I gained the trust of the pimps with my straightforward and honest demeanor with them. I‘ve never tried to barter their prices for time with the girls, and I’ve always returned the girls to them on time and with them in a happy mood.
The guards trust me because I have never done anything to make them think I would help the girls to escape. I let them follow me everywhere I go—I actually don’t have much of a choice in the matter. They actually benefit from my interaction with the girls: Whenever I take the girls out, I voluntarily pay for guards’ meals, entrances fees, and sometimes even their hotel when they were actually were supposed to be at the front gate of the hotel guarding me. They get a pretty nice deal when I’m with the girls.
The girls themselves think that I’m a good man; they feel very blessed to be ‘rented’ by me. The word on the street is that I’m a Singaporean businessman, and that every time I’m mad at my wife I would look for some girls for company and companionship.
Naturally, I have never allowed anyone to ‘service’ me, much to the relief of the girls. When the girls are with me, they get to go shopping for new clothes; the fear of having to provide sexual favors is never present. This makes me popular among the girls; they like having me rent them, and sometimes they even fight amongst each other to be a part of the small group of girls that I rent.
This is what I do when I’m in Cambodia for One Body Village business. The following is one story of many that I’ve collected during One Body Village’s time helping the victims of the sex trafficking industry.
(The names of the children have been changed to protect their identity and safety)
Finding a Catholic Church here in Cambodia, the nation of Golden Temples, is not an easy task.
But why am I looking for a church in the first place?
My friends, by now you probably know that that I am a faithful practicing Catholic who later became a Seminarian. As a faithful Catholic, there is never a good reason not to attend Sunday mass. To be honest, once in a while I might skip morning and evening prayers; but never Sunday mass. Not in this lifetime! Not for any reason! There is nothing more important than keeping the Sabbath. This is what I was taught growing up. I believe in this teaching even more when I became a Seminarian, and later on when I became a Catholic priest.
One Friday afternoon, I, along with the four girls that I rented for the day, climbed into a Toyota Camry and told the driver to drive us around town in search of a church. After making many stops to ask for directions, we came across two Protestant churches. Pressing on further, we finally found a Catholic church. To my surprise, this church was actually smaller than the chapel we used for daily mass back my church in America.
I opened the door and stepped out of the passenger seat; I stretched my arms and took in a big breath of fresh air. Then, I made the sign of the cross. It is a personal habit to make the sign of the cross whenever I pass by a church. The four girls left the car, laughing and chitchatting away as girls would at their age. I didn’t mind, I wanted for them to be as natural and comfortable as possible on this trip. I looked around for an English bulletin or anything on the Church board written in English to see when mass would be held. No such luck, as everything was written in Khmer, the national language of Cambodia.
I turned to the driver and asked, “Do you know what time Sunday mass is?”
Taking a quick glance at the Church board in Khmer, the driver answered curtly, “Eight!”
“Thank you!” I replied.
I stood in front of the church, deep in thought, comparing the temples that were made of gold to the church before me that is used to worship God—Astonished, I realized that God is always poor. The voices of the girls pulled me out of my own head and back into reality.
“He’s probably religious,” I overheard 13-year old Châu say to her companions.
“How do you know?” Nga snapped back. Nga is 16; she had been enslaved for three years. By her age, she was immediately considered the ‘big sister’ among the four girls.
“If he isn’t religious, then why would he be looking for a church?” Châu retorted.
“Watch, he is going to make us go to church with him on Sunday,” said 15-year old Hoa.
“I don’t think so. If we’re going somewhere fun, I’ll go. But, I’m not going to church. I’m not even Catholic, so why would I go to church? I guess I’ll get to sleep in on Sunday,” Nga declared to her companions with confidence.
“No, I don’t think so,” Hoa argued. “He’s made all of us go everywhere he went. I think this Sunday will be the same.”
“I guarantee he won’t make us go into the church,” Chau reassured. “You guys don’t remember the mornings and nights when he prayed? He asked all of us to be quiet so that we wouldn’t disturb him. That’s why on Sunday when he goes to church to pray, he’ll also probably want silence.”
Keeping my back turned and pretending to be unaware, I listened to this conversation unfold. I knew that these girls were not Catholic; I knew that they had never stepped foot into a church to attend a Holy Mass. If they had this experience, then they would’ve known that there is no real ‘silence’ during Mass.
I began to lead them into the church to see its interior.
I waved my hands for them to follow as I made my way up the front stairs of the church. All of them stopped talking and ran after me—all except for 12-year old Thoa. Thoa was brought from Vietnam to Cambodia a little less than a year ago. She had been quiet this entire time; only now did she break that silence.
“I am not going inside the church,” Thoa said.
“Geez, you’re joking. Whining again, huh little squirt?” Nga laughed and teased.
“No, I don’t want to go inside the church,” Thoa replied in a shy, yet stubborn voice.
“Oh, come on, we’ll carry you in!” Chau exclaimed.
At that moment, the three girls descended the steps and tried to carry Thoa up and into the church.
“Put me down! I’m not going inside the church!” Thoa yelled. “I already said I didn’t want to go in there. You guys go, don’t bother me.” A frustrated Thoa screamed profanities at her companions, forcing her point across that she wasn’t going in that church.
“You better be careful. If you don’t go into the church, he might return you to the pimps. You’re so fortunate to get to go with him, why are you acting up now?” Nga lectured.
“Let him return me, I am not going inside the church,” Thoa said in defiance.
Watching this surreal argument happen right before my eyes, I lied and told them that the church was closed, and that we were going home. I stepped into the car and told them to get in. I continued to act naïve, as though I didn’t know what they were bickering about just a moment ago.
