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July 21, 2011

Diary of an Escaped Sex Slave

She was forced to have sex with hundreds of men before she turned 10. After such a brutal past, what does her future hold? In a Marie Claire exclusive, Sreypov Chan tells her phenomenal life story.

cambodian girls

Rescued girls play at a center in Kampong Cham.

Photo Credit: Jesse Pesta

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Phnom Penh's most notorious sex district is called the White Building, so named for an ominous, decaying, grayish-white structure that stretches over several city blocks. Its tenants are sex workers, many of whom have been booted from smaller brothels because they're either too old—in their teens and 20s—or too sick to be of much use anymore. With no education or job skills, they've had to find new pimps here.

We walk down the street in the shadow of the gloomy building, past vendors selling bright-yellow jackfruit, bike parts, dried nuts. All eyes are on us. A man on a motorbike trails our group a little too closely, watching. Sreypov is here to try to help women escape the sex trade. It's part of a job she took with Somaly's organization, after a job at a local clothing factory didn't work out so well (she worked for seven months there, but received pay for only three). In her backpack, she carries boxes of condoms and soap to give to the sex workers—which is why the pimps let her in. Her face looks remarkably calm for someone who is about to step into a reminder of her nightmarish past.

Down a dim corridor on the ground floor of the White Building, a dozen women have gathered in a cramped room, along with a few of their kids. An ancient relic of a TV blares cartoons. In a sleeping loft overhead, the walls are lined with posters of Thai movie stars and photos of mansions—inconceivable aspirations considering the conditions in this room, where perhaps a dozen women sleep. It's around 10 a.m. and the women are wearing pajamas and earrings, resting from the night's work. They look beaten up. Their garish evening dresses hang in the bathroom, beside a door frame that's been decimated by termites.

Sreypov, in a crisp white cotton button-down blouse, black pants, and white heels with sparkling silver trim, kneels on the floor as the women circle round. Sitting there, with her perfect posture, she looks like hope personified. When she introduces herself and describes her past, a man peers into the doorway. Then another.

Undaunted, Sreypov continues, inviting the women to talk about their problems. A painfully thin young woman with high cheekbones, long legs, and hair swept up in a loose knot says she was approached one night by a group of men. Afraid they would gang rape her, she sought help from a man driving by in a car. He opened the door and let her in, but then later raped her himself. Another woman in pink pj's says her stepfather raped her, then sold her to a brothel.

Sreypov says she understands—she was sold, too. Then she tells the women she can help them get trained for other jobs. The first woman is skeptical. She has kids and doesn't think a job as a seamstress will pay the bills. Sreypov tells her it's worth a try, adding, "My own future has changed." Later, she hands out boxes of condoms; a toddler neatly stacks them up.

It's hard to imagine why men would want to have sex in a place like this. It's joyless, grimy, dangerous. The reasons vary: Some local men believe myths that sex with a virgin brings luck or good health; foreigners are usually pedophiles or men who want to play out violent fantasies they've picked up from porn films. They know they can do so in Cambodia. Prostitution and human trafficking are illegal here, but officials are often paid to look the other way.

Our White Building visit continues in another sweltering room on the second floor. Sreypov and her colleagues pile their shoes at the door, a futile gesture of politeness and cleanliness in a room where the walls are splattered with stains and the hallway is littered with chicken bones and rotten vegetable scraps. The women here look younger and prettier than the ones downstairs. "They have foreign clients," Chanthan explains. "Some are married, but their husbands are their pimps." In contrast, the women we met in the previous room service local clients.

The mysterious man who followed us on the motorbike pokes his head in and stares—a pimp, perhaps? The women sit on the floor with their babies on their laps; one young mother eats noodles from a bowl. A teenager in a floral cotton top says she didn't have any clients last night and needs money. Another young woman with glittery purple fingernails and an ankle bracelet says she finds her foreign clients in restaurants. Sreypov listens and nods; she hopes that by developing a relationship with these women, they will eventually enlist her help to break free. If so, her colleagues would work with the authorities on a rescue mission or raid. It's a risky business, to be sure. Sreypov knows the dangers of angering pimps, but says, "I just want to help girls get free."

