CAMBODIA & THAILAND – Srey Neang’s Story
- Shining Light into Darkness
- A False Rescue
- The Conspiracy
- The Police Raid
- The Difference a Friend Makes
- The Rooster Crows Thrice
- Freedom Blues
- Family Honor
- A New Mother
- Freedom at Last
Shining Light into Darkness
“I paid good money for you!”
How Srey Neang loathed those words. They made a claim on her, excusing any abuse, justifying every chore. The old woman bought her not long after she turned seven.
Srey Neang’s parents were struggling to care for five children in a camp for internally displaced Cambodians. The camp was situated near the border with Thailand where food was scarce and jobs nonexistent. The old woman and her son came to the camp seeking a young girl to be a house servant. Her parents sacrificed one child for the survival of her siblings.
Memories of her family now lurk in shadows. She recalls playing in a dusty field with other children. Are those kids rolling on the ground her brothers and sisters? Rumors that her parents were Khmer Rouge militants follow Srey Neang. Of course, pinning that history on a child could be a form of manipulation. A daughter of the Khmer Rouge merited a tragic karma.
The old woman lived in a small structure; a single space served as bedroom, kitchen, and living room. At night, Srey Neang pulled out a mat to sleep on a knotty wood floor in the corner of the house.
She cooked the woman’s meals, bathed her, washed clothes, scrubbed the floors, and performed any other chore demanded of her. Her master demonstrated neither affection nor malice; she expected only obedience. Srey Neang was never once addressed by name. “Hey you, get me some water,” the woman would say, or “Girl, go sweep the floor.” Did the old woman know her name? Some days Srey Neang whispered her own name softly to herself simply so that she would not forget.
Three years passed, and then her master turned very ill. Some days the woman did not even rise from the bed. During that period Srey Neang rarely left the house; morning and evening she tended to the dying woman’s needs. The loneliness felt heavy at times.
Once the woman died, her son acted decisively to consolidate his mother’s property. “Pack your stuff,” he ordered Srey Neang no more than an hour after burying his mother. “You now will serve my family.”
Srey Neang grabbed the few clothes she owned, rolled them up in the sleeping mat, and departed the old women’s home for the final time. The son lived on the other side of the village, perhaps a walk of fifteen minutes. Though short in distance, the journey transported her to a new and dangerous universe.
Srey Neang sensed the rotten air as soon as she arrived. The wife of her new master treated her gruffly, as if to blame Srey Neang for an unwanted intrusion into her home.
She now had four people to serve—the married couple and their two young children. Srey Neang worked steadily from the break of day until the final member of the family fell asleep at night. Yet no effort proved good enough for her owners. Both husband and wife beat her with a reedy switch for the slightest offence: the porridge was too salty, or the front door of the house had been left open. Often they beat Srey Neang for things she did not even do.
No matter, it was their right. After all, they would declare, “We paid good money for you!”
A False Rescue
Srey Neang, at twelve years old, learned to anticipate when her masters would beat her. Not that she could do anything to prevent it. She paid for every failure or misfortune with blows from the reedy switch. She endured the abuse in silence. Yet whenever the opportunity arose, she would run from the house and, at a safe distance, release the pain screaming inside her.
That was precisely her condition when Sovanna found her. He lived in Phnom Penh but often came to her small village to visit relatives. Though he looked sixteen, Sovanna was actually in his early twenties and had a wife in the Cambodian capital.
“So what did those ogres do to you this time?” he would ask sympathetically.
Sharing the story with Sovanna did not take away the sting, but it made her feel better to talk about it.
One afternoon, after a particularly bad beating, Sovanna planted a subversive idea: “Hey, these people treat you like a dog! Why don’t you come to Phnom Penh and live with my family?”
Srey Neang looked long and hard at Sovanna; could he be kidding? His next comment erased her doubt: “My mother could use your help in her shop. You could attend school and work for her on weekends.”
Her heart made a leap. Though she could not imagine what life in a busy city might be like, it had to be better than this living hell. Together they devised an escape plan.
One week later, Srey Neang was living in Phnom Penh. Sovanna’s mother immediately put her to work, dispatching Srey Neang out to the city center with a tray of fresh-baked cakes to sell. In the evenings Srey Neang would tend the shop that the family ran out of its home. Neighbors came to buy cigarettes, alcohol, and an assortment of sweets.
School, however, dropped off the agenda. Only once did Srey Neang ask when she might take classes with other kids in the neighborhood. Sovanna responded that the family needed her to work full-time to cover her expenses.
Sovanna otherwise continued to show her kindness. He often would take her with him to run errands around Phnom Penh. She especially liked visiting the riverfront, where they would watch a parade of small vessels move in and out of the city.
