Buying sex with a 12-year-old girl in Cambodia takes less time and effort than paying for a telephone bill. For $1 USD, a shady motorbike will take you on a 20 minute ride up the haphazard highway north of Phnom Penh to the dark and grim village of Svay Pak. Also known as Kilometre 11 or K11 (11 kilometers from Phnom Penh), Svay Pak is internationally famous for its tainted collection of shanties, brothels, and karaoke bars that exploit young Vietnamese and Cambodian women, and children as young as five.
This brothel village is a shameful ensemble of brick and concrete shop houses where immigrant prostitutes offer “boom-boom” – sex – and “yum-yum” – oral sex – for $5 USD in cramped, clammy rooms and makeshift plywood cubicles. To a pedophile, Svay Pak is the jackpot. Sex with a girl aged 10 to 13 costs about $30 USD. Younger girls cost more. A virgin costs a few hundred dollars. Many foreign men who come here prefer younger girls, partly in hope of avoiding disease. Sadly, disease is everywhere. Many children as young as 15 have died from HIV/AIDS.
“While a majority of adult sex workers came to Svay Pak voluntarily, children make up most of the population of sex workers that came to Svay Pak involuntarily. Sold by families or neighbors in severe poverty, kidnapped off the streets, tricked into working in the sex trade, children are the shame as well as financial pride of Svay Pak. Brothels are able to get away with abusing the children and keeping all of their earnings in order to pay for the cost of taking care of them. Children are serviced out to customers for many days at a time for a fee and are usually not given a choice in regards to safe sex. Some child sex workers have reported being gang-raped and mentally abused at the hands of their clients. Those that are lucky enough to escape are in a limbo about what to do next. Many are too ashamed to return home or cannot return home because they have no evidence of nationality (Vietnamese victims). Others see their salvation in marrying the foreigners they had sex with. They write love letters to their clients in hopes that one day they will return and give them social, economic, and physical security.”
Jan 19 – The moment we turned the small, awkward corner into Svay Pak, I felt my heart beat faster and my breath heavy. I let out a disgruntled sigh as scattered thoughts of anguish raced through my mind. It is unbelievable to me that hidden behind what is seemingly a short strip of colourful shop houses is Cambodia’s dirty little secret. There was a thick air of gloominess and sorrow making it difficult for me to breathe easy. Every child I saw made me want to break down and cry. Each innocent frame has been abused by filthy foreign men. This is hell.
Before the last police raid in 2005, prostitution and child sex exploitation was a barely kept secret. Dozens of women stand in the doorways of their brothels waving and blowing kisses at (white) customers arriving in the village. Worst of all, young boys pimp girls no older than they are. Today, the locals here pretend to ignore you, but all you have to do is ask.
Even in pictures this place seems bleak.
These images still haunt me.
Ironically, this village is centered around an angelic church at which Father Vincent preaches every Sunday. It doesn’t surprise me that desperation for survival defies all morality and reasoning. On the other hand, I will never understand and sympathize with educated and wealthy Americans, Canadians, European, and Asian men who prey on the innocence of children. The thought shakes my core.
I meet these two girls named Thao (left) and Van (right). Immediately, Van clings to me. Within 5 minutes, she asks me to take her home to Canada. When I ask her why, she turns her head away from me and lowers it as if shamefully. I quickly change the subject and ask her if there are a lot of White “tourists” who visit her village (remember, only sex tourists visit Svay Pak). She answers, “Yes”. I ask her, “Are they young like me or are they old?”. She answers, “Both”.
What still haunts my dreams is what happened after I took this photo. Van asked me to watch her “play”. I happily agreed until I watched her climb on top of this 3 year old boy, straddle him sexually, and proceed to kiss him passionately. In my horror, I yelled at her to stop. She laughed it off.
A five year old girl should not act this way. Sadly for Van, it is nothing but a daily occurrence that she has normalized into “play”.
Van never wanted to let go of me! I think of her every day.
There was an air of tension between these girls and myself as I photographed them as if they were ashamed. I smiled and waved to clear the air, and they kindly smiled back. We all want to forget about what really goes on here.
Girls are not the only victims of sexual exploitation in Cambodia. Minh (to my right) shared with us that when he was seven years old, his best friend of the same age was sold by his own mother. Minh lost faith in the church since then and has only returned to religion in the last year.
The young girl in yellow was an OBV child who wanted to return to Svay Pak to live with her parents.
These pimps sit in their corner all day, across from the church, playing poker and smoking cigarettes. The sight of these callous and heartless monsters disgusts me beyond words. My blood boils still.
I leave Svay Pak bitter and heavy hearted with this last photo. He looks at me with sadness in his eyes and all I can do is smile and wave goodbye.
Every year, Father Martino leads many mission trips entitled “Lend A Hand” – One of them is a trip beginning in January 2013! Father Martino continuously repeat the purpose of the mission: “When you are on the mission with me – you don’t do a lot!! I want you to open yourselves, watch, listen, see and learn! The DOINGS begin when you return to the US!” so you can talk about it and do with passion to be the VOICE and the HAND of these children being sold/forced into sex slavery!
Here are some of their reflections.
Hằng năm, Cha Nguyễn Bá Thông dẫn đầu nhiều chuyến hành trình với sứ mạng “Chung một bàn tay” – Một trong số đó là chuyến hành trình vào tháng 1 năm 2013. Cha Thông luôn lặp đi lặp lại một điều: “Khi tham gia hành trình sứ mạng cùng Cha – các con đừng làm gì nhiều! Cha muốn chính các con hãy nhìn – nghe – chứng kiến – và học hỏi! Việc “LÀM” hãy bắt đầu khi các con trở về đất nước! Khi đó, hãy nói và làm với cả tâm huyết để trở thành TIẾNG NÓI và BÀN TAY cho các trẻ em bị bán/bị bắt ép làm nô lệ tình dục!”
Đây là cảm nhận của các bạn gửi về sau mỗi hành trình.