Sina was born in Vietnam and enslaved in Cambodia, where she was forced into prostitution and drugged to become easier to control. Sina recalls that the Cambodian police, rather than help her home to Vietnam, took her to another brothel. At the time of narrating her story, she worked for the Somaly Mam Foundation as leader of its Voices for Change programme, and she reflects on both the satisfaction and difficulties of her work helping others escape their enslavement. Many Vietnamese women and children are misled by fraudulent employment opportunities and sold to brothel operators on the borders of China, Cambodia, and Laos, and elsewhere in Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. Some Vietnamese women who travel abroad for internationally brokered marriages or jobs in restaurants, massage parlors, and karaoke bars—mostly to China, Malaysia, and Singapore—are subjected to domestic servitude or forced prostitution.
My name is Vann Sina. This is my Cambodian name, but my original name is Vien Ti Bet….I’m twenty-five years old, and I work in the Somaly Mam Foundation. And I’m in the Voice for the Victims. Before coming to work here in Somaly Mam, I worked in Afesip for six years, in an outreach project, and I went to brothels. I went to the brothels, and I educated the sex workers about HIV, AIDS and STDs. And also part of my outreach project, I investigated new girls who came into the brothels. So when we received the information that there are new girls in the brothels, we report it to the investigation specialist, and they come to rescue the girls. I’m very happy with my work here in Somaly Mam. So what I do here at Somaly Mam is I collect all the voices of the victims, and I want to tell the outside world that they – that the sex workers – do not want to do that work. We don’t want those who buy sex to think that, though the sex workers smile and are happy before them, that does not mean that they want to do that work.
In the brothel, owners are very smart. Nowadays, before sending the girls out to work, they kind of drugged the girls, obsessively. And I was asked, “Why do you want to help them? Because they want to do the work.” And then I said back, “How much do you know about them?” So they cannot go anywhere far from the brothels, just like they are – they’re two people: like, one is their own life and also the life, like drug. So in order to help them to get off drug, it’s hard, and it needs to spend a lot of time, like over a year.
So as a former victim, I understand how it feels to be a sex worker, and when she told me that she wants to leave, but she cannot. So the outreach work goes very well, and we can help the girls who are not using drugs, so we help them just in time.
The work is dangerous. The brothel owner does not like the work that I do because I will put them out of business. So this is the experience that I got, and I wanted to help the victims out of their situation. I experienced a lot of pain, and I cannot put words into it. And I don’t want any other girls to experience pain like I did. I never think that it’s dangerous, that it’s risky. I never think that when I would die. Because my dream in my childhood died. And nowadays I’m living with anger against the brothel owners, which is the strength for me to help the victims.
I’m Vietnamese, and I was born in Cantau. I lived with my grandmother. I studied in grade three. I never lived with my mother. I lived with my grandmother. I never saw my parents. And I was very disappointed, very upset, that my parents can support…can raise…my brothers and sisters up but not me. Knowing that is unbearable.
And my study kind of dropped down. And I failed my school. And my friend Giang knows someone who often goes in and out of the school. And Giang was invited to Phnom Penh to join a Christmas program. A person tells us that she goes in and out of the country very often. And Giang is one of my best friends. I told Giang how I felt disappointed, upset about my parents. And knowing that, Jan said to me that, why not come to Cambodia with me? I asked her, how can we come to Cambodia. And she told me that there is a woman who often comes in and out of the country she knows it very well, and she can bring us to Cambodia without us telling anybody. I came to Cambodia through Longbon Road with my friend Giang and the lady.
When I stepped into Cambodia my childhood ended there. And I experienced my childhood only up until I was thirteen. And my dark side of my life started.
When I stepped into Cambodia, my life was intimidated. I was told that I am Vietnamese; I cannot go in and out of the country easily. Otherwise I will be caught by the police. And I was not allowed to speak, just to shut up. I came into Cambodia, and I was asked to stay in a guesthouse for a couple of days. I always asked to go back home because I was never allowed out. So I was threatened that if I ever wanted to go out I would be caught by the police, and I understand that the police have authority because my father is also a policeman. And the next day, Giang and I were taken to a bar. After, he promised me to take me back to my country because I demanded him to do that.