Sovanna’s wife, Ly, quickly became jealous of the tight bond that Srey Neang had developed with her husband. Though Srey Neang still had not reached fourteen, Ly convinced herself that the two were involved romantically. Ly would become cross whenever they returned from an outing. Her anger eventually turned abusive. She began calling Srey Neang “that little Khmer Rouge bitch.” After a nasty fight with Sovanna, she would scream at her husband, “Get out of this house, and take your little prostitute with you!”
Neither Sovanna nor Srey Neang could persuade Ly of the innocence of their relationship. Srey Neang sensed danger. A child walking alone, bereft of family and community, always has cause to fear.
Srey Neang did not go on excursions beyond the occasional outing with Sovanna. She had no friends—she “celebrated” her fifteenth birthday alone tending the shop. Work was her life.
So when Tevy asked Srey Neang to accompany her on a trip to the ancient Buddhist temple of Angkor Wat, she practically fell speechless. Tevy lived down the street and was a close friend to Sovanna’s wife, Ly, which made the invitation all the more unexpected. Because Ly had soiled her reputation in the neighborhood, Srey Neang had resigned herself to being a social leper. Miraculously, both Sovanna’s mother and Ly gave her leave to go on the trip. During the three years she had lived at their home, Srey Neang had never had even a single day off.
Tevy borrowed a car for the journey. As soon as they had left Phnom Penh, Srey Neang lost her bearings. She had heard the name Angkor Wat on the lips of tourists to whom she sold cakes in the city plaza. But it could be located on the moon for all she knew.
After a long morning on the highway, a sign welcomed them to the town of Siem Reap. Tevy suddenly announced, “My cousin lives here, and I promised him that I would drop in and say hello.” A few minutes later, she pulled over to park in front of a karaoke club.
They jumped out of the car and walked to a set of stairs attached to the side of the club. Tevy’s “cousin” awaited them on the top landing. He introduced himself as Chuan and offered both his visitors a cold drink. After a few minutes of small talk, he ushered Tevy into an adjoining room and shut the door. Srey Neang awkwardly sat alone in the living room.
Nearly half an hour passed before the two re-emerged. Tevy did not hesitate to drop a bombshell: “I’ve run out of cash. Before we go on to Angkor Wat, I need to pick up some money. You stay here with my cousin, and I’ll come back and pick you up later.”
The words packed a punch to Srey Neang’s stomach. She could not identify the precise story line, but she sensed danger. “Oh, please let me go with you,” she begged Tevy. “I won’t be any trouble.”
“No,” Tevy snapped, “you’ll just get in the way.” Tevy then walked swiftly to the door and down the stairs to her car. Srey Neang stood motionless for a few seconds before breaking into a convulsion of sobs.
“Oh, come on now, what are you worried about?” she heard Chuan’s voice behind her. Srey Neang turned and saw his outstretched hand holding a tissue. “You’ll have lots of fun here,” he said.
Srey Neang did not respond, but cried quietly into the now-drenched tissue.
“Hey, why don’t we go out to a nice restaurant and celebrate your arrival in Siem Reap?” Chuan suggested. “I guarantee that you’ll love the food.”
Chuan raised his hand as if to say, “Wait here for a moment,” and scurried off to the adjoining room. A few moments later he returned holding a beautiful black dress and matching shoes.
“These should cheer you up,” he said enthusiastically. “We are going to a very nice restaurant, the best in town, and you have to look like you belong there.”
Srey Neang never imagined herself in such an elegant dress. Her wardrobe consisted of a skirt, two shirts, and a single pair of pants, all of which had turned threadbare from regular use. Perhaps, she thought, it was a stroke of luck that Tevy had left her with Chuan.
Nor had Srey Neang dined at a restaurant where servers wait on customers. During the meal, Chuan asked her lots of questions about herself. Yes, she was fifteen years old. No, she did not live with her parents. She did not allow the small talk to interfere with the enjoyment of her meal.
The dinner over, they strolled back to the karaoke bar. “Let’s go inside the club,” Chuan said upon their arrival. “I want you to meet a couple of my friends.”
Srey Neang followed him through the entrance. At first her eyes had trouble adjusting to the darkness of the room. Slowly, she could make out the scene. At nearly every table a middle-aged man enjoyed the company of two or more young women who casually draped their bodies around him.
Chuan led her through the club, occasionally pausing to give a brief greeting to a male patron. Once they reached a staircase at the back of the club, he pointed upward with his index finger. Srey Neang went first. At the top of the stairs they reached a small hallway with three doors, all shut. She turned around to get further instructions. Chuan jerked his head deliberately to the right, indicating which door she was to open.
