Questions Raised Over Symbol’s Slavery Story

For years now, the scarred face of Long Pros has symbolized the depredation of sex slavery in Cambodia. Her story of immense pain and brutality in a Phnom Penh brothel has been recounted in international newspaper articles and a new TV documentary in the U.S.

Her story has also been featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, she has met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and she has appeared beside Hollywood actresses such as Meg Ryan and Susan Sarandon.

Ms. Pros’ story of imprisonment as a young teenager at a brothel in Phnom Penh where she was held as a sex slave and her mutilation at the hands of the owner who stabbed the teenager’s right eye for refusing to have sex with customers is truly horrific.

“My eye was stabbed by a brothel owner,” Ms. Pros recounted in “Half the Sky,” a recently-released prime-time television documentary, which was broadcast on PBS in the U.S. earlier this month.

After the brothel owner had attacked her, and with blood still flowing from the destroyed eye socket, Ms. Pros said that she was still forced to have sex with clients.

“They wouldn’t let me go, even bleeding I had to take clients. The clients are all drunk. No matter what, they can keep going. Even if you are in pain, bleeding. Finally the police came, searched the place and found me. They took me to get medical care,” Ms. Pros recounts in the PBS documentary.

“Believe it or not, when I returned home, my mother and father didn’t want me around. I wasn’t considered a good person,” she continued.

Ms. Pros’ parents have not seen the film.

But in an interview earlier this month, they denied that their daughter was ever a victim of human trafficking, had ever been enslaved in a brothel, or had lost her right eye at the hands of a savage brothel owner.

Long Hon, 60, and Sok Hang, 56, described in an interview on October 11 at their modest wooden house in Svay Rieng province’s Rumduol district how they had painstakingly struggled with treating their daughter’s childhood eye condition: a non-malignant tumor that had developed when she was just 7 years old.

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Long Hon, left, and his wife Sok Hang at home with their grand daughter in Svay Rieng province earlier this month. (Khy Sovuthy/The Cambodia Daily)

The tumor was eventually removed by an eye surgeon at the country’s leading eye hospital, where she was taken by her father in 2005 when she was 13, doctor interviews and medical records show.

“My daughter never met with other people because she was too shy. Most of the time she just stayed at home,” Ms. Pros’ mother, Ms. Hang said, explaining that her daughter was so embarrassed by the tumor, which was large and growing, she did not want to attend school and spent most of her youth indoors.

“My daughter’s eye was operated on when she was 13 years old. I don’t remember the year exactly, but I brought my daughter directly to the Takeo Eye Hospital,” her father, Mr. Hon said.

According to medical records and treating doctors, it was October 2005 when Mr. Hon brought his daughter to the hospital. The tumor was of a truly worrying size, and Mr. Hon had heard information broadcast on the radio that a hospital in Takeo province specializing in eye treatment would treat patients for free.

After taking his daughter to the local referral hospital in Rumduol district, Mr. Hon said that she was then transferred to the Svay Rieng provincial hospital, which then transferred his daughter to the Takeo Eye Hospital.

Dr. Pok Thorn, an eye specialist and the surgeon who performed the surgery on Ms. Pros, said that he removed a nonmalignant cavernous hemangiomas tumor from the right eye. After the operation, she spent two weeks under surveillance at the Takeo Eye Hospital, and was later admitted for further observation at the Svay Rieng Provincial Referral Hospital. According to the Svay Rieng hospital’s records, and interviews with staff, Ms. Pros was a patient there between November 2 and 10, 2005.

Te Sereybonn, the current director of the Takeo Eye Hospital who was in charge of the hospital’s administration when Ms. Pros was admitted, and whom he clearly remembers, said that it was his medical staff who contacted anti-human trafficking NGO Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire (Afesip), to see if they could admit Ms. Pros to one of their vocational training programs.

Dr. Thorn said that it was he who suggested finding an organization for Ms. Pros and her parents.

“She came with the family to hospital,” Dr. Thorn said. “I operate and after the operation I arrange with my administrator here to find the organization to help her.”

Mr. Sereybonn concurred with how the young Ms. Pros ended up with an anti-trafficking organization, and said that it had nothing to do with the sex industry.

“After Long Pros had already been operated on, we sent her to Afesip,” Mr. Sereybonn said.