He never took me back to my country. He took me to somewhere dark. He took me somewhere that I never forgot. I was taken to somewhere in the central market, somewhere near the Lux Cinema. I was tricked into a café shop, and I was told that it is their relative’s house. And I don’t know what they were talking to the café owner about, but a couple of minutes later, Giang was taken away from me, and I was left there. I wanted to go with them, but I was told to wait there and he will come back.
He never returned. I waited and waited, and I wanted to just walk out. But the café owner didn’t want me to. I asked her to go out, but I was not allowed to. And I followed her into the house. And there was no way out. The back door was locked.
When I got inside the house, the girls, the sex workers there in the house, said to me that you are now sold. And I don’t know what it means to be sold. How can it be that humans sell humans? I was scared, and I told them that I’m not an animal, why do you sell me? The girls in the house told me that I am sold to be a sex worker, and still I don’t understand what it means. And the brothel owner threatened me: if I don’t go up into the room, I will be killed. I was forced into the room, and I had to sleep on the floor, not even on a bed.
I felt very lonely then. I really missed my grandmother, and I really missed everybody there. I realized that I would die there. I don’t know what I’m doing there. I was sleeping like a kitten near a table. I got up, and I was very thirsty, and I saw a coconut nearby, and I drank it. After then, I don’t know what was going on. And I woke up; I realized that I was in bed. I opened my eyes, and I realized that my life is completely ruined. I opened my eyes; I saw the mattress over me. With blood. All over. I didn’t know where the blood came from. I was hurt. I could not get out of bed easily. I had to crawl out of bed.
I went into the bathroom; I was sitting on the toilet; I was spraying water over me, wondering, what am I doing, what am I doing? What happened to me? Why is there blood all over me? And it was very saddened. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what that place is. Surely it’s just – I don’t have anything to say.
A little bit after that, a customer came in. He slept with me, and he kicked me out of bed.
I knew that this was not my dreamt life, but this is me, my real life. And I was hurt. And I was very hurt then. That’s why I understand what it is like for the victims. Because it’s really hard, and it’s really unbearable.
I was sleeping with a customer; I was kicked out of bed. And the next day, I was taken back. The café owner gave me two medicines. After taking the two medicines, I didn’t know what happened next.
I woke up again. I was in a police station. My new life started then, and I started to have hope. I was asked by the police, where do you want to go? I told the police, I want to go to Vietnam. But my hope was destroyed again…
I don’t know how long I was there in the first brothel. I know how long I worked in the second brothel. In the first brothel, it was raided by the police; I was rescued. I thought I could go back to my country because the police help people. Instead, the police took me back to the brothel. That made me really feel hopeless. I went back to the brothel, and I worked as a sex worker there.
In a long while after that, I was transferred to another brothel. It’s called Thor Kup area. I was doing sex work there for over a year. The time period of a year is just like my lifetime. My life there was like a life of a dog. I was beaten to eat chilies, and until now, I eat a lot of chilies. I was electrocuted. I was detained under a bed, naked. I used to be detained in a dungeon underground. That’s my life. This is my life. I was taught how to do that in my childhood.
All the pain really gives me strength to help other victims. In the brothel I worked non-stop to earn money. Though I was sick and shaking, I had to service customers. If I didn’t service customers, I would be detained in the dungeon with my hands tied at the back. It was really hard, really difficult. On my body there is scars.
So the brothel owners are very smart nowadays. They allow the girls to go to hotels and anywhere. And they drug the girls, and after a while they will come back to the brothel owners to get more drugs. After being drugged they cannot make their own decisions; wherever they go, they need to come back. They have to work to get money to buy drugs, so the brothel owners just give enough to make them get high, and they have to work for money to get drugs. That really puts their lives at risk. They don’t care about their health. They do whatever they can to get money to buy drugs. They go with the customers. Some customers even take them to sleep in the bush. They even go with a gang.