Srey Neang turned the knob and tentatively pushed forward. It startled her to see a man standing in the middle of the room as if he were anticipating her arrival. She heard the sound of the door click shut behind her. She did not need to turn her head to know that Chuan had not entered the room with her.
The room did not hold much furniture, save a bed and a small nightstand. The man, in his mid–thirties, appeared to be a Cambodian. He uttered a simple, shocking command in the local dialect: “Take off your clothes.”
Srey Neang reeled backward toward the door. “I’m sorry,” she said, trying her best to keep a steady voice. “You must be confusing me with someone else.”
“No, I’m not mistaken,” he replied. “I paid good money for you.” He then held out the palms of his hands, whispering, “Now be a good girl, and show me what you’ve got under that dress.”
Srey Neang spun around and flew out the door in retreat. Chuan, however, was waiting for her on the other side of the door. He wrapped his arms around her torso and squeezed her in a strong bear hug. Srey Neang struggled with all her might but could not break free.
“Let go of me, you brute!” she screamed.
“You aren’t going anywhere until you pay back what you owe me!” Chuan yelled as he dragged her toward the room.
“What do you mean ‘what I owe you’?” she asked incredulously. “You never gave me any money!”
“Oh yeah, how about your dinner tonight?” he said. “You also owe me for those clothes you’re wearing. And I gave $150 to that woman who brought you here this afternoon.”
Once he finished listing her debts, Chuan shoved her toward the man, saying, “Now unless you have some other way of paying me, get to work!”
“Tevy had no right to sell me!” Srey Neang protested in red rage. “I’ve never had anything to do with that witch until she tricked me into coming on this trip.”
Chuan could not have shown any less interest in fairness. Ignoring her plea, he changed tactics: “You aren’t fooling me with your fake innocence. I know you’re already used goods.”
“What do you take me for?” asked Srey Neang. “I’m still a virgin!”
“That’s not the story I got,” Chuan said as he chuckled.
“Young girls should not be screwing around with other women’s husbands.”
In a flash the veil fell from Srey Neang’s eyes. So here was her punishment for being a close friend to Sovanna. She had fallen for an intricate conspiracy. The air went out of her rebellion.
Chuan, sensing his victory, offered encouragement: “Hey, don’t worry. After a few times it’s not hard. You’ll get used to it.”
By night’s end, four adult men had raped Srey Neang. The nights to follow never got better.
The Police Raid
From the moment she arrived at the karaoke club, Srey Neang looked for a chance to escape. But Chuan operated the club like a prison. Whenever they were not seeing johns, the girls were kept captive in the apartment atop the club. Each door had a deadbolt that locked from the outside. Steel wires covered the windows.
He forced the women to have sex with ten men each day on average. Most of the johns hailed from Cambodia, though a decent portion came from Thailand, China, and India. The customers began trickling into the karaoke club in the late afternoon, and the final engagement might not end until two in the morning. On rare occasions, a john would pay to keep a girl for the entire night. More typically, johns put out $2.50 for a visit that might last twenty minutes.
Chuan aimed to keep a steady stable of young women working in the club at any given time. Few showed up as young as Srey Neang; most had turned seventeen or eighteen years old, and none were older than twenty-four. Regardless, once at the karaoke club, they aged at an accelerated pace. A woman seemed to add two days for every one day she spent there.
To prevent rebellion, Chuan regularly sold individual women to other brothel owners. A network of recruiters had little trouble replenishing his supply. Due to the constant turnover, the women rarely formed relationships where trust and solidarity might take root. They shared a nightmare, yet faced their suffering alone.
In a departure from his pattern, Chuan did not sell off Srey Neang. He had his reasons. A good number of the johns specifically requested a young girl, and that made Srey Neang a valuable commodity. Chuan’s second reason made Srey Neang even more ill. He confessed that he had fallen in love with her.
As far as she was concerned, love had nothing to do with their relationship. Chuan raped Srey Neang at least three times a week. He treated her no better or no worse than the other johns she met each day. Occasionally Chuan brought her small gifts such as perfume or new earrings. He never failed to mention— usually the next day—that he had added the cost of the gift to her debt.
Only on one occasion did Srey Neang feel hopeful about getting away from the karaoke club. Late one morning, while nearly all of the girls still lay asleep in their beds, she awoke to the sound of pounding at the front door. She stumbled out of the bedroom and heard a clear voice bark: “It’s the police! Open up the door immediately!”
“I can’t,” she yelled back through the door. “The door locks only from the outside. You’ll have to get the key from Chuan.”
“Stand back then,” the voice advised. “We’re going to break down the door.” “Be my guest!” Srey Neang squealed with delight.
