Friday, March 23, 2007
Former child prostitute now saves others
Somaly Mam, a former child prostitute, provides refuge for others caught in Cambodia's sex industry.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Sometimes this job makes you mad; sometimes it makes you happy. You have good days, hard days, hot days, hectic days. But however stressful, tiring or elating assignments get, there is one thing that keeps me coming back for more: the people we meet.
One of those people is Somaly Mam. She is humbling, courageous and exudes an inner-strength and warmth that is contagious. Somaly was forced into prostitution when she was just 12, and endured horrific ordeals at the hands of the sex tourists and home-grown brothel clients, even seeing her best friend shot dead in front of her.
Finally, she escaped. But she couldn't forget the children she'd seen held as sex slaves. She decided to set up her own charity to rescue them, and so far more than 150 have been brought out of the darkness into her refuge.
One in particular has touched her heart: 6-year-old Srey. Srey was sold by her mother to a brothel on the border with Thailand. After a police raid, Somaly took care of little Srey, who came to her timid, quiet and damaged. She is very ill: HIV positive, suffering from tuberculosis and pneumonia. Somaly says Srey talks of being raped in the past.
I look into Srey's little face and try to imagine the horror those large, brown eyes have seen. We have concerns about filming her. But Somaly and I are reassured: we filmed with Srey a couple of months ago, as sensitively and gently as we could, and it went well.
Our report generated a huge response last time and it's encouraging to see Srey has gained a little weight and seems much healthier than before. (Read Dan Rivers' story about Srey and the horrors she endured
We've come back to find out how she's doing, to find out more about her story and to highlight this awful issue for Anderson Cooper, who has been anchoring his "360" program from Southeast Asia this week.
We play with Srey and the other children, and when we feel Srey is relaxed, we gradually introduce the camera. Somaly reads a story and Srey seems oblivious to my cameraman and sound recordist. Somaly knows Srey is a potent symbol. It's difficult to imagine a more innocent, vulnerable victim of Cambodia's sex trade.
We're careful never to show Srey's face. She speaks only Khmer and is unaware of what we talking about. I still feel uneasy, but Somaly is adamant that the world must know about children like Srey.
It's estimated by the charities that work in Cambodia that perhaps 30 percent of people working in the sex trade are children. The Cambodia women's affairs ministry puts the figure at 40 percent. With a sex industry comprised of 80,000 to 100,000 people, that means that perhaps between 24,000 and 40,000 people under 16 years of age are having their childhood stolen in the most horrendous ways. And that's just in Cambodia. Child prostitution is a problem all over the world.
We finish and give high fives to Srey, who then comes to the door to wave goodbye. She's heading back to the refuge now, as the sun smears the Cambodian sky butter yellow. As we drive back to our hotel, we pass the red-light district where the first girls are beginning to appear for another night on the streets. I wonder how many other young children like Srey are being offered for sale tonight and how long Srey will survive before the onslaught of AIDs will claim that fragile little child.
Web site: Acting for Women in Distressing Situations
Invisible Chains: How to help
Tonight, during the 11 p.m. hour of "360," we're airing a special report called "Invisible Chains: Sex Slaves." If you're interested in learning more about this issue or looking for a way to help, here are links to some organizations mentioned or featured in tonight's program (by no means is the list exhaustive, but it's a way to start):
What it's like to be tossed by an elephant
An elephant grabs hold of Jeff Corwin's arm while filming with Anderson Cooper.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Alas, in the end, the elephant got the better of me. Now I know that pachyderms not only like to gobble peanuts down their gullets, but the occasional elbow as well. Yikes!
Truth is that elephant is easily 15,000 times stronger than my meager self, and if she had wanted to, she could have done far worse than crushing a bit of ligament and muscle. Lucky for me, no broken bones, hopefully no connective tissue torn (will have to wait till I get home to find out about that). (Watch Jeff Corwin get tossed by an elephant
In the end, this experience is a reminder to me just how powerful these majestic creatures are (same goes for many other species as well). The elephant who took to nibbling on my elbow may be strong, but her strength does not hold up to the impact that deforestation and poaching is having on her species, the Asian elephant.
Just a century ago, there were many thousands of elephants roaming and thriving throughout the rainforests of Southeast Asia, but tragically today, their population has been dramatically reduced, almost to near extinction in the wild.
Today in Cambodia, there may be only a few hundred of these intelligent, mighty and charismatic behemoths left. What a tragedy it would be to lose the Asian elephant. My advice to you, though, is if you're ever taking a bath with an elephant, keep your elbow out of its mouth!
For more information on conservation issues in this region, check out: Wildlife Alliance
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Elephant tosses colleague like ragdoll
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Let me just start out by saying Jeff Corwin, the wildlife biologist who is part of our "Planet in Peril" series, is ok. But there were a few moments earlier today when I wasn't so sure. You'll see the video tonight, but basically, an elephant grabbed hold of Jeff's arm with his mouth and tossed him like a ragdoll. Jeff had warned me that while elephants can be very playful, they don't know their own strength. He was certainly right about that.