If you want more information, tomorrow I can ask the girls -- then you will know what is going on in their life. I was given drugs in the first brothel. After taking the drugs I never thought, never cared about my family. The girls that I worked with, they used “yama,” and crystal ice, a new kind of drug. And the price range is different, too.
In the first brothel, I could communicate because there were Vietnamese there, and I could eat the food there. In the second brothel, it was like it’s us and them. And me kind of separate from them. In the last brothel, I experienced a lot of beatings, a lot of detention, and I was forced to eat chilies. I was not forced to take drugs – it’s me myself – I took drugs. I remember every step of it.
There was a demand for me to service twenty to thirty customers if it’s on the weekend. If I don’t do that up to the standard, I would be forced to eat chilies, and I would be beaten. So every day I would call the customers in, and I would do anything to get the customers. I was scared that I would be beaten. To put it plainly, I’m just like a little bird in their hands. I was very scared of them. I didn’t know what to say to them to stop beating me. In a day, I could eat only two meals. I would work until dawn and would sleep after that. I was doing that [when I was] thirteen years [old].
So when I work in Afesip, I was asked when I was born and then they did the calculation to see how old I was. Then I knew that I was fifteen, then, when I worked in Afesip. When I first came into Afesip, I learned there for about a year…about a year or two. And then I started to work in a garment factory. So I worked hard, and I know that I have a love for children. And so Somaly took me back to work in Afesip.
I worked in a brothel for over two years, and my feet never touched the ground. I never imagined that I can stand here. Because every day I would receive punishment. I would service men. I would miss my family. If I wanted to get the sun, I would poke my head out of a little window to get some sun.
In the brothel I wanted to escape, but I didn’t know how to. So the house, the brothel house, was above water, and even in the water they planted sharp spikes. It’s not just me that tried to escape, even the girls there tried to escape too. I had a friend of mine there; we never talked with one another. When it was time to go to bed, we just went to bed. We were not allowed to talk; otherwise we would be beaten. I didn’t know that that friend of mine sawed the wooden floor, and she jumped down, and she was caught in the spikes. She was not taken out of the spikes immediately; she was left there for about ten minutes. After, she got taken out of the spikes. They threatened us; they told us, look, if not, your life is just like that too. They took her out. They didn’t take her to the hospital. They locked her in the room. Then every one of us was very scared.
So no one cared about others; we just cared about ourselves. When we heard our name called we shook. When I was beaten, I was also tied. I was tied in the dark room. Very dark. Could not see anything. And I thought that I was dead back then. My body ached, my hands were tied to the back, and the mosquitoes were swarming around me. I was naked. What I was only thinking about was that I could do anything as long as the brothel owner didn’t beat me.
At that time I would think that now, it’s over; it’s good now. When I opened my eyes, I think that now my fate comes again. Every day I would tap my pillow so that I would dream about my parents, my grandmother. I really missed them.
Then Afesip, along with Social Affairs, went to rescue us. When they were doing the raid, the brothel owner asked me to jump into the water, but I didn’t do that. Because there is a place that we could jump into the water safely, which is in the kitchen. So why would I jump? Why would I go with them, with the police? They would take me back. If I went with them, I would die. If I went with the police, I would die.
So I was rescued, and I was taken to Afesip. I was asked, “Do you want to go to an organization? Do you want to go to a center?” And I didn’t know what an organization or a center is. I answered them, “Wherever you take me, I know that I will end up in the same place.”
In fact, I was taken to Afesip. When I got to Afesip, I felt scared because I saw a lot of women there. When I got there, there was a Vietnamese staff member there. She took care of me, and she explained to me what they do there. I didn’t believe her easily; even the police took me to the brothel, let alone her. And I asked her, “When will you sell me?” And she explained to me that no, we’re not selling you. She would sleep with me, and she would show me the picture of her children.
Somaly [Mam, the founder of Afesip] would explain to me that we would help you. She would take me to her house. Then I understood that the organization is trying to help us. She showed me the pictures of the Vietnamese girls: where they are from, what province, and things like that. Then I felt like my life was hopeful again
But I still have the bad dreams in my life. Nowadays I have freedom to do whatever I want, to go wherever I want. But my spirit is dead.