Within seconds a band of uniformed police officers came bursting through the entrance. By now, all of the girls had spilled out of their bedrooms and stood pensively in the front hallway. The officer in charge paced slowly in a circle around them. He used exaggerated gestures to show that he was counting the number of girls present. He then announced, “You are all under arrest for the illegal solicitation of sex.”
“Boy, I never thought I would be so glad to be arrested,” quipped an older girl. She then added to the policeman who grabbed her arm, “But you got the wrong criminal. Find that bastard Chuan, and throw him behind bars.” Ignoring her comment, the commanding officer ordered his team to escort the girls down the stairs to the cars parked below. Once at the police station, they placed all the girls in a single holding cell.
Nothing much happened over the next twenty-four hours. Srey Neang kept waiting for the opportunity to tell the police her story. Surely Ly and Chuan committed a crime when they bartered her like a prized cow. And can someone be forced to perform unmentionable acts with men? She thought not.
The following afternoon a guard opened the door of the jail cell and invited only Srey Neang to accompany him. She assumed that she would get fi rst crack at testifying against Chuan. To her surprise, the guard led her straight out of the police station. There, waiting for her on the sidewalk, stood Chuan. “I bet you missed me,” he crowed.
She turned to run back into the police station, but Chuan grabbed her by the arm. “You’re wasting your time,” he said. “How do you think I got you released? The police are more than happy at the moment with their cash bonus.”
Chuan drove her back to the karaoke club. Once they arrived, he walked with her up the stairs to the apartment and then raped her. Before departing the bedroom, he whispered into her ear, “So glad you’re back.” Lying still in her bed, Srey Neang heard the key lock the door.
In the weeks to follow, Srey Neang sank into a deep depression. Sleep once had been her refuge, but the events of the day seeped into her dreams. She now tossed and turned her way through the night. Food lost its appeal. She lost nearly twenty-five pounds. Though she had always been somewhat slight, at sixty-six pounds she now looked all skin and bones.
Perhaps death would be her only escape. She counted it among her options.
The Difference a Friend Makes
At sixteen, Srey Neang was the old hand at the karaoke club. She provided guidance and comfort to the newly enslaved. Though she honestly did not feel like she had learned too many survival tips, she freely passed along what she did know.
Everything changed once Mei arrived. An uncle had sold her to Chuan; the fact that her mother had blessed the arrangement nearly caused Mei to lose her mind.
Srey Neang and Mei bonded like sisters the moment they met. Somehow they found a way to bring laughter into the apartment. Keenly aware of Chuan’s isolation strategy, Srey Neang instructed Mei to hide their blossoming friendship. “Outside this room you must act like you do not even care that I exist,” she advised Mei one afternoon while they were locked up in the apartment.
“That miserable wretch,” Mei hissed. “Why should he care about our friendship? He rules over every other detail of our lives!”
“That’s exactly it,” Srey Neang explained. “He fears that we will plan a future that he cannot control.”
Inspired by friendship, Srey Neang renewed her quest to escape. She decided her best chance lay with Yuth, a young man who paid to have sex with her every two weeks. His clockwork schedule could be traced to his job: Each payday Yuth rewarded himself with a visit to the karaoke club.
Yuth lived out a fantasy that Srey Neang had become his girlfriend. He often brought flowers or some other small gift. Srey Neang played along; men treated girlfriends far better than they did whores.
Not long after Mei’s arrival, Srey Neang threw caution to the wind and told Yuth the truth of her situation. If Yuth betrayed her to Chuan, she could expect a severe beating. In fact, he would lash a girl for showing anything but pleasure while being raped by a man.
“Do you realize that I am kept prisoner here?” she asked Yuth.
“‘Prisoner? What do you mean?” he replied with a puzzled expression.
“I am Chuan’s slave,” she said bluntly. “He forces me to have sex with men each night and locks me up in an apartment when I am not at the club. I did not choose this life, and I cannot choose to leave.”
Yuth took a few seconds to digest this information and then said, “That’s impossible.”
“Why would I lie about something like that?” she replied with a flash of anger. “Don’t you ever wonder why you never see any of the girls from the club in the streets of Siem Reap? It’s because we are captives.”
Yuth then spoke the words that Srey Neang had prayed for: “In that case, I will do whatever I can to help you escape.”
“I would be eternally grateful to you,” gushed Srey Neang. She then put all her cards on the table. “I want to take one girl with me. Her name is Mei, and she is the only friend I have ever had.”
Yuth did not balk at her request and moved into rescue mode. Doing a quick survey of the bedroom, he pointed toward the window. “The wires covering that window aren’t really all that strong. With a bit of effort I bet I could slice through them with my wire cutters.”
