KAI RYSSDAL: Yesterday on the program Scott Carrier took us to Cambodia. He spent a month there. Trying to understand human trafficking. Slavery, really. And how the trade in human beings begins. Some put the number of slaves at more than 20 million people, worldwide. They're put to work in every conceivable way. From agriculture to industry. To the sex trade. Often the person who delivers somebody into bondage is an aquaintance. Or a neighbor. Or . . . as in the case Scott tells us about today . . . someone even closer.
[Sound: Girl crying on the phone.]
SCOTT CARRIER: This girl's name is Auk. She's 14, talking to her sister, Nee, age 16, on a cell phone. Auk is in a house on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Nee is in a brothel somewhere in Taiwan. She either doesn't know which city or she's not allowed to say. Their mother sold her into debt bondage for $1,000, and she's got to pay the money back by having sex with six or seven men a night, seven days a week.
[Sound: More talking and crying.]
Auk tells Nee to forget about the money and just come home. But Nee can't forget about the money because she's the only one in the family who makes any. Their mother has 13 children and no form of income other than by selling her two youngest daughters, Nee and Auk. She's been pawning them off to momasans since before they reached puberty. Her most recent deal was selling Need to the brothel in Taiwan. She was getting ready to do the same thing to Auk, but Auk ran away and called Nee's ex-husband, Mark.
MARK: Four days ago I get a telephone call from Op [he calls her Op and Oppy], the younger sister of my wife, saying, "Can you please help me? My momma sold me." We went and picked her up. She's been staying at my house for two-three days now, and her mother is desperately trying to track her down.
It's my duty to protect this young girl. I was her father for two years. I feel I would do anything to help this girl.
There's something of a back story here that needs to be filled in. Mark is a 52-year-old expatriated American. Five years ago he had some bad arthritis, couldn't walk a block it was so painful, so he moved to Thailand and went on a health kick.
MARK: It took a couple of years there. I was walking everyday, feeling better, I was living on the ocean, fresh air, uh, no work, no stress, I had steady sex, and I cured myself.
CARRIER: And do you think the sex was an important part of the therapy?
MARK: Oh, without a doubt. It relieves stress. It makes you more healthy. You definitely should have a regular sex life.
Mark met Nee when she was fourteen and working in a brother. He'd come to Phnom Penh in order to renew his Thai visa, and while he was in a town he stopped by the red light district known as Kilometer Eleven, notorious for underage girls.
MARK: And there's a zillion brothels, really seedy, each has a room full of 20-30 girls. You go in, you can do a short time there for five dollars, take the girl home for between fifteen to twenty five.
Mark slept with Need a couple of times and realized that he liked her, a lot, maybe even was in love with her, and that he wanted to get her out of there. So he paid $1,500 to the momasan, $1,000 to Nee's mother, and he married her, bought a house, and let 10 members of her family move in with them.
MARK: There were five school-age children and I was the father for them. It was great. They'd come home with problems from school, teach two of them how to ride bicycles, teach them how to swim, we'd go down to Sianhnok, the beach, on weekends. I loved it.
Or part of it. You ever do something just because you can do it and you just think it's the wildest thing and you want to do it? I mean, to buy someone out of a brothel was so wild. This is the craziest experience I've ever thought of.
And then the marriage went bad. Mark was supporting a family of 10 on a $500-a-month disability check, paying for school and clothes and so on, but not giving any money to Nee's mother. And the mother needed money because she was in debt, way over her head. She had a habit of borrowing money at 20 percent interest a month — it's the going rate in the slums of Phnom Penh. Her lenders wanted to be paid back, at least the interest, so she convinced Nee to divorce Mark and sent Nee and Auk back to work in the brothels. Then she tried to steal the house and sue Mark for the debauchery of her daughter.
MARK: You know, this old lady, the mother, she's not hateable, she's actually likeable. She lived with me for a long time. And, uh, she causes all sorts of problems, she's an evil evil woman, but I kind of like her a little bit. Even after she took me to court, cost me thousands of dollars, almost sent me to prison for years, when I saw her, I gave her a kiss.
You know, it's funny, I feel like I just went through like a Lolita syndrome, you know the old guy falls in love with a young girl, just totally all reason gone to the wind. Yeah, I was out of my mind. Instead of coming to Asia and getting hooked on heroine, I came and got hooked on a young girl, maxed out all my credit cards, you know, I don't know what I was thinking, I was in la la land for two years.
[Sound: The mother speaking Khmer]
This is Nee and Auk's mother. She's saying Nee wanted to go to Taiwan because Mark hurt her feelings. He was a rich westerner but he didn't support the family and this embarrassed Nee, so she wanted to live somewhere else. And now sister Auk has run away and Mark won't give her back.
The mother says she's very tired and worries all the time, she doesn't want her daughters to do this kind of work but she's still in debt a thousand dollars because a member of the family got sick and had to go to the hospital and she had to borrow some more money. So Nee must be patient and keep working. Maybe when Nee comes back from Taiwan she'll get back together with Mark and he'll buy some land and build a house and take care of the family.
She says she doesn't know, and that she cries every night worrying about her children, but what can she do? How will they pay the moneylenders if her daughters don't work?
This is Scott Carrier for Marketplace.