Phnom Penh, September, 2002
A convoy of black Toyota Land Cruisers raced along the center stripe of Monivong Boulevard, hazards blinking. Blue-and-red official license plates meant no one would question its speed or motive. Chea Phyrom’s bodyguard sat stoically in the passenger seat—the boss always liked to drive when he’d been drinking—as they made their way to the Heart of Darkness, but the group had fallen off course following Phyrom’s drunken lead.
“Sir, you need to turn left.”
Phyrom yanked the wheel violently, steering the SUV down an unpaved side street, forcing oncoming cars and motos to veer off course. The alley was full of people: men playing cards, a naked baby sleeping on a krama, children amusing themselves with improvised toys. Phyrom slammed on the brakes, and his vehicle skated across gravel. A woman cooking at the base of a wall squinted into the oncoming headlights. Crash!
By the time Phyrom realized what he’d done, his buddies in the trailing vehicles had already made a hasty retreat. He’d have to catch up with them later. An old man tore his clothes. Children wailed in horror but shied away from the mutilated body. Dust motes swirled in the halogen glow of the remaining headlight.
“Sir! Sir! We need to go now.”
Phyrom plunged the car into Reverse while street people pounded on the windows, mad for revenge. It was now or never; in the throes of mob violence, all Cambodians were equal. He floored it and rammed into a line of vehicles now blocking his escape to the rear. A brick fragment hit the windshield, cracking it sensationally.
Phyrom’s friend Chandaran, who had been more or less passed out in the backseat, began to wake. “What the hell—?”
The rear window of the Land Cruiser shattered inward, spraying glass on all three men. A teenager scrambled through. The bodyguard turned and placed a bullet in the chest of the intruder with his K-59. Chandaran began to pummel his savior in the head and neck.
“You idiot! You could’ve shot me! You stupid idiot!”
Phyrom stabbed the car into Drive but couldn’t clear the wall in front. Once more in Reverse would do it. The reflection of a flame flickered on broken glass. A man was dousing the hood with fuel from a portable stove. Someone waved a torch.
“Stop them,” Phyrom ordered. “Stop them!”
The bodyguard fired two shots out the window. Both men fell.
Phyrom punched the accelerator and scraped free of the wall, scattering the crowd and driving over bodies. He drove a short distance and stomped on the brakes. Time to teach a lesson. He got out and strode to the back of the car. The crowd advanced. He reached through the shattered window. Thirty meters. He opened a gun case. Twenty. He waited. Closer. He pulled out an old RDP. The mob hesitated.
“Come get me! Come on!”
Phyrom wiped the blood from his face, aimed from his hip, and emptied the magazine. Several people slumped to the ground, and the rest ran. He watched them flee, still squeezing the trigger.
Five minutes later the shattered SUV skidded to a halt on Pasteur Street. The two friends swaggered into the Heart of Darkness, followed by their bodyguard, his K-59 tucked in the small of his back. Bouncers checking lesser patrons for weapons moved hastily aside.
Phyrom slapped a “beer girl” on the ass. “Hurry! I’m sobering up.”
Fourteen years later.
Chris Kelly adjusted his cap and sunglasses and stepped onto the pockmarked street in front of the Golden Lion Hotel. He felt unsure of himself as a group of eager men surrounded him, pleading for a fare.
“Moto? You want moto, sir? Sir! Moto!”
Cambodians called this the cool season, but Kelly was sweating his ass off.
One moto-dop held up a finger. “Where you go, sir? You want to party? You want girl? I take you best place.”
“I want to go to Svay Pak,” Kelly said quietly.
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Svay Pak, ah? Okay. No problem.”
“Take thirty minute. You pay as you like. No problem.”