My dream was to be a teacher. My dream to be a teacher in childhood ended. And now I have another dream, and I achieve. I realize the dream as a teacher now. And it’s a new life.
Though I have freedom to do whatever I want, to go wherever I want, I cannot look at myself in the mirror alone. Even in my room I don’t have a full-length mirror because looking at the mirror I would think about my past life.
Sometimes during the day, when I was sleeping, and I would think that I’m still in the brothel, and waking up, I felt very scared. The first couple of nights, I could not sleep, so the dream was still in me. So I tried to not think about that, but I felt like the dream and me are just together.
All this -- this experience in my childhood – is the strength for me. It makes me want to help all the girls out of slavery because I understand what it is like.
I was hurt very badly, I didn’t know what to do. To put it plainly, I didn’t know what to do right. I wanted to kill myself, but I know it hurts to kill myself. I wanted to hold my breath to die, but I couldn’t. Actually, I wanted to kill myself many times, but the ways to do that are really hurtful. I could not find anywhere to even strangle myself. The plate and the spoon I ate with are plastic. Only the cooking pot is made from iron. Even the kitchen, when everything’s finished, the kitchen is locked, and after eating we sleep.
When I was really in difficult times, only cigarettes could help me. [Pointing to her wrist] This is the mark from the cigarette that I burned myself with because I was having a very difficult time, and I didn’t know what to do. There is a scar on my head when I was hit with a flashlight. And now even, if I stay in the sun for a long time, I start to have a headache. I don’t know what happened to my head. Because I was hit on the head. I was beaten. They didn’t get me treatment, but still they detained me. I feel like my head has developed tetanus.
That’s why I said that my life has now ended. And I said to myself, this is not Sina from childhood but a different Sina. This is different Sina, that people have helped me to become who I am, and I will pay them back. And the people who have hurt me, I wanted to destroy them. I wanted them to stop what they’re doing now, and according to the religious teaching, it’s sin. Doing that is just like killing. Just like I said, the old Sina was dead. And this is a new Sina, and I will help those whom the brothel owner is trying to kill.
I want to see [the people who hurt me]. When I see them, I will give them a good gift. Because they gave me a good gift, and I want to return the good gift to them. I tried to look for them, but I don’t know if I have a chance to see them. And I want to say thanks to them for helping me to be who I am now. And I want to help those people who they are trying to kill.
[I do not] try to remember. I try to forget, but it never goes away from me. Though there are good things happening to me now, but they don’t equal to the things that happened to me in the past. I really try hard to forget. I met with a lot of people to get help from them, but that could not help me. Whenever I tried to forget, I still remember.
When I was in the brothel, I saw the girls coming to the brothel, and I didn’t know where they came from because I never got to talk to them. Looks like a lot of them like their work in Cambodia. So in Cambodia, the tradition is really embedded strongly in the people. They will do whatever they can to help their parents. Because of poverty, because of divorce, because of domestic violence, the girls have no choice but to enter into sex work.
Even some girls are forced to work in garment factories by their parents, and the first salary they get is only forty-five dollars. They have to work another year to get fifty dollars. And that does not include the rent and daily expense. They have to work to send money to their parents. If they cannot do that, they do whatever they can. They will get a boyfriend. They will work extra hours to get money. So they do whatever they can to get money to their parents because they love their parents. That can cause them to fall into sex work without knowing. Some fall into the trick to work in brothels. Just like some are trafficked from Vietnam, are tricked to work in sex work. So there is a lot of human trafficking happening in Cambodia, and a lot are forced to work in sex work.
I would be soaked with water; they would splash water all over me. They would put the electricity on a very long stick, and they would electrocute me. They would tie my hands and tie my feet, and they would splash water over me, and they would shock me. [Pointing to her forearm] So this is the scar from the shock. Because I was trying to protect myself, and I was shocked by the electricity, and it burned. So when I was shocked, and I felt like my spirit just left me and didn’t know what happened.
