove he was for real and have sex with a little girl.
Robert: How old is she?
And when Robert refused, the pimp got angry.
Roman: Why you ask for young girls and you don't do nothing?
Finally, the pimp threatened him.
Roman: I, I not help for you. But also, you come again, and, uh, also, even though you die.
Robert: He said, "You come back here, you die. You come back here I'll kill you." I said, "Fine, we're out of here."
Dateline: Hi. Nice to meet you.
Robert kept searching until he found other pimps including this man, willing to let some of the girls leave the village for the supposed "sex party". The pimps are saying they want to come along to keep an eye on the children, which plays right into the plan, because remember: When they arrive at the house, they'll be arrested.
These wouldn't be the first arrests in Svay Pak. The Cambodian police have set up a unit to deal with sex trafficking, but they've never been involved in anything like this. This time, 60 officers are being assigned to the raid.
But the big question is: Can they all be trusted?
Gary Haugen: Right now, there's no guarantees at all.
Robert: Hello.Chum Reap Sur.
No guarantees, because many of the cops here are in the pimp's pockets. Like this police officer caught on Robert’s hidden camera. He thought Robert was really a sex tour operator and for 150 U.S. Dollars promised he could make sure neither Robert nor his clients would be arrested.
Robert: You will guarantee safety?
Robert: Oh, ok. Aukun.
Robert: No problem.
For $150. That's the equivalent of several months pay for the average Cambodian cop. If a cop like this finds out about the raid, he could alert the pimps.
Gary Haugen: The operation could totally get blown. For us, this is an exercise in faith.
It begins with a ride on a bus which is also supposed to be used to rescue the girls from Svay Pak. The bus waits on the outskirts of the village. A half dozen motorbike drivers take the producers and investigators to get the girls.
The pimps are there.
But no sign of the children.
Robert: Visal, where's, is -- where's the girl?
Interpreter: She's coming.
Visal: But 10 minutes more.
Robert: Ten minute more?
Finally-- these two girls, sisters, are brought into the waiting area.
Dateline: Hi there.
Robert: Come on in. Come on in.
Others soon follow.
Robert: This is Loeum and Viet, and Tau?
Now, the hope is these girls will escape the horror of this village, if everything goes according to plan.
In March 2003, a Dateline team is in the middle of an undercover operation with a human rights group, the International Justice Mission, which is trying to rescue these child sex slaves.
Robert: This is Loeum and Viet, and, uh, Tau?
The pimps believe the investigators are organizing a sex party and have agreed to take the kids to a house outside the village where the party is supposed to be held. What they don't know is the Cambodian police will be waiting for them.
Robert: Ah, yeah, my girl.
At first, everything seems on track.
Investigator: I’ve got five now.
But then suddenly the pimps change their minds and won't let the girls leave the brothel.
Robert: Yeah, but we talk, we talk, talk many day, and now I come and you know? My friend at my house. No girl.
Investigator Bob Mosier suspects the operation has been compromised.
Bob Mosier: There's been a tip-off. This is something we've encountered. This is going to require a traditional policing kind of response.
It's not clear how much the pimps know, but it seems they've picked up on rumors of an investigation.
They may be suspicious, but they're not exactly chasing anyone away.
Robert: What about my friend at my house?
Interpreter: Maybe they come here?
In fact, they want the sex party to take place right here, right now, and there isn't much of a choice, so our producers and the investigators play along.
Robert: Okay, come, girls.
They take the girls behind closed doors to separate them from the pimps and to protect them.
The pimps wait in the hallway.
An investigator manages to make a phone call to alert the police who are supposed to be standing by.
A producer stalls for time...
Then suddenly there's commotion in the hallway.
The girls panic.
Dateline: Be good girl. Be good girl. It's okay. It's okay.
Girl: I know. I know.
Dateline: It's okay.
The police have burst in.
This girl - Yau - tries to run away.
The suspects scramble.
Investigator Bob Mosier struggles with one.
A plainclothes cop chases the suspect and strikes him with his gun.
Then Mosier finds that girl who tried to run off - Yau.
Bob Mosier: That's okay. That's okay. Come here.
She and the others don't understand, don't know if they're being kidnapped or arrested.
They're gathered on a sofa in the hallway, another missing girl - Tau - is found hiding in a closet.
Everyone is crying.
This girl says in broken English that she doesn't know what to do or where to go.
Girl: My mommy after die.
She has no mother.
Outside a crowd gathers. Among the spectators: a man who looks very familiar. Remember him? He's that police officer who was working with the pimps and asked for a bribe.
Robert: How about $100?
