From Hunter to Hunted

In his quest to free slaves around the world, Aaron Cohen thought hed seen it all. Then he went to Myanmar

It's also the fastest-growing. Recent estimates put the number of slaves at 30 million worldwide. There may be as many as 800,000 new victims trafficked across international borders each year, though no one really knows how many there are, since so many of them are unseen. The State Department figures at least 16,000 people per year are brought into the U.S. for forced labor or commercial sex. Human commerce can boast as much as an 800 percent profit margin. Unlike drugs or arms, human beings can be sold or swapped innumerable times—and easily hidden.

One of the most prominent local instances of that unfortunate fact came to light last summer in Irvine, after an anonymous tip led authorities to a young Egyptian girl who was occasionally seen taking out the garbage but who never rode the school bus. It was later revealed that the girl's upper-middle-class captors had been "renting" the 11-year-old from her indigent parents in Egypt for $30 per month. For almost two years, the child lived in the garage on a urine-stained mattress—cooking, cleaning and taking abuse from the couple and their five children—before she was rescued from what was to be a 10-year term. The case became Orange County's first federal prosecution of a human-trafficking case but wouldn't be its last.

At a vegetarian place near his house, over a salad with veggie bacon, Cohen picks up his second iced latte and resumes his narrative. After his mother died, he got off drugs and reconnected with Farrell, presenting the Jubilee to him as a sort of Lollapalooza of the ancient world. Farrell was receptive, and the two began once more to collaborate, this time on the idea of using music to save the planet.

Click photo to go to slideshow.
Click photo to go to slideshow.

"To get the campaign rolling, Perry opened his Rolodex and called his musician friends—David Bowie, Bob Geldof and Bono among them," he says. Cohen moved back to Venice, this time next door to Farrell. They surfed, read Jubilee passages from the Bible and deciphered their meaning in the Zohar (part of the Kabbalah).

In his new role at Farrell's Jubilee Foundation, Cohen developed a network of musicians and fans dedicated to humanitarianism. He ran strategy for several charity campaigns before working on Bono's Drop the Debt, which led to hundreds of billions in relinquished debt for developing countries. "Perry and Bob Geldof were the unsung heroes of that campaign," says Cohen.

At the same time, the civil war in Sudan had turned uglier. Cohen saw a PBS program documenting the slavery there and knew his access to rock stars put him in a unique position to do something. He contacted human-rights activist John Eibner, who, under the auspices of Christian Solidarity International, had already bought the freedom of thousands of slaves. Cohen told Eibner that if he could come along on a retrieval, he would form a Jubilee-inspired music festival to raise money for slave liberations.

"Then it dawned on me that I had to have the money to pay for a mission in the middle of a civil war," he says before explaining how he and his father repaired their relationship as his mother was dying. On her deathbed, she made her husband vow to help Aaron pursue his Jubilee dream. Cohen Sr. became his first patron, handing his son a ticket and money to buy human freedom.

And so, in the late 1990s, Cohen started making volunteer trips to Sudan, where he was among the first Westerners to document slavery and genocide by Muslim militias in the North against Southern animists and Christians. The video evidence he turned over to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee through Senators Paul Wellstone and Sam Brownback in 1999 exposed the financial connections between the Sudanese slave trade and what was then a fledgling organization led by an obscure Saudi named Osama bin Laden.

From then on, Cohen has been on al-Qaeda's radar. After he first criticized Sudan's Islamic regime, he got hundreds of eerie death threats—phoned in to his private numbers and sent to a personal e-mail address. One e-mail highlighted his name on a death list put out by an extremist publication linked to al-Qaeda.

In October 2001, an inflammatory story on the New York Post's Page Six labeling Cohen "Perry Farrell's spiritual guru marked for death" led to the abrupt end of his 12-year career as a music-industry insider.

When the article appeared, Cohen had just helped to launch the Jubilee Music Festival, headlined by a reunited Hole, Foo Fighters and Jane's Addiction. He flew to New York to attend an opening-night benefit with Bono, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and David Bowie. But post-9/11 New York couldn't handle a story like Cohen's. When he showed up backstage, he was suddenly informed he was out of a job.

"Everyone looked at me like I was a ghost," he says. "The road manager pulled me aside and said, 'Look, you can't be here. Everybody's afraid that if you're here, a bomb's gonna go off.'"

Cohen is sanguine about the chaotic effect the piece had on his life at the time. He now views it as the catalyst that turned him into a full-blown human-rights activist. It's taken behind-the-scenes players like him and emerging evidence of slave trading inside our own borders to snap politicians into action. In 2000, Congress unanimously passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act—the most comprehensive antislavery legislation since the Emancipation Proclamation—which makes human trafficking a federal crime. Since then, 150 other countries have followed suit with their own laws. And American lawmakers and enforcers have gone on the offensive, forming multidisciplinary task forces in 42 U.S. cities. They allocated $28.5 million for domestic anti-trafficking programs in 2006.

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