The life in the brothel is like the life of a dog in a house. In this life I experience enough of it now. Actually more than enough.
[The other women] went back to their hometown, and some have died. They have died of AIDS.
I tried to look for [my friend] in different provinces, but I didn’t see her. I would try to look for her again. I met with her mother, and I asked her if she sees Giang. She said no, she hasn’t seen Giang. I don’t know if she has arrived home or not this year because her family has moved from their original place, but I will try to look for her again.
….It’s really bad for the life in a brothel, and it cannot be forgotten. So coming to the center is the start of my new life. I am able to stand to speak in the society. As you can see now I can stand, I can speak up, I can advocate for other girls. What I am very happy about is that I can stand up for other girls. I can tell others that they don’t want to do that, to do that kind of work, but there are many things that force them to do that. I want to speak to the customers that go to the brothels – don’t look at their smile but look into their eyes. Though there is a smile on their face, but look at their eyes.
I talk with the Vietnamese customers, but not very much because the wall is not very thick. I asked my customers to help me to escape, but when I was finished and I came out, I was beaten. Because they eavesdropped. Because there is a lot of abuse and violence in the brothel, they would eavesdrop us and, if they hear anything, they would beat us. I told the customers that I was sold to the place, but they didn’t believe me. They even told me, “How can it be? Look at you, you look happy.” They didn’t believe me. They looked at me, saw my smile; they thought that I decided to do that.
And I could not ask for a day off when I feel sick. Even an hour, when I ask the brothel owner that I was not feeling well, and I remember that it was only the first time I asked for an hour off. And when I asked – I didn’t get to rest at all. I didn’t get any rest. I got the beatings instead. That made me not want to ask them again. The only time that I could rest was when I was beaten and put in a dungeon. And the time that I got to rest was when I finished my work from five p.m. to five a.m. And that was my rest time.
If I miss my grandmother, I would tap the pillow, and I would turn it over, and I hoped that I could dream of my grandmother. My grandmother used to tell me that when I want to have good dreams, I would tap the pillow and then I would have good dreams. Or if I want to see somebody I missed in the dream, I would tap and think about that person. I miss my grandmother the most.
I help to rescue the girls from the provinces. Looking at my life in the brothel, if I would have been rescued earlier, I would have helped more. My work nowadays is very good and very important. I help a lot of people. . . AIDS patients. And if I see the victims, I would report to the police. My work nowadays is I can help worldwide because it is not [only] Cambodia that has fallen victim.
But I want to say that victims have hurt too. No matter where they are, no matter what country they’re in, they all have pain. What I want to say to them is for them to move on, to go forward. I’m very happy with our work. I know the voice for the victims is getting stronger. People will understand more about victims.
Just like I said earlier, the previous Sinahas died. This is a different Sina; the brothel owner has shaped me. My childhood dream has been destroyed. There is only hurt and revenge.
My hurt has become strength for me to help others to not fall victims like me. Up until now I cannot forget my past. No matter how far I go, it cannot be separated from me. So that is something that I can get advantage of to help others. When I help a victim, I feel very happy. I’m very happy that they are free. I’m very happy that I have destroyed the work of those people.
….. Just like I mentioned earlier, some of the victims have started a new life. They go back to their home town, they do business, but they might have some problems in their families. So I have plans, and one of them is to help strengthen families. Because the girls work alone to support their family. They will fail. So I need to help them. We need to help their families so that they can stand stronger in the society.
So the second plan is for the victim group. So I want to help them to learn Khmer, English, and computer, and especially for the speaking. And they also need to learn about the law very clearly, to help them when they speak. So one of my plans is also to help victims who don’t have a goal in their life. So in our center, some of the victims don’t have a goal in their life, don’t have a family, and they don’t know where to go. They finish their studies; they don’t know where to go. And some of the victims in the victim group know how to cook. They can cook very well, but they don’t know who to cook for.
Another idea is to open a fruit shop and to help the victims who don’t have a plan in their life. And the income will be used to help them. The plan is to help the victims who don’t have a goal, who don’t know where to go.
