>Author survived sex trade, lives to rescue others

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In “The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine,” Somaly Mam (pictured) recounts her years in the child-sex trade and her efforts to give voice to and rescue other victims.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Somaly Mam

The author of “The Road of Lost Innocence” will read at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

“The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine”

by Somaly Mam with Ruth Marshall

Spiegel & Grau, 193 pp., $22.95

Somaly Mam’s haunting story starts in Cambodia’s mountains, before she’s sold into prostitution.

She is a child. No name, no parents, no home. She forages for wild fruits and sleeps in a hammock under the moon, whispering to trees her sorrow over not having a mother. “When things got unbearable, I confessed my secrets to the waterfalls, because the water couldn’t reverse its flow and betray me.”

Mam has the dark skin of her tribe, the Phnong, a mountain people so remote her village has never been visited by doctor, nurse or preacher. It doesn’t have schools or use money. Her childhood coincides with the Killing Fields era; Pol Pot praises the Phnong because they live collectively and have no Western habits, so the Khmer Rouge leave them alone.

At 10, Mam leaves the forest, tricked by a cruel man who claims to be her grandfather. He sells her virginity, then sells her in marriage to an abusive soldier when she’s 14, then to a Phnom Penh brothel when she’s 16. Clients rape and beat her, brothel owners torture her with snakes, maggots, car batteries. She submits, but her spirit isn’t broken. She helps two younger girls escape. More torture. Four years of it.

It’s sickening to realize that as a sex slave, Mam suffered rape and abuse as bad as the Killing Fields’ torture. What’s worse, increasing numbers of girls worldwide are forced into prostitution, some as young as 5. A Canadian nonprofit estimates 1 in 40 girls born in Cambodia will be sold into sex slavery. Mam explains trafficking from a girl’s perspective in a fresh, often poetic voice. If you care about what’s happening to girls globally, this is an important book to read.

Finally, Mam buys her way out of bondage, in part with money from a regular European client. In his hotel, she experiences her first shower: “He … turned on a shiny thing, like a snake, and it flashed to life, spitting at me … That was the first time I ever used proper soap, and I remember how good it smelled, like a flower.”

Years later, after marrying a French aid worker, Mam returns to the brothels with soap — and condoms — for prostitutes. She gets medical care for the girls, then begins outright rescue and rehabilitation. She co-founds Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP in French) and the Somaly Mam Foundation (www.somaly.org), so far freeing 3,400 girls from brothels in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

As an activist, Mam condemns parental greed, the Cambodian culture of silence, and the collusion between politicians, police and prostitution syndicates. She’s won the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for humanitarian work and was named Glamour Woman of the Year in 2006, a CNN Hero in 2007. Stress and danger continue. Gangsters kidnapped her daughter for four days after her rescue group pressured police to raid a big brothel.

And Mam is still tormented by memories of rape and the stink of sperm. She showers incessantly and slathers on perfumes, but finds no relief. She feels dirty even though she’s so beautiful, she outshines supermodels at foundation fundraisers.

Sleepless, she pours herself into helping victimized girls. “I’m one of them … I wear their scars on my body…. It’s the evil that was done to me that propels me on. Is there any other way to exorcise it?”

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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