(The names of the children have been changed to protect their identity and safety)
I never knew her real name. I ultimately gave her the name Nga-Thiên Nga, which means “beautiful swan.”
I met Nga by chance. Since she wasn’t a minor, I had never intended to investigate her situation, or even strike up a conversation with her for that matter. On the day we met, I was sitting at a coffee shop waiting for the pimps to bring out the younger girls for me to inspect and eventually choose for rental. Nga walked in the shop; she took no notice of me, and instead walked straight for the white men sitting at the table next to me. I couldn't hear anything they said, but all signs indicated that she was a prostitute trying to gain the attention and ultimately the business of these men.
After about ten minutes of trying to sell herself to the white men, Nga pulled up a chair to my table and sat. She pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered me one. It was as if we were old buddies hanging out for smoke break.
"No, thank you. I don’t smoke," I answered.
"Sorry," Nga said and continued to smoke her cigarette.
I stood up to leave because I was annoyed and agitated by the smoke. My respiratory system doesn’t handle it well.
Just as I was about to walk away, Nga quickly grabbed my hand and pleaded: "I am hungry; please give me ten dollars for food."
Being asked for money by people in need is nothing new to me. My parish back in the States receives people in need on a weekly basis. I never give them money, as I don’t know how and where the money will be spent. But, if they are hungry, then I have no qualms about buying them some food. She was no exception.
So I said: "Let's go to a restaurant, I'll buy you food."
I’ve noticed that people who beg for money to buy drugs usually won't accept my offer, as they can’t buy drugs with food. Nga wasn't one of those kinds of people.
She pulled me out of my chair and began walking me toward a small restaurant across the street. "Thank you! You are a good man," she said, as we carefully made our way across the busy street.
We went inside the restaurant and sat at a table in a corner.
"How much can I eat?"
"As much as you want.”
With eyes of gratitude, she thanked me and proceeded to order to her heart’s delight.
I didn't eat anything because I had just eaten lunch. I sat there and watched Nga eat; it was obvious that she didn’t have a proper meal in a long while. I attempted to initiate a conversation. The basic topics of where she lived and what she did for work were readily apparent, so I didn’t feel the need to ask what we both knew. She shared with me other details of her life. Admittedly, her English was quite good; her grammar could've used some work, but she had good pronunciation and pitch. Towards the end of the meal, she asked me what I did for a living and why I was in Cambodia. I told her that I was from Singapore, and that I needed to leave the house and my city for a while and recover from the news that my wife had been disloyal She didn’t ask any further; the rest of our conversation was random and trivial.
When she finished eating, I called for the check—$3.50 for her meal and my drink. I handed the waiter ten dollars, and with the change I tipped the waiter $1.50 and gave my lunch companion the remaining $5.00 for her dinner. Nga thanked me as I left the restaurant, but she remained in her seat. She didn’t leave.
I was about block away from the restaurant when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
"Thank you again, sir! You are a good man!"
"No problem," I replied, recognizing it was Nga, my lunch companion.
"Which hotel are you staying at? Let me stay with you."
"You don't need to know where I am staying," I replied irritably. I didn't want her to come with me.
"I will pleasure and serve you from A to Z,” making a sexual gesture. “You are a good man; I won't take your money. You just need to provide me with food."
"No, you cannot come home with me," I said, getting increasingly irate.
"Do you have a wife or girlfriend or something? Let me come home with you, I won't take your money."
"I already said no. Please do not bother me anymore." I hurried off and ignored her pleas and anything else she said.
I decided not to return to the hotel, lest I was followed and she knew where I lived. Instead I called for a motorcycle to take me to the nearby shopping mall, a public spot where I felt a bit safer. I just needed to distance myself from her. I walked around the stores ad window-shopped for about half an hour. That felt like enough time for her to give up her pursuit. As I exited the mall, I saw her. She was sitting, legs crossed on a motorcycle.
She spotted me as I left the mall and raced towards me.
"Let me go home with you, you're a really good man, I won't take your money," Nga insisted.