Kelly climbed on the back of the man’s motorcycle, and soon they were cruising along Sisowath Quay, dodging wheeled carts of tropical fruits, noodles, ice cream, soft drinks, sugarcane juice, and precarious pyramids of baguettes with their vendors’ cries of “pain! pain!” On Kelly’s left the new king’s framed likeness smiled benevolently from its perch high above the entrance to the Royal Palace. On his right a buckled promenade of rosy-brown laterite bordered the riverfront for more than a mile, beyond which the muddy waters of the Tonle Sap joined the blue waters of the great Mekong. Small shacks littered the opposite bank, their roofs of corrugated tin weighted down with old tires.
They continued past the sports bars and tourist restaurants—Spanish, French, Thai. Wary pairs of young women in sandals and halter tops, sunburned middle-aged men with fanny packs, and seasoned expatriates enjoying a smirk at the tourists all shared sidewalk tables facing the river, all nursing their designer coffees like diverse devotees of a lackadaisical cult. They passed the red-light district, which, at two o’clock in the afternoon, was still sleeping off the previous night’s binges. A sign in front of a backpacker hostel read “Sex Tourists Not Welcome.” They crossed the river on National Route 8 between heavily fortified garment factories.
“Svay Pak here,” the moto-dop called after some time.
Crude development of some sort or another had been constant along the length of the highway since Phnom Penh, and there was nothing to distinguish this particular patch of road, nothing to signify its unique importance. The moto-dop wagged his left hand in the air and left the pavement between a shack selling canisters of cooking gas and a more substantial shop-house advertising dentistry services. The dentist lay sleeping in a hammock, his calloused feet greeting passersby. The moto-dop drove ten more minutes off the main road between fallow paddies and stopped at the intersection of two dirt streets that was the heart of Svay Pak.
When the dust cleared, Kelly noticed the stench first: charred meat, animal waste, fish drying in the sun. A number of men loitering in an empty storefront looked not at all surprised to see a sunburned tourist turn up in their shit-hole village a dozen miles from the middle of nowhere. Below a string of tattered pennants celebrating some long-gone festival a bare-bottomed toddler sucked on a sponge picked from a stagnant puddle. Plastic bags littered a vacant lot where a neglected spirit house sat slightly askew atop its post. An adolescent playing pool in a bar on the corner dropped his cue and came running.
“Sir, you looking girl, sir? We have many, many girl.” The boy stretched his arms wide to demonstrate “many, many.”
“No problem. Come with me, sir.”
Flanked by a happy cohort of village urchins, the boy led Kelly down ever-narrower paths between ramshackle huts of bamboo and rice straw thatch. Women toiled and socialized at outdoor kitchens. Men in floppy hats tended livestock pens. Kelly’s guide finally poked his head in the door of a wooden house a cut above its neighbors. A smiling matronly figure wearing pink pajamas welcomed them with her palms together in front of her, and Kelly entered without bothering to remove his filthy shoes. The house was plain but well built—the floor made of wood, not dirt—and on a sofa squirmed a selection of skinny girls ranging from six to maybe sixteen years old. A man lay stretched out on the floor in a dark corner, a cap over his face.
“My name Mama.” The woman jabbed her thumb at her chest. “You looking for girl?”
Kelly pointed at a tiny thing in a blue dress, about the same age as his own daughter. “I want the little one.” She was exactly what he was looking for.
“This girl,” Mama said, pinching the girl’s cheeks, “she do very good yum-yum for you.”
“Me like yum-yum very much. I do for you,” the girl said flatly.
Mama beamed. “You like?”
“I like a lot. How much?”
“Five dollar for yum-yum. For boom-boom you need bigger girl. This one too small.”
“Okay. Then I’ll take that one too,” Kelly said of a girl who might have been thirteen. That hadn’t been part of the plan. “Where do we do this?”
Mama slipped on a pair of plastic sandals and led Kelly around the corner to a two-story cinder-block guesthouse and upstairs to a room furnished with only a double bed and a ceiling fan. She left him alone. Presently a man entered with the two girls grotesquely overdone with makeup. Kelly sat on the bed and beckoned the girls to his side.
He glared at the pimp. “Get the hell out.”
“I wait outside two hour.” The man closed the door behind him.
“Good idea, dumbass.”
A whistle blew somewhere outside, followed by furious footsteps. Kelly wrapped his arms around the girls, lay back on the bed, closed his eyes, and the door flew off its hinges, showering them with splinters.
Policemen wearing balaclavas poured into the room dragging the hapless pimp with them. A pair of them tackled Kelly on the bed.
“Get the hell off me!”
Before Kelly knew what happened, they had flipped him and cuffed him behind his back. He watched another policeman knock the pimp to the floor and begin pounding him in the face with his bare fists.
“Hey,” Kelly cried, “that’s police brutality!”
The girls flailed their legs as two men grabbed them up roughly and hastened out the door. A well-dressed woman ran close on their heels speaking soothingly in Vietnamese.
The police dragged the suspects to their feet and marched them down the steps to the street. Mama was there, ranting and shaking her fists. A policeman grabbed Kelly by the hair and forced him into the backseat of a decrepit police car.
Kelly kicked at the door. “That hurt, you son of a bitch!” A policeman in the front seat gave him a puzzled look.
The police shoved the pimp, dejected and bloody, into a similar car a few feet away. The girls were nowhere in sight. Spraying a great cloud of dust behind them, the cars raced through the tiny village toward the highway, leaving Svay Pak to carry on much as before.
When the entourage crossed the river and reached the great roundabout at the foot of the Japanese bridge near the French embassy, the car carrying Kelly stopped on the hectic roadside. An officer undid the cuffs, and Kelly stepped into traffic. The police sped away, leaving him to massage his wrists amid the normal Cambodian chaos. Kelly quickly flagged down a moto-dop.
“Where you go, boss?”
Chris Kelly trudged up three flights to Land & Sea and breathed a sigh of relief to find George Granger waiting for him as planned.
George got up with a wince, his thighs pushing the table across the tile floor like it wasn’t there. “Congratulations!” He crushed Chris’s hand in his and then pulled him in for a chest bump. “You look like you could use a beer.”
“Jesus, George. I think you broke my hand.” He wasn’t entirely joking, and he wasn’t really in the mood to celebrate.
“Oh, sorry about that. Man, that Hawaiian tourist getup really suits you.”
Chris looked down at his shirt. “Yeah, well, just trying to look the part, you know.”
“Hey, why the long face? You alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Chris said, massaging his eyes. “It’s just…it’s just the whole thing was really…disturbing.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it was. But you know what? You got not one but two girls today. And on your first go-round.”
Chris nodded agreement, but he was thinking about the four he left behind.
“Now, come on,” George said. “Sit down, and let’s pop a top to a job well done.”
They sat down, and George poured a single glass of Angkor, letting foam overflow onto the table. Chenda, the rooftop restaurant’s young owner, dropped in one cube of ice with a lithe hand.
Chris raised his glass. “Cheers,” he said without conviction. Ice in beer. That’s one thing he’d never get used to. “I see you’re going to make me drink alone again.”
George grinned. “Well, not if you just give it up altogether.”
Chris drained his glass in one breath and banged it on the table with a foamy smile. “Please don’t make me kick your ass. Please.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” George said, holding up two massive hands in supplication. “Drink on.”
Chris poured himself the rest of the bottle while his teetotaler friend laughed. Bad beer had never tasted so good.
“Did you know they kicked the door in? Scared the hell out of the girls—and me too.”
George sighed. “I’ll bring it up with Sochua.”
“A lot of good that’ll do.” The Cambodian police weren’t exactly known for their finesse. “Where are the girls?”
“They should be turned over to us within an hour or two, and we’ll take them out to Shelter 4.”
“I’d like to come out and see them when I can.”
“Yeah, I’ll let you know. Probably be a couple of weeks before we get ’em settled. Listen, I got to go back to the station.”
“Am I going to see you at Jack’s this week?”
“You bet. Hey, excellent work today.”
