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Tears In Tuol Kork

Tears In Tuol Kork

The Tragic Tale Of Cambodia’s Girls

Tuol Kork, Phnom Penh. One shack follows after the other. In front of dirty old curtains, 12 to 18 year old girls display their lithe bodies; muscular boys too. Revealing clothing, fairground mood. During the day, children in school uniforms ride their bikes through Tuol Kork. Behind the shacks, older women cook for the girls. The very young ones sell coke and beer.

To the left are girls from Cambodia, to the right girls from Vietnam. Vietnamese girls are more expensive. "Because our skin is white," explains Thanh who is from Saigon. A friend promised her work and travelled with her to Phnom Penh. Then, suddenly, he disappeared. "Men came. Then the transport. I didn't know where I was. They sold me, like a dog."

It takes time to break through the first layer of lies. How old are you? 18, says Thanh. Half an hour later: 15. It's difficult to tell through all the make-up. Perhaps she is just 12. "You go outside often?" "Sometimes." But then Thanh whispers: "I am not allowed to, they watch me."

Most of Tuol Kork's girls have been sold by their mothers, fathers, friends - by the people whom they trusted most. Sometimes a relative raped the girl, and afraid that her friends would find out the truth - and with her virginity already taken - the girl hands herself over to the procurers. "The girls shouldn't complain," comments one brothel-owner. "There's nothing unusual here. After all, they have sold their bodies."

The girls in Tuol Kork - and all the thousands of entertainment-girls, massage-girls and prostitutes in Cambodia - are one facet of the globalisation of the world's economy.  Goods that are traded, shipped over borders. Goods of a multibillion dollar industry that is as old as time, but more systematised than ever before.

"The flesh traders are better equipped technically than the police," said Sweden's Interpol chief, Bjoern Eriksson, some weeks ago at an anti-child-trafficking conference in Bangkok. "The police of many countries seem to be more concerned about car theft than child prostitution." More than this, sexual services are a common feature of Asia's business world. It's an open secret that good clients are rewarded with erotic treats. A long night with expensive cognac and young girls is a ritual. Quite often, the end of the menu reads: "girls from Burma, China, Vietnam and Cambodia". The higher the age and the lower on the menu, the lower the price.

Thary, 15, was sold to Tuol Kork by her father for US$300. Her mother comes to visit her every week. "If I wasn't here," says Thary, "my mother wouldn't have anything to eat. When I pay off my debts, I can go back home. But I don't want to, really. I'm afraid my father will sell me again." It is not only poverty which promotes this sad trade, but also growing materialism and greed. Thus, Thary explains: "My mother wanted a TV and father needs his opium. They had to sell me."

Sompen Kutranon, delegate of a children's rights NGO in Phnom Penh, relates the tale of thirteen year old Dina. "When Dina didn't show up at school for several days, her teacher went to Dina's home where he met her mother. She had just been dropped off by a taxi - without Dina. The teacher called the police who threatened the mother until she came out with the truth. They eventually found Dina at Tuol Kork. She was rescued and sent to a children's home. Even today she doesn't understand exactly what happened to her."

Not all the children are forced into prostitution: for example, the streetwalker boys. They are neither locked up in brothels, nor are they sold by their parents. They live on the street. During the day they sell newspapers and wash cars. In the evenings, they lurk in front of well-known clubs. Other kids are attracted by the money and the gleam of the city lights. According to Phnom Penh's children's rights organisation Vigilance, one third of Cambodia's 60,000 prostitutes are younger than 17. Forty-five percent of these girls are sold by their parents, ten percent by their fiancés and five percent by friends. The rest expect quick money from prostitution. They need no education and no experience - a beautiful body, and the riches seem near.

In fact the majority of the girls have been abducted by relatives and taken from the countryside to Phnom Penh. First, the girls are locked up in so-called "safe houses". These houses change constantly. Some of them - for instance hotels such as the Neak Poan, Hawaii, Bopha Tip and Tokyo - are permanently informed about the changes. According to police sources the Neak Poan keeps up to ten virgins in stock. For businessmen, of whom most come from Taiwan or Singapore, they hire out the virgins by the week - for US$300 to US$700 a piece.