I pinched Thoa’s cheeks and asked, “Are you okay? What is going on?”
She couldn’t answer; she didn’t understand a word of what I asked her. She just looked at me and smiled; however, her face revealed that she was still troubled and worried.
I decided to instigate a few more conversations to get them talking about church. I really wanted to understand why Thoa refused to go inside the church—even under the false assumption that I would return her to her pimps.
After spending another three days with these four girls, the reasons Thoa refused to go into the church came to light.
This is Thoa’s story, as was told to me by Thoa herself.
Thoa came from a very poor village in Vietnam called An Giang. Her family is Catholic, so she was born and raised practicing her Catholic faith. Like all the other Catholic families and children in her village, she attended mass every Sunday. She also went to a Catechism class twice a week and attended mass daily. Thoa learned about God and His love for all people. Like many other children, Thoa truly believed that God loved her and her family very much. Thoa’s faith was not limited to just attending mass, she also begun to pray. She prayed that she and her family could survive the devastating times of poverty. She prayed that her father would overcome his bad drinking habits. She prayed for God’s protection over her and her mother, so that they would survive the nights her father would come home drunk and beat them.
One day, it seemed as though God answered her prayers. After many years of settling in the big city, a friend of the family came back to visit the An Giang village. The family friend established a business during her time in the city and had promised to give young Thoa a job as a favor to her family. She offered to provide Thoa with food and a place to stay. Thoa was promised 700,000 Vietnam Dong (approximately $40 USD) a month; Thoa’s mother would receive three-month’s of a similar pay in advance for letting her daughter join the friend in the city to work. Thoa and her family could only dream about having this amount of money. Two months of her new salary was equivalent to the total income that her family made in a year! Thoa thanked God for this opportunity and the happiness it was going to bring to her family. This was a special, once-in-a-lifetime chance for her to help her family get out of poverty and start a new life.
Those thoughts and hopes of helping her family would soon crumble around her.
The city, the business, she won’t ever see it. The salary, she won’t ever touch it. All she’s know since leaving her family with the family friend has been the prison in which she’s been living. During the first few days, she didn’t know what was happening to her. She remembers the tears and the cries every time she was forced to sexually service a customer. At first she fought back and refused, but that only led to endless beatings and days without food. She eventually had to accept her fate, lest she die of starvation.
She had to do things that no one could even imagine for anyone, let alone a 12-year-old girl.
There were days when she had to service over ten men within the span of 24 hours.
Even though she felt that she had hit rock bottom, she still believed in God and continued to pray to Him. She prayed that He would intervene and rescue her from this place on earth where demons gathered, this place that became her hell. She prayed for the day when she could reunite with her family. She didn’t care if she starved to death from the poverty her family experienced; she didn’t care if her father would beat her to death during one of his drunken nights. Anything seemed better than this terrifying place.
Eventually, she lost faith. She stopped praying. It’s actually been a few months since her last prayer. She had decided that God must not exist. And because he didn’t exist, she didn’t need to pray anymore. She told her friends that even if there was God, He didn’t care about her. He didn’t even care to acknowledge any of her prayers. He didn’t love her, so she didn’t need him either.
Hearing those words was like having a knife pierce through my heart. As a priest, my whole life’s mission is to bring people closer to God, to help them recognize God, and to help them have faith in God. Honestly, even I had to contemplate God’s presence in this kind of a place–but, that does not mean I question God’s existence. Everything Thoa said was so collected; the composure of this young 12-year-old girl left me speechless. Her lack of faith in God was understandable given her story, but it didn’t come without desperation. She still asked questions.
“Why doesn’t God love me?” “I love Him so much. Why doesn’t He listen to me?” “I am still talking to you, God! I still need you!”
How do you answer this for a girl who has experienced this kind of trauma in her young life?
She stands firm on her conclusion: God simply does not exist.
She decided that she would never enter a church again—even if that meant going back to the demons in the hell in which she lives.
I read a story somewhere about a conversation between a mother and her child. It happened while they were praying in front of a broken statue of Christ the King.
The girl asked her mother, “Mother, why are you praying in front of a statue of Jesus that has no hands, no feet, no eyes and no mouth?”
Her mother replied, “I am praying to God to give me the grace and courage so that I can be His eyes, His ears, His mouth, His heart and His hands. You and I, we can be His eyes so that all of us can see the world the way He sees it—beautiful and humane. We can be His ears, so that we can listen and sympathize with those who are sad and celebrate with those who are happy. Be His mouth, so that we can console those who need consoling. Be His heart, so that we can love those who have no one to love them. And we can be His hands, so that we can carry and support those who have no one to support them.”
The life of a compassionate good Samaritan isn’t reserved exclusively for bishops, priests, or the religious, but it is a lifestyle for each and every one of us.
I pray that you, the reader, would please help us and others recognize our “calling to be holy,” and “to do good,” that we are the yeast in flour, the salt in life, the light of the world, (Mt, 5:13-14) the lips, the hands, the feet, the heart of Jesus Christ on Earth, so that people everywhere can embrace the presence of the Lord in His Word and true presence in the Eucharist—that holds us together. Let people all around the world sing praises to our Lord, our Father in Heaven.
Excerpt from “True Stories” from Father Martino Nguyễn Bá Thông. Vietnamese original link from "Ngõ Cụt? – Chuyện Thứ 1: Chuyện 'Tao Không Vô Nhà Thờ Đâu'"
Edited by: Jesse Robbins
Please check back for more "Undercoverd Stories" from Father Martino’s experiences working with victims of the sex trafficking industry.