Another plan is for me and for other victims. Why do I say this? Because when I go into the brothels, I see AIDS people. When they get the disease, they cannot earn money, they get kicked out. I take them to the centers that take care of AIDS patients. In our center, we don’t have money to help the AIDS patients. I always spend my own money for them. Since I have the money now, I will save some to help them because I know that the AIDS patients are very hungry. They didn’t get to eat enough when they were in the brothels. When they got the disease, they got kicked out. They didn’t get to eat enough. They got beaten. They got the disease. They got kicked out of the brothel. Looks like their life is just for torture and punishment. As a former sex worker, I would like to help them with the money until their last breath. Now we cannot do anything else to help but to get them food and to sleep well.
These are my plans. I don’t know if I have enough money for that; if it’s not enough we’ll ask for more from Somaly. [smiles] I would not keep even a hundred real for myself. Because I experienced poverty in my family, and even now, it doesn’t mean that I have more than enough. But I understand that the victims really are in need. I know that I’m ok right now, and I know that it’s really, really hard for them.
I know that there are a lot of good men, and there are some bad men. But through my work going to the brothels, that doesn’t make me think about getting married. Only after I came to work at Afesip, I started to talk with men, but when I was in the brothel, when I saw them I would stare at them, I would not talk with them.
My dream is that I hope that there will be no more victims. I hope that the world will understand more about victims. My dream is to see that there will be no victim in Cambodia and other countries. This is my biggest dream.
Everyone has four compartments in their heart. And two we can open up and share to others, and another one we can share with our families. And the other compartment is a secret place that I myself don’t know how to get into that and to share out of that compartment.
I tried as much as I can, but I don’t know how to get people to understand that in that one private compartment... because it’s really hard to get into that compartment and to really make people understand. Just like I said, we all get hurt, and we all have different hurts and different depths of hurt. So some people, they get hurt in their heart, and they can get healed, but another type of hurt cannot get healed.
If we get hurt over the loss of our family or relatives, then we can get over it in a few years, but then the hurt’s inside of us; there are scars in there and cannot get healed.
Just like the girl we met earlier; she was sharing with us – though on the outside she looked happy, but on the inside there is much more going on that she cannot find words to describe what’s inside of her. I understood that she was feeling very hurt when she was sharing, and that’s why I asked her to stop….
The anger and vengeance cannot go away until I died and get reborn because the scars are inside of me and the hurt in me, so it can never go away. I’m not Sinaas before. I’m a different Sinanow. One Sina: Vietnamese and Cambodian.
I’m the product of the people’s anger and punishment. My childhood experience, all the beatings and the torture and the punishment, and I believe they will never go away from me.
If I can just get rid of it, it will be ridden from me, but I cannot. So there will never be a day that it will go away from me.
What I am angriest about is why the world is full of a lot of evil people. Why good people die early and why a lot of evil people live longer. So I don’t know if there are angels in this world, good spirits, or not. Because evil people, wicked people get richer, and the good people they try their best to earn money and they never get better.
We understand that some sex workers don’t have their voice. They cannot express their voice. So the Voices for Change can be the voice for the victims that can be expressed throughout the world. And we want to do that to tell the world about us, about what we experienced and about other victims.
And we share our experience, the experience of trafficking, so that people are aware and know what’s going on. For me, personally, I think the Voices for Change is very important. It can be a voice to the government so that they can do something to help the victims in time.
Also, internationally, they hear the voice, and they come to help. Only the victims know what their real needs are, and the first step is to show them compassion, and they do need warmth and love because they lack love and warmth in their life.
My hope for them is to see them stand on their own and to help to have a family themselves, and also to help other victims.
So what we want to see is that the victims can stand on their own, that they can survive, that they can stand in the society. And my hope is that the voices of the victims are heard worldwide. My hope is that the world will support them. They will support the victims, not just in Cambodia, but everywhere in the world. So we are former victims. So please help us, and without you there’s nobody to help us.
Narrative as delivered to Free the Slaves.