It was really hard to avoid Nga. All she wanted was to be with a good man, one who would not take advantage of her body. I suppose that’s why she felt attached to me. I felt sorry for her, so I caved and obliged.
I told Nga, "OK, I'll let you come home with me, but only for one day. And I forbid you to suggest anything about ‘A to Z'."
She thanked me and helped me onto her motorcycle. We drove back to my hotel.
The moment I got on her motorcycle, I thought, “I made a terrible mistake. This was a stupid idea.” I blamed myself for not making the right decision. I prayed that God would protect me while at the same time scrambling for ideas of how to get myself out of this situation, get myself away from Nga. There was no telling what kind of dangers I could face upon arriving to my hotel.
I was mistaken in my fears.
Over the course of a few hours that afternoon, we got better acquainted, and Nga trusted me enough tell me her life story. In writing this story, I gave it the title "More than Half of a Lifetime."
Here is Nga’s story in her own words:
I don't remember my hometown. I just know that I was born in Vietnam, where there are lots of rice fields. In 1996, when I was nine years old, a lady brought me to Cambodia to be a waitress at a coffee shop. It turns out that I wasn't brought here to be a waitress. I was brought here to fulfill the sexual desires of customers. I was passed back and forth between pimps and brothels. Since that time, my life has been a living hell. I had no contact with my family or the outside world.
I was kicked out of the business when I was 17; I was ‘too old’ for their customers and was no longer good for their business. I was left with little money and nowhere to go. I had forgotten much of my Vietnamese, my mother tongue. I even forgot where I was born. I was left to the streets of Cambodia. I tried looking for jobs at coffee shops and restaurants in the area. At the same time, I also wanted to forget everything that had happened to me over the past eight years. If I could forget my family, my language, my birthplace, then I could forget my childhood in Cambodia.
I didn’t have much of a chance of finding a job. I was running out of money. No place would hire me because I had no form of identification. My stomach was empty, and growling from starvation. I had to go back to the only thing that I knew how to do: Providing sex to men. It’s been two years since I’ve been on my own; I am now 19 years old. I’ve been suffering this life for ten years, for half of my lifetime.
Perhaps it was God's plan for us to meet, for me to hear her story. More aptly put, it was an honor to have met her.
Throughout our many conversations, she kept repeating, "You are a good man!" Honestly, I’m just a regular guy, nothing special. But, compared to all of the men and women who passed through her life, I was a good man in her eyes. I was different than all of the men who she had ever encountered, men who demanded that they be repaid in sexual favors for anything she received from them. She had to continue to use, in the parlance of the Catholic Church, her own ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ to make her payment to these predators.
I asked her to stay with me for a few more days—we would be emotional and spiritual comfort to one another. She immediately accepted the invitation. I told her that I wanted her to take me around the city. I asked her to take me to the places where businesses were known to engage in the abduction, buying, selling, and forcing of children into sex slavery.
"Then you will pay for my food, right," Nga asked.
"Yeah, I will pay for your food, your gas, and also a little extra for your help."
"I'm just teasing you; I only ask for food and gas, I won't take your money for anything else. You are a good man," she repeated.
In the days that followed, Nga helped me discover the web that entangled these children, the web that contributed to billions dollar industry of human trafficking. I came to see how pimps and brothels would get rich by selling young girls for sexual pleasure of adult male customers.
From then on, I referred to her as Nga-Thiên Nga, which means “beautiful swan.” Everyday, from morning to night, we would explore a variety of places that looked liked a hotspot for the sex trafficking of minors. From fancy restaurants on crowded boulevards to little brothels at the end of muddy roads, we visited as many places as possible during our short time working together.
Nga didn't hesitate to tell me all of the nuances of what living in that horrible world was like for her, the world where she spent more than half of her life. Sadly, this information wasn’t completely new to me. That said, I acted naïve so she would continue to talk and open up to me.
Nga explained in her own words:
All the children from Vietnam or Cambodia who are sold into sex slavery are divided into two groups: Girls who are 5-11 years old and girls who are older than 12.