Now, he is off duty and out of uniform. Could he, or someone like him, have tipped off the pimps and made them suspicious?
Robert: He is a police officer, but I pay him money-
Robert: To, to have sex with young girl. Can you arrest him? I show you?
At first the crooked cop slips away.
But moments later police grab him and drag him back.
But now there’s a problem with the girls.
Bob Mosier: There are nine girls sitting back there. Three of them disappeared off the couch.
In all the commotion, our cameras catch this suspected Madam sneaking one of the girls past the police. In an instant she's gone.
So are several others.
Robert: Oh, I think she ran away.
Officers are dispatched to look for the missing girls.
Cambodian Officer: No victim.
They don't find them, but inside other brothels, they do find more than two dozen teenagers - 14 and older.
Word of the raid has spread rapidly. Now most of the brothels are shuttered and padlocked.
Police break the doors open.
In one of the brothels, they stumble on a lone teenager and signs others made a hurried exit: scattered shoes, and a bowl of soup - still warm.
And everywhere traces of crimes committed behind closed doors:
Condoms. And drugs. And what look like ordinary business ledgers, only each of these entries could be evidence of the rape of a child...
Dateline: [What] do they have? That tells you how much business they do?
Bob Mosier: Yeah, yeah, this is how much business. Look at, uh, let's look at today.
Some of the ledger books look more like a grade school project -- one book per girl -- each with a photo and name on the cover.
It hasn't all gone according to plan, but at the end of the day a dozen suspected pimps and madams are in custody and 37 girls rescued, girls like Tieng and Yau -- seen here being carried from the brothel to a van waiting outside.
Robert: Where's the rest of them?
Police Officer: [Khmer]
Investigator: They're still coming.
As they're loaded into the van, they're in shock.
Several - like Tau - are still sobbing.
Others - like this little girl, Tieng - are more subdued.
Escorted by officers from the Cambodian Ministry of Interior, they pull away from this place where they lost so much - hopefully never to return.
So where will these girls end up? Can they ever escape their past? We're about to find out.
After a tense rescue operation, these girls have been moved from brothels to a safe house.
Shannon Sedgwick: Those are for you.
For the moment, it's the calm after the storm. Their fate is still uncertain.
For Gary Haugen, the head of the human rights group that made all this happen, it's a moment to pause and be thankful. But he says if you really want to attack the child sex trade, you need to go after the people most responsible.
Gary Haugen: Anybody who preys upon children should suffer the consequences of it. They need to be properly brought to justice.
One man in particular he hopes authorities will catch up with is Dr. Jerry Albom, who has bragged about having sex with teen sex slaves.
Jerry Albom: Usually I buy out three, three girls--
Jerry Albom: -- for 50 bucks. Take 'em for the whole night.
We want to ask Dr. Albom about his comments. We learn he's temporarily practicing medicine on the island of Guam - a tiny U.S. Territory in the Pacific.
Early one morning in June 2003, we wait for him to show up for work.
Chris Hansen, Dateline NBC: Hey, Dr. Albom? Chris Hansen, with Dateline NBC. How are you?
Jerry Albom: Nice to meet you.
Chris Hansen: Good. We're doing an investigation into the trade of underage prostitutes in Cambodia, and we know that you've frequented some of the places in and around Phnom Penh, and Svay Pak.
Jerry Albom: That's true. I have visited there many times.
Chris Hansen: With underage girls?
Jerry Albom: No. [pause] Not to my knowledge.
Chris Hansen: May I show you a videotape?
Jerry Albom: Yes, but not on camera.
Chris Hansen: Well, I think you'll want to see this.
We show him some of the undercover video.
Jerry Albom: I, I, I usually take, don't take girls that are very, very young. I mean 15, 16 and older. Maybe a 14-year-old might sneak in if you can't tell the age. But you know I don't take little -- the really little ones back....
Chris Hansen: You say, "15, 16, maybe a 14-year-old will sneak in." That's underage, Doctor.
Jerry Albom: I don't want to say anything more, but I've read about things like this. I've talked to people who've done this, but I deny any participation in anything like this.
Jerry Albom (hidden camera):And, you know, these young ones.
He denies breaking any laws...and offers a possible explanation for his remarks.
Jerry Albom: There are many things I've read about, many things people have talked to me about, and I don't want to participate and make judgments on something I may have said when I was drunk, or, or may have been slipped a pill. Who knows? That is not my ---
Chris Hansen: Drunk or slipped a pill?
Jerry Albom: Right.
Chris Hansen: That's your defense.