Here's what happened: We were helping some handlers bathe the elephants at Cambodia's Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, when one of the elephants slowly got hold of Jeff's arm. I say slowly, but it also happened really fast. I know it's a contradiction, but once you see the video, you'll understand.
We thought Jeff's arm was broken at first, but once we were out of the water it became clear that it had just been badly twisted and was deeply bruised. Jeff was able to continue working, which I found kind of amazing, and afterwards we stopped off at a clinic so a doctor could check out his arm. It's now in a sling.
Other than that disturbing event, it was actually a pretty good day. I got to help Jeff bag some pythons, we hung out with some bears, and I got up close and personal with an elephant's trunk. All the animals at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center are victims of the illegal animal trade or habitat loss. If it wasn't for the center and conservationists from the Wildlife Alliance, these animals would all likely be dead.
When we arrived at the center, veterinarians were just about to sedate a young elephant whose foot was ripped off trying to escape a poachers' snare. It was very sad to see this little orphan elephant missing one of its feet. His name is Chook, and he's only been at the center for about two weeks. He is still badly malnourished and the wound is still being treated. Despite the best efforts of the Wildlife Alliance folks, he may not survive.
Tonight on the program, we'll show you all of this, as well as continue our reporting on the trafficking of women and children into prostitution in Cambodia. Dan Rivers reported last night on the program about the large number of child abuses cases here, and tonight he has a story about a little girl who has been through an unimaginable nightmare in Cambodia's child prostitution industry.
We'll also bring you the latest on Elizabeth Edwards condition and her husband's decision to continue his presidential campaign. It's going to be a really interesting program, and I hope you are able to watch.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Former governor says he saw UFO
It's not every day a former governor tells you he witnessed a UFO that he believes came from another world. Ok, that's an understatement. I don't believe a person who has served as a governor has ever uttered such words on camera. But that's what Fife Symington, who served as governor of Arizona for six years in the 1990s, just did.
Symington took me to a park in Phoenix where he says he saw what is now referred to as the "Phoenix Lights." Exactly 10 years ago, thousands of Arizonans saw an object in the sky described by witnesses as larger than a football field with brilliant lights. It was also videotaped by many. Witnesses say it made no noise.
Symington was governor at the time, and not only did he never publicly mention that he saw it, but there are many who feel he ridiculed those who did. The governor held a news conference after the sightings in which he claimed the case had been solved. At that point, a man in an alien costume walked into the room. That "alien" was his chief of staff.
The former governor told me he held the news conference (which in all fairness, many found very amusing) to create some levity in a state where many people might have been getting panicked. Fast forward a decade.
The creators of a film about UFOs called "Out of the Blue" contacted Symington because they are updating their documentary. After being asked questions about the 1997 episode, Symington told the filmmakers that he did indeed see the UFO but said nothing publicly, in part, because he didn't want to scare Arizonans.
Symington told me that what he saw in the sky that night was "otherworldly" and he believes it was an "alien spacecraft." He is a U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam and is highly doubtful it was some secret military craft.
Symington said he did privately try to have people investigate the sightings, but got nowhere. But for the first time, he is talking about it publicly, and saying that not only was he not concerned, but he would love to see a sight like this again.
What was it? Frankly, I have no idea and wouldn't hazard a guess. But Symington's revelation a decade later only adds to the mystery surrounding this event.
How to annoy an airline check-in counter
Today's been one of those days that just kind of gets away from you. We finished broadcasting this morning from Thailand (after midnight EST) and had to start packing for the airport and our trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
I know it doesn't sound like a big deal, but you have to remember we have dozens of cases of gear and transmission equipment that are opened and unpacked for each broadcast and then carefully repacked and organized.
There were five of us on the flight and when we told the woman at the check-in counter that we had 25 cases with us, she clearly wished we'd picked a different counter.
Wildlife biologist Jeff Corwin, our partner in our "Planet in Peril" series, wasn't on the program last night because he was in Burma shooting an investigation of the illegal trade in animal parts. His piece on the sale of skins from endangered tigers will be on tonight's program.
We'll also have more on the trafficking of woman and children into the sex industry, a major issue in Cambodia. According to a UN report, more than 25 percent of the prostitutes in Cambodia are children and many are sold into the business by family members.
We're also working on a number of other stories. Al Gore is making what some people consider a "triumphant" return to Capitol Hill today to testify on global warming. And of course we'll continue to look at the growing scandal over the Bush administration's purge of prosecutors.
It should be a good show. I'm glad we've finally arrived in Cambodia. And the best part is that all of our 25 bags made it as well.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Morning is evening in Bangkok
There are moments when I wake up and I'm not sure where I am or what time it is. I guess it's the jet lag, but our schedule doesn't help.
To broadcast "360" live from Bangkok, Thailand, we have to be on location by about 7 a.m. local time. We are on the air from 9 to 11 a.m. and then head into the Bangkok traffic to shoot more stories for the next day's broadcast. We usually finish shooting around 9 p.m., which means we spend much of the night writing and editing pieces. Most of the crew is getting very little sleep, which certainly doesn't help fight the jet lag.