The window opened to an alley between the club and a warehouse. Unfortunately, foot traffi c in the alley remained fairly constant over the course of a typical evening. Taking that factor into account, Yuth and Srey Neang decided that they could not pinpoint a date and time of flight. They would prepare the way and wait for the right moment.
Thereafter Yuth increased the frequency of his visits—not too radically lest he raise suspicion. On each visit, he cut a single stretch of wire with cutters that he hid under his shirt. It took him nearly two months to finish the job.
The actual escape relied on careful timing and a bit of luck. Once Yuth would pay Chuan for a visit with Srey Neang, Mei would cajole a john to take her upstairs to an adjoining room. While she suffered her client, Srey Neang and Yuth would closely watch the alley for an opening.
The first attempt failed. Two men casually stood in the alley smoking cigarettes and having a jolly conversation for the entire half hour of Yuth’s session.
Fortune smiled on their second try. The alley and the adjoining street were empty of traffic. Yuth and Srey Neang leaped into action. She pounded three times on the wall to alert Mei, while Yuth pried apart the wire mesh. Just as Mei burst into the room, Yuth had tied the last of his clothes together into a makeshift rope. He fastened one end to a radiator that sat directly below the window and tossed the other end out the opening. Though the rope reached but halfway to the alley, it was close enough.
Mei passed through first and in a matter of minutes stood safely below in the alley. Next came Srey Neang’s turn. Heights generally made her dizzy, so she simply concentrated on moving slowly down the clothing rope. The coat and pants held her weight fine, but the shirt knotted to the radiator did not. The tearing noise alerted her only a second before she went into free fall. She thudded in the alley with a splash, landing in a pool of water. Unfazed, she rolled over and raised herself on all fours, happy to discover that all her limbs worked properly.
Whatever plans Yuth had made for the girls after reaching the ground no longer mattered. In fact, Srey Neang never did learn how Yuth made his way out of the club dressed solely in underwear. Her only concern was to put as much distance as possible between herself and Chuan.
The girls bolted down the alley into the darkness of Siem Reap.
The Rooster Crows Thrice
“So, what do we do now?” asked a frightened Mei. Srey Neang wished she had a good answer for her friend. They had been running through the streets of Siem Reap for the best part of an hour.
“We have to find a way out of town,” she told Mei. She steered their path in the shadows, clear of streetlights. If a patron from the club spotted them, he would be sure to inform Chuan.
They came to a park in the center of Siem Reap. Bustling with tourists during the daytime, the park slept peacefully at night. Turning in a full circle to figure out which direction to head next, Srey Neang noted a taxi parked across the street. A single orange glow in the window tipped off the presence of a driver, cigarette alight, waiting for a fare. Using a tall bush for a shield, she moved forward to get a better view.
“Come, let’s see who that is,” she whispered to Mei as she clutched her right elbow.
Once they moved closer, Srey Neang could make out the driver’s face. It was a man who occasionally visited the karaoke club. Everyone called him the Rooster. She had no clue what his real name might be. She had socialized with him over drinks at the club, but never for a paid session. More than once, the Rooster had expressed his disdain for Chuan: “Your boss thinks he’s such a hotshot now,” he said to her with a scowl. “I remember when he was just a street punk. Someone needs to bring him back down to the dirt.”
In the club it would be suicide for a girl to encourage any slander of Chuan. So Srey Neang kept silent, though she secretly enjoyed the dig at her tyrant. Now, in her moment of dire need, she hoped that the Rooster’s hate for Chuan ran deep.
“I think this guy will help us,” she spoke softly in Mei’s ear.
“How can you be sure?” Mei asked anxiously.
“I can’t. But we really don’t have many other options,” Srey Neang reasoned.
Without further deliberation, the two girls broke their cover and walked directly toward the car.
“Hey girls, where can I take you?” the Rooster asked.
“We really need your help,” Srey Neang pleaded.
“Hey, I know you girls,” he said, as his eyes took their measure. “Aren’t you girls from Chuan’s club?”
“Yes, that pig has kept me his prisoner for over a year,” she poured out in quick confession. “My friend Mei and I just escaped tonight, and there is no doubt that he is now scouring the streets of Siem Reap in search of us. Please, help us get to Phnom Penh.”
The taxi driver took a deep breath and whistled softly to himself, “Phnom Penh? That’s not just around the corner, you know.” The girls stayed quiet, their fate hanging in the balance.