Jerry Albom: Yes. Uh, from one episode that I, I don't even recognize myself --- I don't even recognize myself saying something like that to people. I ---
Chris Hansen: But you know this is you?
Jerry Albom: I would agree that is me.
Chris Hansen: And you also talk about getting three girls for the night, for 50 dollars.
Jerry Albom: Uh, I don't want to comment specifically on anything on there, uh, anymore, ok. I will deny anything, any illegal activity, uh, by United States laws, and I will leave it at that.
Dr. Albom has never been charged with a crime - but following our report he faced disciplinary action by medical boards in five states and no longer has a license to practice in the U.S.
That's the not the only impact we've seen.
More than a dozen alleged traffickers exposed in our original report were arrested. Six were convicted and given prison sentences ranging from 5 to 20 years.
And in Canada, this man, Donald Bakker, is serving a seven-year sentence for traveling to Cambodia to have sex with children. Our story helped crack the case. Police found tapes Bakker had made of himself having sex with children at an unknown location in Asia. Detectives figured out where when they saw our broadcast.
Chris Hansen: It turns out that some of the girls seen on Bakker's video performing sex acts on him were seen being rescued in our story.
Detective Ron Bieg: Yes. Four of them. That was the break that we needed.
The U.S. State Department reports that, since 2003, the government of Cambodia has made significant progress against human trafficking, but is still falling short. The crux of the problem, the State Department says, is public corruption: some Cambodian officials cashing in on what continues to be a lucrative, illicit trade.
We recently saw signs of the continuing sex trade in the city of Siem Reap - near the temples of Angkor Wat.
Interpreter: Boom-boom for sex, how much?
A Dateline photographer with a hidden camera was approached by prostitutes on the street...
Dateline: Twenty? Wow.
All claimed they were over 18 years old.
That same night, police were preparing to raid this club to arrest suspected traffickers, but the operation was called off at the last minute after word of the plan leaked.
General Por Phak runs Cambodia’s anti-trafficking efforts.
General Por Phak: The case is ongoing. Investigation is going on as to-- is ongoing -- as to who actually tipped off the--
Chris Hansen: So, just because an investigation is compromised doesn't mean it's over?
General Por Phak: No. It's not over.
The general admits more needs to be done, but says his government has a zero tolerance policy and points to the arrests of men like this Russian businessman, accused of raping 19 girls.
And this American, Terry Smith, who was running a sleazy bar in southern Cambodia, where he allegedly was abusing young girls. Smith was also wanted for sex crimes back in Oregon. Cambodia handed him over to U.S. authorities, and he's now serving 22 years.
The crackdown on criminals is just one part of what's changed in Cambodia. You’re about to meet a remarkable American family who gave up nearly everything to come here to help the children.
Chris Hansen: You sold your house?
James Pond: Sold our house.
And we'll take you on an extraordinary visit to see some of the girls rescued five years ago.
Dateline: Do you know how to lock the door?
After Dateline exposed the ugly truth of Svay Pak…
Dateline: And how old are you?
Cambodian authorities cracked down.
So what's it like today?
This is the main street of Svay Pak. Five years ago it was lined with brothels. Now, Svay Pak is a changed place. Many of the brothels have closed their doors and moved out of town, replaced by restaurants, a phone store, even a children's community center serving children, some of the same children who were once exploited here.
This front part is new here.This building used to be a brothel. Now, thanks to an American charity, children and women come here for classes and counseling.
It's just one of several efforts apparently inspired by our reporting.
James Pond says seeing our story changed his life.
James Pond: And it was one of those seminal moments where seeing this thing, we were just completely gripped by it. My wife was in tears. I couldn't get up off the couch. And it was one of those things that once you've seen it, it's, you either have to do something about it, or it will not- it'll just keep haunting you.
And so Pond, at the time a successful sales executive in California, sat down with his wife and three children to discuss what they could do. They made a dramatic decision.
Chris Hansen: You sold your house?
James Pond: Sold our house.
Chris Hansen: Sold the cars?
James Pond: Sold the cars. Sold our furniture to all of our neighbors. Quit my job. My job thought I was absolutely insane.
They took a last trip to Disneyland and then the whole family moved to Cambodia. James, a former U.S. Marine, and his wife Athena, established a center for teens rescued from brothels. They battled bureaucracy and a tough environment, but over two years managed to hire a staff and take in more than two dozen girls who'd been trafficked.
Chris Hansen: Was there any time when it was just so frustrating or so overwhelming that you said, "Geesh?"
James Pond: Anytime-- anytime that we felt overwhelmed, you would go spend time with those girls. You'd look in their faces. You'd see them smile at you. And it was like a rejuvenation occurred.