Two women sit at the entrance of the Neak Poan Hotel. They have cell phones and talk in Chinese. The phones ring without a break. One woman gets up, disappears, and comes back after a short while with a 13 year old girl. She puts the girl into the elevator. Shortly afterwards a man enters the hotel, exchanges a few words with the woman, and disappears into the same elevator.

In the provinces, a virgin costs between US$120 and US$200 - in Phnom Penh US$400 and US$500. New girls are sold within a short time to one of several brothels. There are indications that older Vietnamese prostitutes organise the traffic. A tight network runs across Vietnam connecting to various trade centres in southern China.

The trade in children thrives. Sex with children, many believe, rejuvenates and heals sexual diseases and is safe in terms of AIDS. But once a girl has had her first customer, her price sinks drastically. After three months a night costs some twenty dollars. Then the hotel owner throws the girl out. The girl ends up working in Tuol Kork for five dollars a night. Or in Svay Pak.

Svay Pak is a brothel town eleven kilometres north of Phnom Penh. Children play amidst dozens of young prostitutes. "Accidents!" laughs Le Cui, the Vietnamese owner of a brothel. "Business here is better than in Vietnam. In Vietnam it would be impossible for me to relax outside on the veranda.”

Le Cui gets his girls from Hatien, Cambodia's southern border town with Vietnam. The mama-san oversees the business; he smuggles the girls to Svay Pak. The transport arrangements are delicate. Le Cui: "I have to pay. One girl always falls by the wayside. But I treat them well. Not one of them runs away."

Lunch-time. The girls push the chairs together, and take a nap. Old women with sweets, deep-fried tofu and sticky rice go from brothel to brothel. The girls are bored, they nibble snacks, wash their hair, put on make-up. A car of Japanese businessmen passes nearby. The girls shoot up, form a line, smile and wave their hands. This happens forty, fifty times a day. Then suddenly a girl runs down the road. "A bus with tourists has just arrived," explains Le Cui. Some of Le Cui's girls hurriedly tidy their hair and run down to the bus. Van, 12, the youngest, stays behind. She has enough clients and makes nothing of the new arrivals. She just does her work. Like her sisters.

 "Yesterday," says Le Cui, "a man came and wanted to sell me his daughter. The girl was pale and trembling. I asked him why? First of all, he's very poor, he said. And the girl will forget. She's still very young."

Few surveys have been carried out about the delayed psychological effects of child prostitution in Cambodia. "None of these children understand what's going on," says Phuong Sith, president of Vigilance. "They are completely helpless." According to Sompen Kutranon, "The girls are like shells. There is no hope, no confidence, no feeling of one's own worth. Just a deep emptiness that we must try to fill." 

"Girls who have been in the business for just one month often cry," says Phuong Sith. "After a few weeks they are broken. They have forgotten all the ways back home."

"The police are of little help," he continues. "Up to this day, only one foreigner, a Briton, has been convicted in Cambodia for child abuse. Most helpful to us are old prostitutes. They can save many girls from becoming lost in Phnom Penh's harsh reality.”

"We also go to the villages", says Sompen "and talk to the people. We tell them that if somebody promises good jobs with good money, be careful. But Cambodia's families are still ruined after years of war. Most of the parents can hardly keep themselves alive. The kids run away and follow the first path they come across. Cambodia's children have many fathers and many mothers."

A few weeks ago Cambodia tightened up its laws to combat the abuse of children. But Le Cui is not afraid. He believes his business is safe: "Those who make the laws make good money with us. Anyone who wants to stop this trade is dead by tomorrow. I pay for each girl each month. To the military and to the police. And Mao gets the rent in time."

Mao - alias Pen Sarun - has controlled Svay Pak's city of easy virtue for eight years. On his desk lie statistics - name, date of birth and approximate earnings of each girl are listed in Mao's neat handwriting. "In 1991", says Mao, "there were just some shacks around here. Then the UN came. In the years of the Khmer Rouge even adultery was punished with death, but with the UN in town, brothels mushroomed all over the city. Mostly in front of the UN military quarters. In the evenings, the soldiers went to a restaurant, then to a massage parlour, finally to a brothel."

Inevitably, wars have always boosted the sex industry, whether in Korea, Vietnam, Thailand or the Philippines. "Compared to the drug industry,” Mao smiles, "Cambodia's sex industry is a trifle." Perhaps in financial terms - yet it destroys life in the same way.


Text by Daniel Kestenholz; Photos by Pictures From History - © CPA Media