Later, after a lunch of coconut-curry fish with friends, Sreypov admits that it's hard to revisit the sex districts. But, she adds, even if she didn't go back to these places, the memory would still be with her. "I can never forget my past or the cruelty of those men. I'll never understand it," she says, sitting under a pagoda in a friend's leafy garden. "But I use it as power to push for change. I feel better knowing that I'm helping other girls."

Then she returns to the story of her own escape, years ago. "I knew ever since my first client that I had to run," she says. Of course, she also knew what could happen to her if she failed—she'd heard about girls being chained up for days or locked in coffins, covered with live maggots—but she didn't care. "They could kill me if they wanted," she says. "Death seemed better than that life."

One night, when her client was in the bathroom and the guard had left her door, she saw her chance. She bolted from the bedroom and made it as far as the entrance to the building, where she was caught. The pimp marched her to the torture room, where he strung her up, arms spread, "like Jesus," she says, and whipped her with a rattan cane until she bled, then rubbed hot chilies into her wounds. After that, the pimp sold her to another brothel.

As she speaks, a blustery afternoon storm kicks up, breaking the heat. She stares out at the downpour for a minute, then quietly describes her second attempt at escape, which went much like the first—she got captured, beaten, and sold to another brothel.

What gave her the nerve to run for a third time? "I knew if I stayed, I would get sick and die," she says. "I had nothing to lose." So one night, when her guard had left the doorway, she fled again. This time, she made it out into the street. She ran as fast as she could, until she bumped smack into a man, nearly knocking him down. "He grabbed my arm and asked why I was running," she says. "I told him everything."

She was lucky. He could have escorted her right back to the brothel to collect a finder's fee. Instead, he delivered her to a police station. There, she got lucky again: Corrupt police often return girls to brothels as well. Instead, the officers phoned Somaly Mam.

When Sreypov first arrived at Somaly's center for rescued girls in Kampong Cham, she saw the other girls and thought she had been sold to another brothel. "It wasn't until I saw them going to school that I knew I was safe," she says. She was 10 years old.

Sreypov's mentor, Somaly, sits in a bustling, bright-orange beauty salon in the town of Siem Reap, as a pair of former sex slaves brush and braid her hair. Her cell phone rings every few minutes. "My ear hurts," she says with a grin. "But I have to be busy all the time. It's how I survive." Somaly, who is in her late 30s, laughs easily, but she has lived a rough life. Sold into sexual slavery as a teen, she spent more than a decade in the brothels before escaping the trade with the help of a French aid worker.

She remembers Sreypov being angry when the two first met, which is not unusual for newly rescued girls. Some have been tortured so badly, they have deep cuts and welts or, astonishingly, nails hammered into their skulls. Little surprise, then, that they have "problems with authority," Somaly says. "You can guide them, but they have to learn things for themselves." Case in point: After three years at the center, Sreypov wanted to see her mother. The visit was brief, and painful. The mother claimed she didn't know Sreypov had been sent to a brothel. Her daughter didn't believe that.

Since then, Sreypov has formed a replacement family of sorts, with all the rescued girls. As for marriage and children? "I don't want that," she says, shaking her head. She can't imagine herself ever being with men.

To this day, her past haunts her in new and unexpected ways. The week I was in Cambodia, Sreypov's mother returned—knocking on her daughter's door for the first time in years. The mother's motives were unclear: Did she just want to see her daughter, or to sell her? Sreypov isn't sure. The incident left her in tears. But when she has a low moment, she says, she can always call her friends. And the bad dreams are fading; she hasn't had one for a couple of years now. "After I escaped, I tried to keep everything in, and the nightmares were the worst," she says. "But now I talk about it, I help other girls, and I don't hurt so much."

The path Sreypov has chosen isn't easy, she openly acknowledges. Telling her story will always be a struggle. But, she says, turning to me with a steady gaze, "If no one knows, nothing will change."

For information on the Somaly Mam Foundation, go to somaly.org.

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