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The Courage...and The Mission

What: The second annual Imagine Solutions Conference
Where: The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples
When: March 21–22, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

There are some basic truths about herself that Somaly Mam doesn’t know—her exact age, for instance, or who her mother was. Her name, too, is one she chose for herself. But it is the childhood reality she has known all too well that makes her story so powerful. Hers is a tale of brutal rape and deprivation in the brothels of Cambodia, where human trafficking and sexual slavery not only exist but thrive.

After four years of unthinkable torture and deprivatiovn as a teenage sex slave, Mam escaped from her life of imprisonment and vowed to rescue other young girls like herself, opening at first one small shelter in Phnom Penh, the same city in which she lived and worked. In 1996, Mam established a Cambodian non-governmental organization called AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire) and later, in 2007, helped launch the United States-based Somaly Mam Foundation. To date, she has saved more than 4,000 child prostitutes—some as young as four years old—and helped them transition into mainstream society through education and training programs.

Mam will speak this month at Searching for Solutions Institute’s Imagine Solutions Conference to raise awareness about the reality of human trafficking. To her, education and empowerment are everything. “Every drop of water together makes a river,” she says, “and it is important for people to know they can make a difference. Trafficking is everywhere—in my country, in your country, in every country. I want to teach people they can make a change and empower other people to make change as well.”

Somaly Mam’s story is detailed in her heart-wrenching memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence, excerpted below.

"Aunty Nop lived with another woman her age and the woman’s daughter. Her name was Mom. After Grandfather left, the women told me to sit still while Mom put makeup on me. Then they gave me a dress and shoes and said we were all going out.

When we left the apartment, it was already dark, and I stumbled over the debris in the street. They took me to a long, filthy, pitch-black corridor between two street-front shops. It led back into a dark courtyard and a warren of other alleyways. We went into a doorway and up a derelict flight of stairs. There were no railings left on the stairway—I suppose somebody had stolen them.

On the first floor, there was a kind of apartment. There weren’t any walls or floors to divide this place from the stairwell—it was just a bare concrete floor, and you saw the beds and the blackened cooking fire as you walked up. There were many beds—rotting pallets made of woven grass. The place was filthy.

The woman in charge of this place was Aunty Peuve. She was a small woman, rather plump—plump for those days, anyway—with a mole on her lower lip and her hair in a bun.

I am writing about this place now because I never want to have to talk about it again. I never want to have to remember this again. It makes me vomit.

A man arrived, and I watched as he talked to Aunty Peuve. She signaled to Mom, and before she got up, Mom said, “You’d better know what this is. It’s a brothel. Do what they say or they’ll hit you.” Then she left. Another man came in, and Aunty Peuve told him, “She is a new chicken, fresh from the country.”

In the corner, nearest the wall, there was a bed walled off with a partition of sarongs. The man went in there. Aunty Peuve came to get me and when I said no, she hit me on the head. She said, “Yes or no, you will do it.”

Her husband, Li, wasn’t there at the time, but guards were there.

I went into the room, feeling frightened, as if I had been locked in a place with a hungry wild animal. The man was tall, he wore a shirt, he was in his thirties—maybe he was a policeman, or perhaps he worked in an office. He said, “Take off your clothes, don’t fight me, I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

I was from the country—in Thlok Chhrov nobody ever took off all their clothes at once. We bathed wearing clothes and changed clothes under a sarong. I couldn’t do a thing like that, not in front of a stranger. I fought him, and he raped me. But it wasn’t easy, because I resisted.

So he did it again, to teach me another lesson. I was bleeding from the nose and mouth when he’d finished and felt dirty—blood and sperm were everywhere. It was morning, and when he left he said, “I’ll see you tonight.”

We went back to Aunty Nop’s apartment, where I washed and slept. I felt a black, dark anger at Grandfather and at what he had done to me. In the evening it was time to put on makeup and leave again. When we got to Aunty Peuve’s, she said, “Don’t do that again. I gave you to that man because he is so kind, and I knew he wouldn’t hurt you as some of the others would have done.”

I remember that the next man was Aunty Peuve’s husband, Li. He was fat and strong, and when I refused him, he hit me with his belt buckle. As a soldier, his foot had been blown off, so he walked with a crutch, and he had a beard. He smashed the crutch on me and raped me that night, and afterward so did his two guards. There was a Khmer guard with a puffy face like an alcoholic, and a hard-faced Chinese whose body was horrible, thin and coiled with muscles.

Cambodians are violent—they can beat you to death. Don’t give any credence to those myths about the gentle Khmer smile. Men in Cambodia can seem gentle, but when they’re angry they can kill you with their bare fists.

Afterward they took me down to the cellar. They kept animals there, snakes and scorpions. They weren’t meant to kill us—they kept them to frighten us. It was a small room, totally dark, and it stank of sewage. They tied me up and before they left, they dumped the snakes on me.

That was the punishment room. I was often taken there, because I was difficult. The clients used to say I was ugly, or that I looked angrily at them—they often complained about me. The other girls said people had died there and they were terrified just to be taken down the stairs, because of the spirits. But I wasn’t frightened of ghosts. The dead don’t scare me. I cried, but it was because I had no parents, because I was helpless, because I had been raped and beaten, and because I was hungry and exhausted. I cried from emotion, not from pain. I cried from frustration, because I couldn’t kill them. Grandfather, the guards—even my parents, who had left me to this. I missed having my real mother to love me and hated her for not being there. There was no love in my life.

I don’t know when they let me out—a long time later—but I was there perhaps the entire next day. By the time Mom walked me out, my legs felt as though they weren’t working properly. Aunty Nop was so angry with me she said, “I’m not feeding you,” but I didn’t want to eat anyway. It was Mom’s mother who stopped Aunty Nop from beating me, because I’d had enough, she said. It was true, I could see double. She made me clean all day, and I wasn’t allowed to sleep because I hadn’t earned any money. Mom took pity on me and dabbed peroxide on my wounds. She knew what it was like.

After that I accepted the clients. There wasn’t any choice."

Excerpted from The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam Copyright © 2008 by Somaly Mam. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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