The girls in the first group, for the most part, only perform oral sex because they aren't physically mature—they have not had their first period. Each time, these men pay between 30 to 50 US dollars, depending on whether he was able to negotiate well. After each sex act with their customer, the girls were rewarded a bowl of instant noodle or some pastry; they were expected to eat and recover in time for their next customer. On average, a child would have to service between 10 and 15 men daily.
Girls in the second group are those who have already had their first period and are no longer considered pure. Their work isn't limited to just oral sex; they have to have sexual intercourse with their customers. On the typical day, a girl would usually have to service over ten men. If they were lucky, someone would rent them for a few days, maybe even up to a week. If they were unlucky, some men would take them back to their hotels to party and get drunk. While drunk, these men would rape their girl or young woman over and over. These kinds of things still happen quite frequently.
Nga couldn’t count the number of times this has happened to her.
The kind of customer that the children feared the most was the one who used drugs. These men would force the girls to take the drugs with them. Once high, the things that would take place were terrifying. The combination of sex and drugs is always very dangerous to the human life.
Nga explained that "yum yum" meant oral sex, and “boom boom" meant sexual intercourse.
The girls in both groups mentioned above are not only confined and regulated by the pimps, but also by the guards who are paid to keep these girls from running away. The amount of freedom a child has depends on how obedient they are or how much favor they have with their pimp and guard. For example, before being kicked out of the group, Nga explained that she had the freedom to roam the city, but she could not escape. If she were caught trying to escape, then they would punish and continuously beat her.
I asked her why she was still doing this kind of business when pimps and guards didn’t restrict her anymore. She put her head down and wept.
There’s a happy ending to this story; this I promise you.
As I wrote this story, Nga became the proud owner of a small coffee shop in the heart of the area where she spent more than half of her life selling her body to survive. Though her life is still very difficult; she no longer has to endure the physical pain and emotional shame of prostitution. She admits that there are people who look down on her; some even make rude comments. She is not afraid. She is working hard to forget the past ten years of her life and make a better one for herself.
I thank those who provided Nga with the support she needed to fund her own coffee shop; this gave her the firm foundation to start her new life. I thank Nga for picking herself up and overcoming her past in order to become a better person!
Surely not every child who has suffered from the hell of sex trafficking is able to pick themselves up as Nga did. But Nga and others like her have become a beacon of light and hope. They light the way for other still trapped in their own personal hell. They light the way for you and me, so that we can move forward through our own struggles and make the most of what we have.
They cast a light on the shadow of doubt that people across the world can’t have an impact on the lives of those forced into sex trafficking. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What makes me happiest is that Nga has slowly started to help other sexually abused children overcome the pains of their life. Nga cannot do this publicly for fear of harassment, violence, and even death by pimps. The pimps and the corrupt local government officials who protect them watch her every move. They’ve even threatened her life. Despite these threats, she continues to provide support, be it in the form of love, of laughter, of food, or of a cup of water. These small acts must be applauded by all of us
Nga is a living example of what Jesus said to the woman who committed adultery, "Neither do I condemn you; go home and sin no more." (John 8:11).
We pray for those who profit off these children's pain and suffering, so that they can "go and sin no more!"
Excerpt from "True Stories" by Father Martino Nguyễn Bá Thông . Vietnamese original link from "Ngõ Cụt? – Chuyện Thứ 3 - Chuyện 'Hơn Nửa Kiếp Người'"
Edited by: Jesse Robbins
Please check back for more "Undercovered Stories" collected from Father Martino work in rescuing and rehabilitating young women and children from the cycle of sexual abuse and sex trafficking.
http://www.onebodyvillage.org/ and http://www.fathermartino.org/
The word of Confidences: The above article was written in 2008. At the end of 2013, Nga was no longer with us. She passed away from the disease of the Century (AIDS). We updated this article as a candlelight vigil to pray for her soul with hope that it'd return peacefully to God who had created her. Where all of the suffering, the humiliation, and the death would no longer control her life!
Thank you for accompanying us to save other lives like Nga. Please also join us in lighting up a candlelight vigil within your heart for her, and all the OBV family's children who no longer alive on this earth!