We are focusing this week on trafficking, the trafficking of both humans and animals. I interviewed someone from the United Nations earlier today who made the point that when we speak of the trafficking of humans, we should call it what it is: slavery.
I think it's a good point. The word trafficking is kind of antiseptic, clinical. I still find it hard to believe so many men, women and children are slaves in this day and age. Here in Southeast Asia, they work in brothels and sweat shops, on fishing boats and in back alley factories. We'll focus on their plight in the coming days, even as we continue to track the illegal trade in endangered and threatened species.
There are a number of other stories we'll cover tonight, of course. Dan Rivers has a disturbing piece on elephants maimed by landmines, a story he also blogged about. Tom Foreman will take a look at one of the new U.S. attorneys who replaced those who were pushed-out. And Brent Sadler and Randi Kaye will examine the plight of Iraqi and Afghan refugees.
It's almost 10 p.m. here now, which means it's almost 11 a.m. in New York, time for our morning conference call. Or is that now an evening conference call? As I mentioned, it's easy to get confused.
Doctor fixes elephants maimed by mines
An elephant is outfitted with a giant harness that holds a prosthetic leg in place.
I've done quite a few stories about landmine victims, but as tragic and upsetting as they are, they've all had one common thread: the victims have been human. However, this last week, we've uncovered a new dimension to the horror of landmines: elephants. These lumbering, gentle animals are occasionally terribly disfigured when their huge feet detonate hidden explosives.
We've been filming on Thailand's northern border with Myanmar, formerly Burma. The area is littered with landmines left by the military government of Myanmar as it attempts to suppress ethnic Karen rebels. Elephant owners, aka mahouts, often stray deep into this treacherous jungle to find work hauling lumber.
Motala, an elephant, is a typical victim: 46 years old and now missing her front left foot. She arrived on the back of a truck at a hospital run by Dr. Preecha Puangkham. He's received 12 elephants injured by landmines in the last 9 years, which is nowhere near the number of humans that are maimed or even killed, but it's a reminder of just how indiscriminate these weapons are. They can't distinguish between civilian and soldier or even between human and animal. What's tragic for the elephants is that once injured by a landmine, their mahout often just shoots it dead, as the animal is no longer able to work.
Motala is being fitted with an innovative prosthetic leg made from canvas stuffed with saw-dust, attached with ropes. It sounds crazy, but it works. Poor old Motala is wary of putting her full weight on her stump. Perhaps one day she will be able to walk normally, using her man-made limb. (Watch an elephant get a prosthetic leg
There was one sight at the hospital that was even more upsetting though: a baby elephant called Mocha, also missing a foot. She too had stood on a landmine. She too was now being treated at this elephant hospital. Inquisitive, skittish and adorable, she was no taller than my shoulders. A more delightful and playful creature it would be difficult to imagine. Yet Mocha, like Motala, had become a victim to Southeast Asia's awful landmine legacy.
Monday, March 19, 2007
Inside Bangkok's illegal wildlife trade
I haven't been to Bangkok, Thailand, in more than 10 years, and a lot has changed since then. This city's growth has been explosive. There are now highways built on top of the old highways I remember, though the roads still seem clogged through much of the day, just as they were 10 years ago.
We've come to Southeast Asia this week to focus on trafficking. When most people hear that word, they probably think about drug trafficking, and that is clearly the major item being trafficked around the world, but many of the criminal enterprises that smuggle drugs use the same routes to traffic women and children and also animals.
We'll head to Cambodia later this week to investigate the trafficking of women and children in the sex industry, but tonight, we are investigating the illegal wildlife trade in Thailand. Bangkok has become a major hub for the buying and selling of endangered and threatened species.
Over the weekend, our hidden cameras captured several endangered primates and turtles being sold in shops in the market. Today, my crew and I went along with Thai police as they raided the main animal market here in Bangkok. It was an interesting experience, though also a frustrating one for police and animal welfare workers.
When the police arrived, many of the shops were locked-up, and under Thai law, the police couldn't break-in. They did manage to recover more than 100 birds. The conditions in which they were kept were pretty depressing. A bunch of the birds were dead, lying in the bottom of dirty, cramped cages. But it wasn't a big find, and no arrests were made.
We are traveling this week with wildlife biologist Jeff Corwin, who also joined us recently in the Amazon rainforest. We also are working with Steve Galster, who is helping Thai police on behalf of a conservation organization.
This past weekend, Jeff and Steve crossed the border into Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and tonight, Jeff will show you the illegal trade in animal parts and skins. A lot of animals are being killed for "medicinal" use in Asia. Rhino horns and tiger claws and all sorts of body parts are dried and ground up. It's a multi-billion dollar business, and a number of species are nearly extinct because of it.
Tonight's program will be broadcast from the main animal market in Bangkok, so it should be a pretty colorful show.
The other major focus tonight will be Iraq. We'll talk to Michael Ware, who has been covering this war from the beginning, and we'll also hear from New York Times reporter Michael Gordon. See you soon!