The Rooster broke the silence with a hearty chuckle, “So Chuan finally got one in the gut,” he roared. “Wonderful! Two of his prized possessions fl ew the coop,” he added. “We can’t let this moment of sweet justice pass, can we? Jump in, girls. Your chariot to freedom has arrived.” The Rooster drove the girls late through the night to Phnom Penh. Exhausted from the drama of the evening, Srey Neang and Mei fell into a deep sleep. Only the bright lights of Phnom Penh could stir them from their slumber.
“OK, we’ve reached the capital. Where should I take you?” the Rooster asked, as he peered back at them through his rear-view mirror.
Once more the girls had reached a confusing crossroads. Everyone Srey Neang knew in Phnom Penh had in one way or another participated in her bondage. Mei had grown up in a rural province and never before had visited Phnom Penh. Her family had sold her to Chuan, so going home was out of the question.
After a pause, Srey Neang replied, “Oh, why don’t you just take us to the waterfront near the town center?” Bereft of a plan, at least she had fond memories of sitting along the river with Sovanna.
“Are you kidding me?” the Rooster asked. “It’s not even light out yet. Don’t either of you have any family or friends who live in Phnom Penh?”
The girls both shook their heads without uttering a word. It took the Rooster a few moments to absorb how two young girls could be so lost and alone in the world. “Listen, I have some relatives who live here in Phnom Penh. You can stay with me for a couple of days until you figure out how to survive in this city.”
For the next three days, the girls did little else but eat and sleep. The Rooster’s relatives offered polite hospitality and kept to their own business. On the fourth day after their arrival, the Rooster abruptly ended the girls’ retreat from reality: “So, where do you go from here?”
“To be honest, we don’t have a clue what to do next,” said Srey Neang.
The Rooster gave each a hard stare and then proposed an arrangement. “We can’t stay on here but a day or two more. Like you, I’m broke. I can earn a bit of money driving my taxi, but it’s tough going in this city.”
Trusting that the Rooster had come up with a brilliant solution to their shared dilemma, the girls listened attentively. “You girls, on the other hand, can make good money,” he continued. “A friend of mine in Phnom Penh owns a karaoke club, and he’s agreed to give you both steady work.”
Srey Neang did not need to hear more. She rushed toward the Rooster with her arms flailing. “How dare you try to throw us back into a hellhole!” she screamed.
Raising both arms to protect his face, he tried to reassure her. “Look here, it will be different at this club. You will be free to come and go; no locks and chains. And if a john turns out to be a real jerk, you can refuse to go with him. Besides, my friend has offered us an apartment near his club,” the Rooster went on unabashed. “I don’t see any other option, do you?” It was not a fair fight. The girls had no place to turn, and the Rooster knew it. The next morning they moved into the apartment, and by that afternoon the girls had started working the tables at the karaoke club.
At sixteen years old, Srey Neang had not realized how relative a state freedom could be. She and Mei no longer lived under lock and key, but they nonetheless left their apartment each day faced with the prospect of turning ten tricks. The club owner paid the Rooster their earnings every Friday, minus 30 percent club hosting fees and 40 percent more for the cost of the apartment. The Rooster then took out his “commission” of 20 percent. “If it weren’t for me you girls would be out on the street,” he told them if they bothered to complain. That left the girls with about 10 percent of their earnings, which did not go far when buying food and other necessities. In many respects, the girls were living more poorly than they had in Siem Reap.
Freedom of movement did offer the girls a chance to make friendships beyond the walls of the karaoke club. In fact, Srey Neang first met Rang at the farmers’ market. She was sorting through a pile of tomatoes intently when she heard a voice playfully chiding her: “You realize you have to pay for every one you touch.” She looked up to see the smiling face of a boy no more than a year or two her senior. They spent the rest of the morning chatting amiably as they moved from one vegetable stand to the next.
That chance encounter led to scheduled activities and a growing connection. Rang hit it off with Mei as well, and soon he was introducing them to his gang of friends.
Early on in the relationship, Srey Neang had decided to be completely honest with Rang about her background. She did not want to pretend that she was someone that she was not. To her relief, Rang took her stories in stride and even expressed admiration for her resilience.
His ready acceptance seemed all the more remarkable to Srey Neang when she considered the stability of his upbringing. In essence, they had grown up in different universes. Rang still lived with his mother and father and had strong links to a large extended family, many of whom resided in Phnom Penh. Not only did he become literate at a young age, he stayed in school until he earned his high school diploma. Though he currently worked with his father at an auto mechanic shop, Rang expressed his desire to study at the university in the capital.
Srey Neang told Rang how trapped she felt at the karaoke club. How she would love to learn how to read and write her thoughts down on a piece of paper. Above all, she dreamed of a day when she would not be for sale to creeps like those who visited her at the club.
“If you hate it so much, why don’t you just leave,” he asked innocently one day.
