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These are young children whose parents cut off a finger or poke out an eye to make the little ones appear more sympathetic to wealthy foreigners — and thus more profitable beggars. Sometimes the children are sold for sex. Bespectacled and Zen-like in his calm, thirty-nine-year-old Thy has been a pauper, a homeless student, the de-facto manager of an orphanage, and a brothel-raider who disguised himself as a customer in order to rescue underage girls from forced prostitution.
Then again, the child may leave home with a broker and disappear into the diaspora of child slavery, never to be seen again — and earn the family nothing. They arrive scared, dirty, covered in sores, skinny and traumatized. Others are given some family counseling and sent home, where too often their parents send them out to beg again. One million Cambodian children are estimated to be drowning in this cycle of poverty, abuse and trafficking. Under the scorching sun near the ferry gates, children and women aged beyond their years thread through the line of waiting vehicles pedaling sugarcane and freshly sliced papaya and pineapple.
Their heads and faces are covered in faded scarves, their clothing a potpourri of old T-shirts and baggy pajamas. Thy has a cold. One of the girls Thy rescued last year had been sold for the price of a duck. The girl is missing a piece of her finger, and her father is in jail now — not for raping a minor, but for murdering his wife. A third girl in the shelter has a face stitched up like a Raggedy Ann doll — at ten years old she was living as a slave, she had a huge tumor on her face and she was pregnant.
Thy rescued every one of them. Like this late afternoon ferry ride across the murky Mekong River, Thy and Cambodia are on a long journey in the dusk, where people are not always what they seem and poor girls are taken advantage of in every corner of the country. Soldiers bludgeoned infants and children in the infamous killing fields, and tortured people in schools that had been converted to prisons.
Two million citizens were murdered from to , before Vietnamese soldiers finally chased Pol Pot from power. Hungry in body and starving for an education, young Thy found no one who supported or believed in his possibilities. With his country in chaos and a puppet communist government in power, Thy struggled to get a primary education and had to take the national university admissions test twice.