Thursday, August 30, 2012

Safety in a District of Turmoil

Here's the story of interviewing one lady for a World Relief report...

Kom Yong. Veal Veang district, Pursat Province, Cambodia 
I felt my organs colliding with each other inside me as I rode for hours in the back of a truck through the bumpy mountain roads that led our team to World Relief’s Pursat headquarters. The jostling I experienced on the road was nothing, however, compared to the shock of learning about the tragedies of the district I was in, caught in the crossfire of conflict and injustice, with the bullets of poverty pouring in from every side.
Veal Veang is a poor district located in a rough mountainous region that makes it difficult to grow crops, travel to a hospital, or access clean drinking water. It lies near the border of Thailand, making it vulnerable to the issue of trafficking. Women are brought to Thailand under the pretense of job opportunities, but once there they are often abused or forced to work as physical or sexual slaves, trapped without a means of getting home.
I came to this place to listen to the stories of the villagers and learn about this trafficking situation, but once there, I was thrown into a world with so much more injustice than I had ever imagined. There are so many factors leading to the vulnerability of this place, and so much suffering that lies just below the surface of what I was researching. As I cracked the stoic surface to discover the hardships beneath, my heart cracked along with it for the people of this land.
The district was torn apart by Khmer Rouge clashes that continued on well after the genocide was over in this communist stronghold. Khmer Rouge officers and soldiers have now integrated into the towns, because the government will not prosecute them, so people in Veal Veang have learned to be cautious about the people they talk to and the subjects they talk about. It was in a village in this district, heavy with a history of turmoil and a tense peace, where I met a woman of strength and hope that rose far above her circumstances.
Kom Yong grew up in Takeo Province during the Khmer Rouge. Her father left and her mother later died under Pol Pot’s reign. Three of her four siblings died at an early age, but she remained close with her older sister. The Communist Regime brought starvation and misery to everyone she knew. Her stomach screamed for food as she dug out compounds and hauled lumber all day. Violent government clashes forced her to evacuate at several points and she became separated from her family. She remembers liberation day clearly. She was finally allowed to go home, where she was reunited with her sister. The two of them migrated to Pursat province to find work, but they soon discovered that political liberation was not the end of bondage and conflict.
Veal Veang had landmines densely scattered through the farms and residential areas, causing frequent accidents and deaths, and leaving acres of farmland useless because of the threat. Kom Yong married a man who had been a soldier for both the Khmer Rouge and the opposing government. He was able to help the villagers know where some of the explosive devices were, and in recent years the landmines have been removed by other organizations, but not before the mines took their toll on the lives and incomes of many families.  
Reflecting on the rampant social issues around her, Kom Yong admitted, “there are many cases of rape in the area, especially migrants.” She recounted the case of a young girl who had been raped in the village recently. “This is bad, because children are innocent. They don’t know anything.” Cases like these raise concern for her, and remind her that they do not live in safety. She also told me about the trouble the area has with human trafficking.
“Some tricky people have come to our village,” continued Kom Yong, “to take women and force them to work across the border.” She described cases of women who she had known, who jumped at the opportunity to make money, but she had heard about their abuse and forced prostitution, or never heard from them again. She spoke with a dry, matter-of-fact tone that made the truth even more horrifying to me. These injustices were as much a part of every-day life as sweeping out her small wooden house or swatting the malaria mosquitos around her. Each of the deep furrows in her brow told a story of the worry and pain that all of these tragedies had caused.
One man had come to her house earlier looking for women who wanted to go work in Thailand and make a good salary. Kom Yong was desperate for money, but when she inquired further, he told her that he was only looking for young virgins. What world do we live in that the most vulnerable and unprotected members of a population, poor, young, unmarried girls, would be hunted like prized animals to be skinned and sold to the highest bidder?
“Some people in our district go to work in Thailand and come back safely, with no abuse,” Kom Yong assured us, “but sometimes they don’t.” Her voice trailed off. There was so much left unsaid, and yet the pain behind her eyes said it all. The tragedies cannot be denied, but the best thing the village can do is spread knowledge of these traps to prevent it from happening in the future. The local authorities have begun spreading information about this prevalent issue.  
“Its not just local authority that teach us about it,” said Kom Yong, “World Relief Hope programs spread a lot of information about it once a week and I go to those meetings.” Unlike the local authorities, Kom Yong said, “they don’t just teach. They listen to us also.” She has learned that “the human traffickers come with sweet words. They try to persuade, manipulate. They promise to give a good salary. They promise the girls will go work in a restaurant or somewhere nice and get paid well.” I can’t imagine the heartbreak that each of these women experiences when they get to Thailand and realize that not only has their opportunity of rising out of poverty been shattered, but so has every shred of dignity and hope in their lives.
From World Relief, Kom Yong learned that if she sees someone that looks dangerous, or hears about a bad situation, she should call services for intervention, to stop the trafficking before it can occur. At the World Relief staff’s suggestion, she now has the phone numbers of the police and World Relief written on the beams of her house. I looked up and saw these numbers painted onto the rough wooden beams above her head. Kom Yong pointed to them with a smile, allowing some of the worried furrows in her face to relax as she reached towards this hope in a place of turmoil. Kom Yong likes to discuss all the lessons World Relief has taught her with the other women at the market, because the teachers encouraged her to spread her knowledge, and reach out to others, empowering them to avoid trafficking traps and live in hope.
“The teachers help us Understand a lot of things. If they didn’t come to teach, train, and show us this, we wouldn’t know any of these things, and the bad things, the tragedies, might happen in our lives as well.” Kom Yong had not called her misery under the Khmer Rouge a tragedy. She had not used this word to describe her starvation, lack of clean water, heavy labor, or fear of landmines. At that moment I realized what a true tragedy human trafficking is. The slavery these girls experience feels more confining than the bondage of a Communist war camp, and the words of the traffickers, more conniving than the placement of hidden landmines. The pain extends far beyond starvation and injury. Kom Yong does not want to see that happen to her family or village members. She is hopeful about the prevention of this tragedy through education programs. “I really appreciate and thank World Relief,” she said, “and hope they can continue to work so we can learn.”
Kom Yong and her friend sitting under their house, with the phone numbers of the police and World Relief written on the beams above them so they can prevent traffickers. 
At a trafficking education meeting hosted by World Relief, people of all ages gather from the village to hear about the tricks of traffickers and receive hope and encouragement. 
Education and illustrated material about trafficking can help keep the young girls of Veal Veang safe from tricks and schemes targeting the desperate and vulnerable. 

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