“Mei and I both would leave in a heartbeat,” she told him, “but we fear that life would be even more harsh on the streets.”
Hearing her response, Rang’s face turned pensive, but he said nothing.
At their next meeting several days later, Rang could hardly wait to give her “the exciting news.”
“What is it?” Srey Neang asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so giddy.”
“I spoke with my parents about your situation,” he said, “and they gave me permission to invite you and Mei to come live in our home. We have a spare room that the two of you can share.”
Aware that she would have concerns beyond a shelter, Rang continued on: “And it gets better. My mother spoke to her sister, and she can give you both part-time jobs in her restaurant. If she likes your work, she will look at giving you more hours.”
She said nothing but leaped immediately into his arms.
“So I guess that means you accept,” Rang said with a smile.
“Absolutely,” she nearly shouted. “How soon can we move in?” Srey Neang simply could not walk back to the apartment. She tried, but within moments her legs would start running again. She burst through the door of the apartment and informed Mei of their good fortune. They spontaneously broke into tears and held each other in a tight embrace.
After a good fifteen minutes of celebration, they regained sufficient composure to discuss the logistics of the move. With freedom so close at hand, they agreed that working at the club that evening was unthinkable. Calculating that the Rooster would not show up at the apartment for at least another hour, they set aside thirty minutes to clear out their stuff.
“I could be out of here in five minutes,” Srey Neang thought to herself. “I’m happy to leave it all behind.”
When tragedy has been your constant companion, it is not easy to enjoy a turn of good fortune. You half expect your bliss to be snatched away at any moment.
This explains Srey Neang’s measured joy after she moved in with Rang’s family. Her life seemed too good to be true. Most days she worked the lunch and dinner shifts at the restaurant owned by Rang’s aunt. Like most workers, her favorite time of the week was payday. She had labored long and hard in the past, but had never truly been paid for her work.
She came to treasure her bond with Rang. Their conversations, marked by honesty and laughter, often ran into the wee hours of the night. With the passage of time, they began to share a physical intimacy that matched their emotional connection.
While it felt innocent and beautiful to them, their romance released an unexpected fury. Rang’s mother and father had showed warm kindness to the girls from the moment they arrived. Most every morning, they would sit around the kitchen table with the girls and casually share conversation over breakfast. But once the parents picked up signs of Rang’s growing love for Srey Neang, a cold front descended on the house. The girls found themselves alone at the morning breakfast table. Sensing the sudden change, they compared notes on whether one of them had done something wrong. Their review came up empty.
Several weeks later, Rang finally cleared up the mystery. He entered the girls’ room and addressed them in almost a whisper: “My parents say that you are no longer welcome in our home.” With tears in his eyes, he looked at Srey Neang and continued,
“Basically, they don’t want me to have anything to do with you.”
“How did I offend them?” she asked forlornly.
“You did nothing,” he replied. “But you will always be prostitutes in their eyes, and for that reason alone they are angry that I could fall in love with you.”
“That’s so unfair,” Srey Neang whispered. “Can’t we change their minds?”
“No, they are not willing to bend,” he said. “I have tried many times and failed.”
“But I love you,” she offered, pouring out her heart. “I don’t want to lose what we have.”
“I’m sorry,” Rang responded sadly. “I cannot shame my parents. And that’s exactly what would happen once it becomes known that my girlfriend was a prostitute.”
Rang urged the girls to move out of the house the following day. Given his demeanour, Srey Neang realized it was pointless to put up a fight. Family honor trumps love.
A New Mother
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” the nurse told Srey Neang with a big smile. “You are pregnant.”
It took Srey Neang a few moments to fi gure out what those words meant. For several weeks she had felt very ill, especially in the morning time. Once the vomiting came, she decided to visit the clinic to see what was wrong with her. But she never expected this diagnosis. She assumed that she had picked up some awful disease from the men at the karaoke clubs.
Part of her was very excited to be pregnant. She wished there were someone back at her apartment with whom she could share the news. Ever since Mei had left town to return to the province where she grew up, Srey Neang had stayed alone.
Within a few days, she gathered the strength to inform Rang that he would be a father. She knew better than to contact him at his parents’ home, so she waited outside his workplace and approached him as he left the building. Though two months before they had shared a deep bond, Rang now looked at her as if she were a stranger.
Following a brief greeting and exchange of pleasantries, Srey Neang got straight to the point. “Rang, I’m sorry to have made contact with you against your wishes,” she began apologetically, “but I have some important news to pass along. You and I conceived a child together; seven months from now you will be a father.”
