It was the part of the video footage when men would finally look away in revulsion and women would quietly gasp and involuntarily lift a hand to cover their mouths. For nearly a year we had been showing, to anyone who would watch, video clips from Svay Pak, Cambodia – a little village outside Phnom Penh where hundreds of children were brutally being sold on the open market to be raped and molested by sex tourists. In such showings, there was always that moment when the grainy under-cover video would finally come clear. It was then that everyone could see that the girl being offered by the pimp was only about six years old.
After watching these visceral responses, I knew that this particular little girl would help senators, ambassadors, network producers and thousands of others finally see the unspeakable evil of child prostitution, but I had no idea how much she would end up teaching us all about miracles and hope.
Little girls in a sea of brutal injustice
IJM first heard about Svay Pak nearly three years ago from Christian workers in Cambodia who passed along rumors of a small, lawless village outside Phnom Penh composed almost entirely of brothels where very young girls were sold for sex in an open market. The initial under-cover operations left our investigators (who have daughters of their own) with nightmares, but also with grave concerns about the gunshots they heard in the streets and the reports of top police officials who protected and profited from the brothels.
But with limited resources and a sea of brutal injustice in the world, IJM can’t be everywhere and can’t do everything; and this just seemed like one of those hard situations where wisdom would suggest that we should pass. There were at least fifteen reasons why tackling Svay Pak just seemed impossible. Cambodian authorities had been unmoved by IJM’s irrefutable evidence of these atrocities for two years. The rumors of high-level police protection for the pimps and customers were true. Even if we could avoid a police tip-off and rescue some of these girls, who could provide aftercare for so many, and where would we find police willing to actually arrest and prosecute the perpetrators? All perfectly good reasons for walking away. No one would blame us for being “realistic.”
But then again, what about that six-year-old girl in the video – and the dozens of others we came to know by name? What were we supposed to do about them? Jesus taught that we were to do for them what we would want done for ourselves, or our own daughters. He said that if we had the faith of a mustard seed, we could move mountains. But did He mean these mountains? And were these children really like our own?
For us, these are not contrived puzzles for a theology seminar or fabricated dramas for a marketing campaign. These are the authentic, I’d-rather-not-have-them struggles of applying what you say you believe to the world as it really is. In the end, unable to explain away the six-year-old girl, we stepped forward. And the Maker of that six-year-old girl began to move mountains.
IJM investigators were able to infiltrate the Svay Pak sex ring, gather video evidence against the specific pimps and traffickers, and identify the senior police commander who cashed-in by protecting the child molestation business. American diplomats took up the cause with Cambodian authorities and urged vigorous cooperation with IJM. Local NGO’s stepped forward to prepare aftercare and social workers; and a mountain of Cambodian police officers (nearly 80 in all) were deployed to conduct the enforcement operation with IJM. In the end, after some of the most intense moments in IJM’s history, police rescued nearly 40 girls out of the brothels – including nine between the ages of five and ten. As a result, one of Cambodia’s most notorious brothel owners was sentenced to twenty years in prison for trafficking-related crimes. This is the strongest sentence ever handed down by the Cambodian court in reference to trafficking, and it renews hope that justice is possible, even against the worst kind of evil. Most miraculous of all, the senior police commander who allowed and protected these crimes for so long all is now fired from the police force and his case is pending final prosecution. According to one Internet chat-room frequented by pedophile customers of Svay Pak: “The party in Cambodia is over!”
Life and goodness rekindled
In reality, vigorous follow-up and long-term empowerment of Cambodian authorities and local partners is the only way to ensure that the nightmare of Svay Pak is truly over. But God has allowed us to make a beginning. And personally, I don’t need many more gifts from God in my lifetime than the one I received when I visited the IJM safe house the day after the raid. There was that little six-year-old girl from the old under-cover video; smiling, laughing and playing – in a safe place, away from abuse and terror. A reputable aftercare home is providing long-term care for her and the other little ones in their long journey to healing; and it won’t be easy. But God has allowed us to make a beginning, and it is a glorious thing to be a part of. As the pilgrim refugees to America observed nearly four centuries ago: “Thus out of small beginnings have greater things been produced by His hand that made all things out of nothing…and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to the whole world.”
I wish you could have been with me at the IJM safe house as I saw the light of life and goodness rekindled in the eyes of these daughters of ours – because it never would have happened without your prayers and support. It’s just that simple. We also know that there are other children in the world who need a new beginning like this six-year-old girl; and as God’s people send us, we will go. Sometimes, it’s just that simple.
Gary A. Haugen
Founder and President
International Justice Mission