Intellectually, I knew exactly what I was getting into when I offered to go undercover to document the child sex trade in Cambodia. Emotionally, I didn’t have a clue.
Our technical whiz and cameraman, Mitchell Wagenberg, and I didn’t really have time to think about it as we prepared for our first shoot hours after our flight landed in Cambodia. We had just traveled halfway around the world and were still in a jetlag daze when we headed to the village of Svay Pak on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
We were with Bob Mosier, a veteran cop from Virginia and the chief investigator for the International Justice Mission, a human rights group that specializes in freeing women and children from slave labor conditions, including the sex trade. Mosier told us the pimps of Svay Pak would approach us as soon as we pulled into town, and he promised we would have no problem getting footage of the kids being offered for sale for sex.
I was skeptical. Usually, it takes a few attempts to get what we’re looking for. But Mosier was right. In a matter of minutes, teenage pimps led us into the back room of a shack where a swarm of girls was competing for our attention as if vying for the grand prize of a contest.
“New girls! New girls!” exclaimed Po, a 15-year-old pimp. What he meant was the girls filling the room had arrived recently from Vietnam. Some, especially the really young ones, age 10 and under, were sent by family members, who probably were paid a few hundred dollars in return. Many of the teenagers, we learned, had been tricked, believing they were coming to Phnom Penh to work as waitresses, and now were stuck with no way to get back home.
It came down to this: these five- to 10-year-old girls, instead of playing with dolls or learning to read, were being raped so adults could make a living. As the father of two daughters, I couldn’t fathom the kind of desperation that would prompt a parent to send a child into this situation.
So there I was, sitting on a sagging mattress in a brothel facing a girl who said she was nine. “Yum-yum,” she said, using the local term for oral sex. Just in case we had any doubts, the 10-year-old standing next to her demonstrated with her hand and her mouth. Oh, yes, they insisted with smiles. They knew how to do it and told us if we weren’t satisfied after, we wouldn’t have to pay.
I’ve reported on drug trafficking, arms dealing, terrorism, political corruption, and organized crime. I’ve been in a few predicaments. But nothing compared to facing these girls, least of all when they reached across the space separating us and grabbed our crotch areas with their tiny hands.
Horrified, Mitchell Wagenberg and I stared in disbelief as we tried to figure out our next move. The girls and their pimps were supposed to believe we were sexual predators. All I wanted to do was scoop these kids up and get them out of this nightmare. I looked at their smiles and thought of my daughters. I wanted to cry.
We stood up and told the children we weren’t ready to go through with it, but would come back another time. They pleaded with us to stick around. We found Bob Mosier out in the hallway and navigated our way through the dark to the brothel door. “We’ll be back soon,” we said as we left.
We did come back about two weeks later. This time, we were on the inside of an operation set up by Mosier’s group, the IJM, to bring in the Cambodian police and rescue the girls. Once more, we had to go through the stomach-churning experience of posing as perverts.
We each found ourselves in a room with three girls. One girl in my room, we were told, was 5. She had such a sweet face. How many times, I wondered, had these girls been behind closed doors with American men who abused them? What kind of monster do they think I am? If only I could let them know why we’re really here.
Even now, months after the police raided the brothel, I take solace in the fact that at least some of the girls we met are no longer being raped. But I wonder how they will heal, and whether they will ever truly recover from the damage inflicted by the adults around them. And, often, when I lie awake in bed at night, I am haunted by the faces of the girls we saw who were not rescued and who are still being violated.