“I thought that only Afesip could help her when she said she wanted to stay with an organization where she can gain skills,” he said.

With the help of three photographs taken of Ms. Pros before and after surgery in 2005, and including a photograph of the massive tumor he removed, Dr. Thorn explained how he diagnosed the length of time the tumor had likely existed, and which had caused a degree of bone deformation in the face of the young girl.

Dr. Thorn said that some years later he again met Ms. Pros, but by that time she had a very different story about her life, one in which she had lost her eye as a victim of human trafficking, stabbed out by a brothel owner.

“No one knows clearer about this than me, because it’s my patient,” Dr. Thorn said. Of the eye-stabbing story, he said, “I know nothing about that.”

Ms. Pros has lived under the care of Afesip since her 2005 operation, and is now one of more than a dozen young women who are part of the Somaly Mam Foundation’s Voices for Change program, which is designed to give survivors of sex trafficking an avenue to have their voices heard publicly, and to help others in desperate situations.

Afesip’s founder Somaly Mam is president of the Somaly Mam Foundation, which was launched in 2007. The foundation has risen to global recognition in promoting the fight against human trafficking and sex slavery and raises millions of dollars each year to promote anti-trafficking and to rescue and rehabilitate victims of the horrendous trade.

Ms. Pros’ parents said they were unaware of their daughter’s story of human trafficking, sexual slavery and eye mutilation.

And while Mr. Hon and Ms. Hang denied there was any truth to the story, they also said that they did not have any great issue with it.

Afesip, they said, has cared for their daughter since 2005, and it was not their place to question those who now had responsibility for taking care of her. Their daughter, they explained, was one of eight in a family whose only income came from subsistence rice farming.

“If the organization has said something, then this is a case that concerns the organization,” Mr. Hon said, adding that his daughter still visits the family home roughly twice a year, and they love her dearly.

“I am not too concerned about this [story] because we know clearly about our daughter’s background. The organization is responsible for what they say, it is not up to us to solve. I just know that my daughter lived with happiness” when she lived here, Mr. Hon said.

A next-door neighbor, Men Voeun, 50, also had happier memories of the young Ms. Pros. She was polite, kind-spirited and, because of her eye problem, was cared for by residents in Prey Boeng village.

“She was not sold to a brothel like they said. She is a polite girl, and the people here always pitied and loved her,” Mr. Voeun said. “We were happy when we saw the girl was still alive” after the eye operation, he added.

Another neighbor, Khim Pheak, 32, said that Ms. Pros went from living in the village to living with Afesip after her eye operation. Many in the village remember the operation because there was some fear that the young girl would not survive the removal of the tumor, Ms. Pheak said.

“If the organization said that she worked as prostitute, that is a strong accusation against her—she was a pure girl,” Ms. Pheak added.

The Somaly Mam Foundation, which is based in New York, did not provide comprehensive responses to questions submitted two weeks ago regarding the conflicting claims made by the parents of Ms. Pros and the doctors who treated her.

Though initially agreeing to and scheduling an interview with Ms. Pros for yesterday, the foundation’s spokeswoman and board member, Brandee Barker, said on October 20 that the interview had been canceled. Ms. Barker, who is former head of global communications for Facebook, said that the organization was not delaying the interview or the foundation’s response to questions, which were first submitted on October 12.

Ms. Barker did propose another interview date, but for that to take place, the foundation required an “agreement” on what questions could be asked of Ms. Pros.

In an October 15 email, Ms. Barker said “initial research is leading me to Somana’s story being absolutely as she has said it repeatedly.” (Ms. Pros changed her name to Somana Long in recent years)

Ms. Barker also said that the Somaly Mam Foundation had spoken to Ms. Pros’ father, Mr. Hon, who, she claimed, supported his daughter’s public story.

Contacted this week, Mr. Hon, however, said that he stood by everything that he had said in his interview with The Cambodia Daily on October 11.

In her October 15 email, Ms. Barker also said the Children’s Surgical Center in Phnom Penh was “in line with the story Somana has always maintained regarding her eye.”

Jim Gollogly, CEO of the Children’s Surgical Center in Phnom Penh, said on Monday that Ms. Pros was first seen at the center on March 26, 2007 and doctors suggested at the time that she needed orbital reconstruction for an artificial eye, which was conducted the following year but was unsuccessful. She was also seen on October 16, 2008, and that was the first record the hospital has of Ms. Pros’ reporting that her eye had been stabbed. Dr. Gollogly said that records at the Children’s Surgical Center did not show that Ms. Pros had a tumor prior to coming to the hospital. Instead, doctors there believed that she had an abscess, which materialized after the stab wound to the eye.

Dr. Gollogly, however, said that an abscess was unlikely.

“That’s a huge hole that you normally get from taking out a tumor, and the tumor being there a long time. Not from an abscess usually,” Dr. Gollogly said.

Mithra Gonzalez, an oculofacial specialist working at the University of Rochester, New York, said, based on the photographs taken by the surgeon who operated on Ms. Pros, Dr. Thorn, a tumor had likely grown over a period of years.

“From the image, it looks like the tumor was long standing…Probably years,” Dr. Gonzalez wrote in an email.

“I’ve seen a lot of trauma and a tumor born out of infection or a secondary to trauma is not common. Although it is possible from the images I’ve seen, I think it is less probable that this tumor is the consequence of prior trauma. I think that it is more likely some sort of growth.”

In the many emails back and forth with the foundation seeking comment since October 12, Ms. Barker persistently questioned the motives of reporters. In one email, Ms. Barker threatened to go to other news publications in Cambodia over what she maintained was harassment of human trafficking victims.

“If you decide to run a story without our input, then I will be forced to work with other papers/reporters more closely. I’m happy to share our statement – and our experience working with the Daily – to the Post and via other mediums. I simply don’t take kindly to being bullied by an editor…but more importantly, you are now bullying victims of sex slavery and abuse (and their families) and I think other might find that curious,” Ms. Barker wrote in an October 21 email.

Some of the questions asked of the Somaly Mam Foundation included the location of the brothel in Phnom Penh where Ms. Pros was enslaved and where she reportedly had her eye stabbed. The foundation was also asked if the eye stabbing and imprisonment of Ms. Pros was ever reported to police.

The foundation has not provided any information regarding a police investigation of the reported crimes against the young Ms. Pros.

Keo Thea, chief of Phnom Penh’s anti-human trafficking police bureau, who was deputy chief of the bureau in 2005 when the mutilation reportedly took place in the capital, said he had no record of any complaint being filed by Afesip or the Somaly Mam Foundation or Ms. Pros’ relatives since then about the attack.

“I have never heard of any girl in a brothel that has been stabbed in the eye both before and after 2005,” Lieutenant Colonel Thea said.

National Police officials at the Interior Ministry were also at a loss regarding the crime. Sun Ro, who was deputy director at the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department in 2005, said he did not know of such a case. Teng Borany and Pak Youleang, who are also deputy directors of the same department and took up their positions in 2006, knew nothing either. And in Svay Rieng province, Neat Saroeun, the chief of the provincial human trafficking police, said he had not received any reports of such a crime.

“I have never seen a complaint filed with the name Long Pros,” Mr. Saroeun said.

Significant differences in the eye-stabbing story are not new, however.

In Norman Jean Roy’s book of photography, “Traffik,” published in 2008, Ms. Pros’ story is told through a very different lens. The book tells how Ms. Pros lost her eye after a pimp kicked her in the face. Her eye then became infected and doctors were left with no other option but to remove her eye.

In April this year, the Somaly Mam Foundation issued a correction following a speech by Ms. Mam at the U.N. General Assembly in New York where she claimed that eight girls were killed by the Cambodian army at one of her refuge centers in Phnom Penh.

In her correction, Ms. Mam admitted that no one was ever killed by the military at an Afesip shelter.

Sex trafficking in Cambodia is a grave problem that affects women and children across the country every year.

The U.N. Interagency Project on Human Trafficking, in a report released last year, estimates that almost 700 sexually trafficked women and children were working in Cambodia’s commercial sex industry.

“While lower trafficking numbers are encouraging, the very existence of human trafficking at any level for any purpose is unacceptable. No one should be exposed to such exploitation. And in no case should the existence of hundreds of trafficking victims, as estimated to exist in this study, be assumed to be an ‘acceptable’ number,” the U.N. report states.

(Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a member of the board of directors at the Somaly Mam Foundation. Her name is Brandee Barker, not Baker.)

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