A small girl, holding a basket of handmade bracelets under one arm, leans against a pole and watches our street-side table intently.
She stares at me, brown eyes piercing my soul, hoping to catch my attention. I avert my eyes. She approaches one of the other team members and asks if they would like a bracelet. A negative response kick starts a scolding: “Oh come on lady, you buy one, OK? No money? Ask your friend. She has money. You buy cheap. Buy one for your friend, OK?” We are a stubborn group. We’ve been told not to buy from the girls. Someone has to break the chain. But there’s a snag in the plan. If she goes home without any money, she may be beaten. Worse yet, she may be trafficked.
She continues with her “marketing”. “You Christians, yes? Me too. I know Jesus. I love Jesus. You buy bracelet?” We are all sickened by this dilemma. This girl’s childhood was thrown out with yesterday’s garbage. We know this girl. We’ve already learned that she was trafficked. We understand her crafty ways. She has no other choice. One of us places a little bow in her hair and she hugs her benefactor. Another team member succumbs to the plight of this little one and buys a couple bracelets. Others waiting in the shadows spot this victory and before we know it, we’re surrounded by a legless man on a push cart, a young boy selling sun glasses, a mother holding her sleeping child. (The mothers drug their children so that they look ill and then carry them through the streets, begging from tourists.) Desperation is the special on this menu.
We pile into the van and make our way to the safe house. I lean my head against the window, heavy with the need to fix this and the knowledge that I, alone, can’t.
A Moto flies by, swerving in and out and around tuk-tuks, bicycles, cars and trucks, all following some unwritten heirarchy. A father steers the Moto, his wife sitting behind him. They both wear face masks to protect against the polluted air. A small child is sandwiched between the two. She is not wearing a mask. The mother holds her child with one arm, the other arm raised high in the air, holding an IV wrapped in an old towel. The other end of the IV protrudes from the child’s wrist. She stares at the strange faces in our van, her eyes dull, as they pass us by. This site was repeated several times during our stay in Svay Pak. Garbage.
We continue to weave in and out of traffic making our way to the safe house. Pedofiles can be spotted all along the way. They stand out like sore thumbs and one wishes she had a blow dart.
It is common to pass a street-front restaurant serving pedofiles. Five tables. Five men, each sitting alone at a table. All fair skinned. All looking…well, sick. These are not tourists, and there is no other reason for them to be here. They don’t visit with each other. They sit silently, smoking a cigarette; talking on a cell phone. Garbage.
Today, at the safe house, one of our children is dressed to kill. She looks to be five or six. Full make up. She will most likely be sold tonight. We try not to stare. We try not to cry. We try not to scream. She is safe for the moment.
It’s garbage day. But there is no garbage man here.