James Pond: See you later.
James Pond: With the right amount of heart and effort, you can make a difference in someone's life. You don't change the issue, you change a life one at a time.
But changing the lives of girls who've been forced into sexual slavery is an enormous challenge.
Especially when they're teenagers.
Most of the girls we saw rescued five years ago were teens at the time.
They were taken to specialized group homes.
Many of those teens left the shelters; some even returned to the sex trade.
But what about the younger girls? What's happened to them since their rescue?
Recently we had a rare invitation to visit four of the girls from the organization caring for them.
Bob Mosier: Okay, that's okay. Come here.
This was Yau five years ago.
This one of the youngest: Tieng...
This was Loeum. Sold into slavery by her own mother, she spent a year trapped in the brothels.
And then there was an image we'll never forget:
This girl, Tau, distraught, unable to stop crying.
This is Tau today.
And the three other girls.
Back in 2003, they were 7 to 10 years old, now they're 12 to 15.
What seems so normal, is really a miracle.
Four girls, playing and studying.
In school, they're doing algebra and, we're told, catching up academically.
They seem to be flourishing, learning traditional Cambodian dance. And even martial arts.
They were proud to show me their new skills.
Sue Taylor has overseen their care.
Sue Taylor: The Tai Kwan Do was to gain confidence in themselves, so that they can feel like they can have some control over their life. If somebody comes up to them, they know some self-defense.
Chris Hansen: It is a-- an amazing transformation, to see that girl once so frightened, once so battered, to be out there and being able to perform a traditional Cambodian--
Sue Taylor: A beautiful dance. Yes.
Chris Hansen: --dance on stage. That's gotta be pretty rewarding for you.
Sue Taylor: That's what makes all the difference, I think.
The rehabilitation of girls who've been so severely abused is far from simple -
Talmage Payne: They come with some drug addictions. They will come with a whole lot of fear. They don't trust people.
Talmage Payne runs Hagar, the charitable organization caring for the girls.
Talmage Payne: You know, you you come in with great intentions and telling you're gonna help them -- but that's what the last abuser did. That's what the last person that purchased them did.
The girls all have undergone intensive therapy one-on-one, he says, but they still suffer.
Talmage Payne: Of the four girls that you have, one of 'em has a history of-- when a traumatic memory comes back, she goes into almost like a stroke-like situation. You know, she's just out.
Chris Hansen: Blanks out?
Talmage Payne: Blanks out.
In spite of all they've been through, the girls agreed to sit down with us to talk about their lives.
They acknowledge it's not been easy...
Chris Hansen: Millions of people in America will see this story. What's the most important thing you want to say to them about your experience?
Tau: I would like to tell them that I came from a dark and dirty place and now I'm very happy. And I'm preparing for my future.
Chris Hansen: Do you ever think about some of the girls who didn't get this opportunity to come here?
Chris Hansen: And what do you think about when you--
Loeum: The children in the brothels who cannot escape are stuck in a dark world. They're helpless.
Even though some of these children were sold into slavery by their own parents, Hagar takes them to visit their families a few times a year, - usually on holidays - and always with a guardian.
Remarkably, the girls say they appreciate the visits.
Chris Hansen: Do you ever think you'll go back and live with them?
Loeum: I could, but I don't want to go back.
Chris Hansen: You like it right here?
Chris Hansen: Do you ever go back to Svay Pak at all?
Tieng: I want to forget that story.
Instead, they say they prefer to focus on the next chapter of their lives.
And they expect it to be a happy one-
Yau: When I grow up, I want to be a dance teacher.
Loeum: I want to be the CEO of a company or run an organization.
Tieng: I want to become a doctor.
That they're able to have those dreams shows just how far these girls have come.
All in all, Sue Taylor says, they’re coping pretty well.
Sue Taylor: I think they will always have scars. I think those scars will never heal totally.
Chris Hansen: What do you think the chances are that they'll grow up to have a normal, successful life?
Sue Taylor: I feel quite confident that they will. I think that they came in so young. And that was the-- the great thing, that they were rescued young. And so they've had a lot of intervention and a lot of healing and a lot of counseling. And so I-- I really have a lot of hope for them.
It's easy to see why.
When it was time for me to leave Cambodia, the girls insisted on seeing me off at the airport.
A touching moment and a time to reflect on how fortunate I feel to have met them.
We shared some ice cream, a few tears, and a promise we'd see each other again.
The International Justice Mission is still working to fight child prostitution in Cambodia. In the past five years, the group has trained nearly 300 police officers and has helped in the arrests of more than 130 people.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints