Slave Hunter: Freeing Victims of Human Trafficking

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9781439177587: Slave Hunter: Freeing Victims of Human Trafficking
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Aaron Cohen left behind his closest friends, his dying father, and the rock-star life for an unyielding one-man global pursuit.

Aaron Cohen left behind his closest friends, his dying father, and the rock-star life for an unyielding one-man global pursuit.

At a time when more people than ever before are enslaved on this planet, Aaron Cohen found himself on a path of spiritual discovery that both transformed and endangered his life. Once the best friend and business partner to Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, Cohen now works alone, navigating the oppressive territory of pimps and drug lords from the shantytowns of Cambodia to the sweltering savannahs of Sudan. The flesh trade is the world’s fastest growing and most deadly illegal enterprise— even more profitable and easier to hide than guns, drugs, and precious gems. Cohen, posing as a sex tourist, slips into brothels, urged by madams to select from a lineup of girls as young as six. Sometimes he can save them from their captors, but more often than not, he must leave them behind, taking only the evidence he hopes will eventually lead to their rescue.

In a remarkable, unprecedented exposé of the sinister trade, the rocker-turned-activist reveals the fast-paced, inspiring, and unforgettable story of a real-life slave hunter.

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About the Author:

Aaron Cohen has been a teen water polo star, a member of Jane's Addiction, a recovering addict, spiritually re-awakened, a co-founder of the "Drop the Debt" campaign, and bestowed with the Prize for Humanity by the Immortal Chaplains Foundation for his dangerous, official undercover work rescuing human trafficking victims in Africa, the Middle East, South America, and southeast Asia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

NIGHT FRIGHTING

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA

November 2004

I don't feel like I can change the world. I don't even try. I only want to change this small life that I see standing in front of me, which is suffering. I want to change this real small thing that is the destiny of one little girl. And then another, and another, because if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to live with myself or sleep at night.
-- Somaly Mam, The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine


THE CRESCENT MOON HAS ALREADY RISEN, AND Venus is shining brightly in the night sky. I'm following the commander and his men down an unlit back street. At this hour, the metal gates on the neighborhood's living room emporiums are all down. The relative quiet belies the not-soclandestine activities of the city's shadow world, which bursts into life after dark. I watch drunken men stagger away from makeshift street bars and roar off into the dark on throaty Chinese motorbikes. Children in dirty T-shirts and plastic sandals are splashing in swampy puddles created by a combination of daily rain and ruts deep enough to lose sight of a rat, of which there are more than a few.

We pass a small night market, with a cluster of low red and blue plastic tables and stools where small groups of men have gathered to slurp soup and homemade rice moonshine. The vendors' candles flicker and cast a dim glow on some of the exotic delicacies on offer. Locusts roasted on tiny coal grills. Duck blood with fresh herbs. Deep-fried tarantulas.

Toward the back of this makeshift market, I spot a dozen or so dogs crammed into cages, ready and waiting for the hot pot. I can hear a few of the puppies whimpering in the darkness, see them chewing at their chains. I wonder if they slaughter them right here, too. No one else seems to notice. We enter our fourth karaoke bar of the night through a door so low I have to fold my six-foot-fiveinch frame almost in half to make it through.

The darkened room is long and narrow, with a U-shaped leather sectional facing a large-screen TV blaring karaoke in Khmer, the Cambodian language. A young Vietnamese woman in a short blue dress grabs my elbow and leads me to a spot in the middle of the couch. Other hostesses seat the commander and his men -- all in Royal Cambodian Armed Forces uniform -- on either side of me. These guys are the Cambodian elite, and I need their approval. Although I'm dressed up in a collared white shirt, I'm suddenly self-conscious about my unruly hair and dark jeans next to their pressed fatigues and linear haircuts.

The images of the dogs don't go away when I close my eyes for a second. I feel for the tiny bottle of green eucalyptus oil in my jacket, shake out a few drops, and slowly rub it into my temples, but it can't prevent the slideshow of canine slaughter scenarios flickering behind my closed eyelids. It's after midnight and there's a full glass of Johnnie Walker Black on the table in front of me, next to a stack of thick plastic binders bursting with photocopied lyrics in six different languages. The table is so low it barely hits my shins.

The rest of the men in the room, whose faces I can't make out in the dim light, are waiting for me to sing. One of them hands me a microphone.

"U.S.A. song," the man in the uniform insists, nudging me. I don't want to sing, not now, not here. I need to focus on the long and ugly night ahead, and it's hard to keep the mood light. But everyone is smiling, prodding me to go on. This is part of the game I've played for the last few years in a dozen other countries. Now I'll sing "Peace Frog" or "Sounds of Silence," and the commander will applaud, smile encouragingly, and pass me the dried squid as if to tell me not to worry. Life here is like this. Sing another karaoke number to take your mind off reality.

Blood in the streets it's up to my ankles

I'm the only one in the room who knows what I'm singing about -- the only one seemingly bothered by the room's crimson bulbs casting a bloody glow over our gathering. I've got to smile, to reassure these men that I can party with them, show them I am not shaken by any of what we've seen or are about to see. No one goes home until the commander says it's time.

As I continue to sing, I notice a young, pretty girl wearing too much lip gloss. She pours more whiskey over a big chunk of ice, picks up the glass with both hands, and offers it to me with a winning smile. I accept it with a nod, then put the glass down immediately and go for the beer instead, which seems more reasonable considering my physical condition. I never get enough time in one place to recover from the jet lag. I haven't fully unpacked my suitcase for a long time now.

The girl with the lip gloss's name is Mai and her English is pretty good. She has been translating for Commander Nam, along with Anh, who's sitting on Nam's other side, feeding him spicy dried peas.

Bloody red sun of phantastic L.A....

Only I'm not Jim Morrison in fantastic seventies L.A. I haven't been home for two weeks now, and haven't had a good night's sleep in even longer.

The commander's men are clapping and humming along to the guitar licks, and I almost start to enjoy myself. But after the familiar Doors lyrics flow out of my mouth, the words of a Cambodian song I heard last night come back to torment my addled mind:

Bright red blood splatters the cities and plains And over the plain of Kampuchea, our motherland. The blood of good workers and peasants...Blood spills out into great indignation...Blood that frees us from slavery.

They are part of the national anthem the Khmer Rouge adopted when they took power in 1975, turning the country's clock back to "Year Zero" and unleashing four years of genocidal terror on their people. Yesterday I watched a bootleg copy of a new documentary on the Khmer Rouge's tragic reign that brought all the horror back to the forefront.

Shaken by the resurgence of the film's images and sound, I forfeit the microphone to the soldier next to me, who passes it directly to Commander Nam. He's already programmed in the next song, a thumping Thai love anthem that has the girls shimmying in their seats.

"Cheers!" Nam turns to me, holding up an Angkor beer with a muscular arm and waiting for me to clink my bottle with his. The aged whiskey's presence on the table indicates Nam's high status, as do the abundant tiny plates of salty snacks and spicy dipping sauces. There is an assault rifle leaning up against the sofa next to a squareshouldered bodyguard. The inevitable strains of what seems to be every Southeast Asian man's favorite American song echo from the huge TV speakers:

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair...

It's my turn again, and I sing the verses by heart without evenlooking at the screen, stopping every so often to answer Nam'spointed questions about my past. He listens intently as Mai translatesthe encapsulated version: my years at the U.S. Air Force Academy,slave retrievals in Sudan, the work with human traffickingvictims. I intentionally leave out the part about Jane's Addiction -- the proverbial sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave...

My opportunity comes during the long guitar solo.

"Commander, I'm going to Siem Reap to retrieve slave girls," I ay. "I'd like your authorization, sir, and a unit to back me up."

I can't do this kind of work alone or extrajudicially. In order to escape jail, kidnapping charges, or mafia bullets, I have to put together my own paramilitary team before leaving Phnom Penh. No matter how anarchic it seems to the outside observer, Cambodia still has its own rules -- ones that have to be learned and followed. I can't just crash into a brothel on a white horse and break out some girls.

The Cambodian equivalent of a written warrant is an official authorization from within the ranks of the police or the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, the select corps of men with the access I need. Which is why I have been introduced to Commander Nam.

Nam just nods and makes "Mmm" noises while flipping through the plastic binder, making his next selection. I ask him about a raid my contacts at the American Embassy have told me about in the infamous brothel town of Svay Pak, known to locals as K11 -- named after its location eleven kilometers from the city center. I've heard there were hundreds of young children enslaved there.

After a long, uneasy silence, Nam makes eye contact with me. Yes, he says, his military unit participated in that bust, which was successful in that most of the brothels there have been forced to temporarily shut their doors. But the traffickers simply found a new location, known as Two o'Clock, which he calls "worse than K11." There's not a lot he can do about it.

One of my friends in the charity world has recommended Nam, so I'm sure he's one of the good guys. Unfortunately, it seems there are plenty of men wearing the same uniform who are not on our side.

Nam watches me consider this, then taps my knee and says in English, "Don't worry, don't worry, my friend, my friend."

Anh is translating now. "Mr. Nam say you want his men help you, you must to do some thing for him before."

"Of course," I say.

"Okay. You get for him girls on video, say what bad things happen, names of who big boss, pictures where the rooms, what look like, where mamasan, where big boss sleeping."

"I can do that," I say. I can start to feel the adrenaline flowing. We're going to do this.

Nam reaches into his pocket, pulls out a silver pen, and writes down a phone number on a paper napkin. "You call Mr. Heng," he says, putting his index and pinkie to his ear as though talking on the phone. Mai and Anh beam at the commander's successful utterance of a complete English sentence. Anh hand-feeds him a morsel of seaweed while Mai pours us both a celebratory glass of whiskey. Both girls take sips from their tall glasses of orang...

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