Chris let Chenda bring him a second round while he watched George limp down the stairs cursing his bad knee. Although they might seem an unlikely pair—he, an admittedly clean-cut junior diplomat, and George, a former cop who looked more like a professional cage wrestler—their cause united them, and he had a genuine affection for the amiable giant.
“You want eat?” Chenda asked.
It was tempting. Chenda was a brilliant cook. She was also one of the first girls International Rescue Mission had successfully freed in Cambodia and had, at the age of seventeen, turned a two-hundred-dollar loan into a successful restaurant and guesthouse and employed a number of IRM’s charges over the years.
“No. I’d better go home.”
“Ooh, you such good husband,” Chenda remarked with no hint of sarcasm. “You wife so lucky.”
Chenda chuckled and turned away. The heat had abated somewhat. Chris gazed east across the city: rush hour at peak; Lang Ka temple; the kids’ carnival on Koh Pich; the Mekong. He could finally breathe. And when he did, he found himself choking back the pent-up emotion of the day.
Chenda handed him a paper napkin. “Hey, hey, you okay?”
“God, they were so young. They were just…they were just…little girls. One of them was about the same age…the same age as my—”
“Okay, okay,” Chenda said soothingly. “Everything be alright.”
Chris shook his head. “I don’t know, Chenda. I don’t know if everything’s going to be alright.”
Christopher Kelly, vice-consul, American embassy, Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, adjusted his tie and smiled at an anxious man through the bulletproof and blast-proof glass of Window #2. The man placed his palms together in front of his face, a greeting Chris returned before switching on his microphone. Paying his first-tour-of-duty dues issuing visas wasn’t exactly the glamorous lifestyle he’d had in mind when he’d joined the Department of State, but at least it was never boring. His wife, Lisa, now on her third diplomatic assignment, had utterly detested her window duty in New Delhi—a famously punishing first tour—but Chris had to admit he found the visa mill tolerable, if not interesting, at times.
Lisa and their six-year-old adopted daughter, Mai, had eased into a comfortable routine in Cambodia. Lisa loved her work in Political—even if she did work too much—and Mai had adjusted easily to first grade at the local French school. Phnom Penh wasn’t the worst place in the world for him to do a first tour—his best friend in A-100 got sent to Port Moresby—but, at the same time, it wasn’t exactly Paris. The State Department considered Cambodia an “extreme hardship” post, and millions of its citizens could still recount atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era. But that’s not what kept Chris awake at night.
The importance of international sex tourism to the local economy could be seen after dark in virtually every bar and restaurant in Phnom Penh, and for a particularly perverse niche of that trade, Cambodia represented ground zero. The Kelly family’s welcome to the country had been a prominent sign just opposite Potchentong Airport that read “Have sex with children in this country, go to jail in yours. This notice paid for by the United States of America.” Entire villages specialized in providing children—often sold into slavery by their own parents—to fulfill the twisted fantasies of a multinational flood of visitors that arrived unabated. When Chris met George Granger at an unofficial embassy happy hour, “it was love at first sight”—Lisa liked to say—because George introduced him to International Rescue Mission.
IRM, a small nongovernmental organization based in New Zealand, had been in Cambodia since the 1990s, offering material and moral support to victims of human trafficking and pressuring the government to bring perpetrators to justice. After conducting a routine criminal background check, George had invited Chris to become involved. Energized by volunteer work for IRM and with his wife and daughter happy, Chris could live with the drudgery of manning visa Window #2, which, he joked, stood for “no more than two minutes per customer.”
Ready, set, go. “Good morning,” he said to the visa applicant in Khmer. “Please put your right index finger on the red light.”
I enjoyed this very much. Sex slavery is a tough topic and I feel you cover the horror of it authentically. It is the kind of story that pulled me in and made me want to read more. It rings with truth and left me with a sense of the bleakness and horror that faces those trying to make a difference in backwaters like Cambodia. Well written, indeed.