For a brief moment, Rang showed a fl ash of emotion. But he plugged up the dam and spoke coolly to her: “And how do you know that I am the father?”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Rang. You know that we shared our love exclusively with each other,” she quickly rebuked him.
He looked aside, obviously working hard to avoid direct eye contact. But he spoke harshly: “Given your track record, I imagine it could be any number of men who might have gotten you pregnant.”
A disgusted Srey Neang turned on her heels and left Rang at the bus stop. Tears poured from her eyes. She had experienced a great deal of cruelty during her seventeen years, but rarely had the stab come from someone she loved. It made the cut more painful.
Though Rang refused to acknowledge his responsibility, she remained resolute to give birth to her child. Over the next couple of months she continued to work at the restaurant. Rang’s aunt had chosen not to fire Srey Neang even though her sister had banished the girl from her home. She told Srey Neang that she liked her work ethic. But once Srey Neang began to show her pregnancy, her boss immediately dismissed her. The aunt did not want any questions raised about the parentage of this child.
Srey Neang had just enough money saved up to keep her apartment through the course of her pregnancy. Ironically, the day she felt her labor pains coincided with the final day on her apartment lease. Getting the baby born had been her sole goal; she would have to sort out later how she would raise the child.
Somehow she managed to waddle across half of Phnom Penh and admit herself to the hospital. For nearly eighteen hours she endured contractions and then gave birth to a beautiful boy. She thought she would burst from happiness when the delivery doctor placed her newborn son on her breast. Noting her exhaustion, the doctor asked Srey Neang if family would be coming to help her care for the newborn for a few days while she recovered. “I’m the only family that this boy has got,” she replied bluntly.
Four days later, Srey Neang and her son were discharged from the hospital. When she walked out the front door of the hospital, she literally did not know whether to turn right or left, since neither direction held any promise.
If her son were to get sick, she reasoned, it would be best to be near the hospital. So Srey Neang turned to the right and sat down on the sidewalk, resting her back against the front face of the hospital. She then carefully swathed her child with a blanket, and tried to get comfortable.
The next morning on his way into work, the delivery doctor was shocked to see the mother and her newborn sprawled on the sidewalk.
“What in the world are you doing out here?” he asked in clear distress. “Is your child sick?”
“No. I don’t have any other place to go,” she replied.
“Well, if you stay out here too much longer both you and your child risk getting sick from exposure,” he said.
“Can’t I stay in the hospital until the baby gets stronger?” she begged.
“No, that’s impossible,” he said. “But I have an idea who might be able to help you. Stay here, and I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
The doctor walked into the hospital and placed an urgent call to the Hagar Shelter.
Freedom at Last
On the seventh day of creation, God rested; on the eighth day, God created the Hagar shelter. Srey Neang believes that Hagar’s existence could be traced to some such miracle. Without a doubt, the shelter rescued her from destitution. Her chances of survival on the streets of Phnom Penh were dim, and much worse were the prospects for her newborn son. Most likely at some point she would have had to sacrifice her dignity and beg the Rooster for help. The thought of returning to the life of a karaoke girl sent a cold shudder down her spine.
At Hagar she did not feel alone. In fact, dozens of women walked into the shelter with their own harrowing stories of sexual slavery. Samphors, who became one of her closest friends at Hagar, broke down in tears whenever anyone mentioned a mother-daughter relationship. In a group counselling session Srey Neang discovered why. From the time that Samphors was twelve, her mother acted as her pimp, regularly selling her to men in the village. When her mother ran into trouble with gambling debts, she sold Samphors off to a brothel in Phnom Penh.
Listening to Samphors and other women speak during these counselling sessions, Srey Neang realized that every person she had trusted in her life had betrayed her. Painful memories came flooding back. How could her parents sell her to the old woman? The downward spiral started there. Learning how to trust, she realized, would be a long-term challenge.
At Hagar she finally got her wish to advance toward literacy. Once upon a time she had dreamed of attending school. That opportunity never presented itself, but at the shelter she learned to read and write. In fact, she was required to complete a literacy course before enrolling in a vocational program.
Sewing ended up being Srey Neang’s ticket to independence. For nearly six months she practiced the craft on industrial machines. To her surprise, she had a real knack for figuring out design patterns. Transforming fabric into clothing did not even feel like work to her. After she completed her apprenticeship, Hagar Design offered her a job as a design seamstress.
Srey Neang recently celebrated her twentieth birthday. She keeps steady hours at Hagar Design, rents a house in Phnom Pehn, sends her son off to school each day and makes sure he is well fed.
Today she feels no shame. She is free.
This story is from ‘Not for Sale’ by David Batstone, HarperSanFrancisco
Copyright © 2006 HarperCollins Publishers, All rights reserved