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Slaves I Know: Sovan and Sokal (pt. 2)

May 22, 2010

You may wonder what happened to Sovan and Sokal. Obviously, I know this story and and they are my friends so they must not be slaves anymore.  They had no choice but to stay on the work site.  Every night there were fights that broke out.  Alcohol was cheap and plentiful.  Many of the young men would spend all the money on alcohol each day.  Others would buy Ketamine tablets (methamphetamines) to keep themselves working hard as they body got weaker and weaker.  There were always plenty of cheap methamphetamines to buy.  They could see their bodies becoming thinner and thinner, but they had no choice but to keep working. There were a poor lot of female workers also.  During the day, they carried bricks and twisted wire together.  During the night, they became the play toys of the hundreds of men. The women lived in constant fear of being raped and the men lived in fear of being attacked by other drunken workers.  It was a horrible life at the worksite.  Occasionally they saw workers die.  Some were beat up, some girls were gang raped and died, others just collapsed with exhaustion.  No one ever saw what happened to the bodies, but the rumor going around was they were simply dumped into the concrete work around the construction site.

You remember, they were told to be at Poipet at May.  Do you know why?  You see April is a great month of festivities in Cambodia and Thailand.  It is their celebration of the Lunar New Year.  Both country’s are majority Buddhist religion and this is their biggest holiday of the year.  Being a very important holiday, families usually save up their money so that they can celebrate as long as possible.  Families will get together, they will eat a lot of food, and by the end of the month they will have spent most, if not all, of their money.  By May there are eagerly looking for new opportunities to make money.

Well, after nearly a year of work, April comes around and both Thailand and Cambodia go into holiday fever.  Even on the construction site, after working all year, the men and women celebrate by playing traditional Cambodian games with each other.  While they were previously homesick, they are now almost physically sick as they miss their families and homes.  After an entire year of work, most are lucky to have saved up 500 Baht (about $17).  The rest of their “income” was spent on the food. . .which is also a business owned by the company.

Around April, rumors start going around that the Khmer speaking company representative knows some people who can smuggle them back across the border so they can go home.  Now, after a year of being the task master, he is playing the role the role of a merciful Cambodian friend.  You’ll never guess how much the smuggler charges for the trip back to the border? Yep, 500 Baht!

What is the alternative?  Stay another year?  Nearly the entire construction crew makes arrangements with the company representative to be “smuggled” out of Thailand back to Cambodia.  Each night, dozens of pickups arrive to haul off the workers.  It is all part of the company plan.  They soon realize that the company has played them the entire time, even down to “smuggling” them out of Thailand.  Because they are smuggled out, they don’t have a passport and so cannot cross at the main border crossing, or any official border crossing.

The pickup trucks take them down many bumpy dirt roads until they arrive at an open field.  The driver stops and tells them, that is the Cambodian border.  They have no idea where it is, in Cambodia, but they are more than glad to leave.  As they get off, the pickups quickly speed away.  They are left standing on small dirt path.  A few brave ones head off into the tall grass and scrub bush.  The others follow.

They walk for about five minutes, but are careful to be quiet, because they know they are “illegally” crossing the border back into their home country.  They are afraid of police and military patrols which might confuse them for smugglers and just start shooting at them.  The Cambodian and Thailand border is a very porous border in which every type of item from noodles to coke and from petrol to trucks are smuggled constantly along this hundreds of mile long border between the two countries.

Suddenly, BOOM!  Those walking in front of Sovan and Sokal fall backward.  For a second everything goes quiet.  Then the most horrible screaming comes from one of their fellow workers.  Instantly, all of the Cambodians know what happened.  He stepped on a landmine.  They are all right in the middle of a minefield.  The Cambodia and Thailand border is the location of what is often called “The world’s largest mind field” which encompasses an area some two hundred miles long and up to several miles wide which was indiscriminately minded from 1979 until 1998.  More than 10 million land mines, or one for nearly every citizen of Cambodia, wait hiding in the ground for a victim.  On this night, another victim loses his leg.

Panic instantly sets into the group.  They can’t go further, but they can’t go backward either.  One of their co-workers has his right foot blown off and will die if they cannot get him to a Cambodian hospital.  After a brief meeting, they decided to careful continue forward.  They all form a line and one person takes the lead, the others follow a little way behind in his tracks.  It is completely dark out and they have no flashlights, so they still have to stay fairly close just to be able to see each other.

After walking most of the night, they come to a small road.  They feel confident they are safe in Cambodia now and here they split up.  They leave the wounded co-worker at the first house they find and each person continues on his own way.  No one has any money, so all they can do is keep walking.  Sometimes the Cambodian villagers will offer them rice to eat and water to drink.  The villagers in western Cambodia see these small groups of workers coming back across the border quite frequently this time of year. As good Buddhists, they have pity on them and offer them a little food to eat.

Sovan and Sokal walk for nearly a month to get back to their home, which is in eastern Cambodia.  Along the way, they sleep wherever they are allowed.  Some nights they are allowed to sleep under someone’s house (Cambodian houses are mostly built on stilts) with the animals and villagers help them out a bit at a time.

Even though their father recently got a cell phone, they don’t dare call the family because of the shame they feel.  When they left home, their family had so many expectations for them to come back as rich people.  Now they only have the clothes they are wearing and they are tattered.  They don’t have any money, much less the money to pay back their family and friends that they borrowed the money from.

One day they walk into the village, looking more like walking skeletons than the young strong men they looked like only one year before.  The slaves had made it home.

Note: For the first part of this story <click here>

For more stories about slavery see the category named: “Slaves I Know”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonathan Bingham permalink
    June 12, 2010 6:08 am


    Is there a trustworthy and effective ministry out there that is combatting this issue that you could recommend for someone wanting to support the effort?


    • June 14, 2010 9:03 pm

      There are numerous ministries which are working to combat human trafficking. Some estimate there are 27 million slaves in the world today. My recommendation is working with someone who you know and trust or recommended by a church you know. “Slavery” is a trendy issue, so there are plenty of scams out there. There are also many different strategies. My advice is 1) work with small ministries (big ones have massive admin overhead) 2) work with those who have a long-term (15-20 year strategy). 3) work with those who allow personal involvement and training of volunteers to the whole issue. 4) Expect and demand real accountability.

      Of course, for those who know us. Our children’s centers are one way we are addressing the issue of human trafficking in Cambodia.

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