By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Slave Hunter co-author Christine Buckley wears her journalism on her sleeve
LA Weeklyand OC Weekly readers were first exposed to Christine Buckley's writing and reporting skills in her June 2007 cover story, "From Hunter to Hunted." Now she has teamed with Cohen to co-write Slave Hunter: One’s Man’s Global Quest to Free Victims of Human Trafficking (Simon & Schuster). It debuted June 23 at No. 1 on Amazon’s human-rights best-seller list. Buckley and I exchanged e-mails about the experience last week. I was in Costa Mesa, and she on her way home to Paris. I need a better agent.
OC Weekly: I'm a little fuzzy about how you came on the Aaron Cohen story originally.
Christine Buckley: I lived in Vietnam (with some time spent in Cambodia and Laos) for three years. I worked as an editor for the daily English-language newspaper, Vietnam News, but also volunteered with street kids, teaching them English and becoming a part of their daily lives. I began to realize that a lot of them were being run in gangs (selling lottery tickets, gum, etc. on the streets) by so-called "uncles" and "aunts" who were abusing/drugging them and forcing them to work against their will (often selling sex to Western and Asian men) for nothing beyond subsistence. That means they were slaves. The NGO workers I knew were aware of this, but felt their hands were tied. They needed to keep their mouths shut about certain things in order to keep operating there. This is the case in many countries where government officials are corrupt and often directly involved in trafficking (usually at low/mid levels, but sometimes, as is the case in Cambodia, at the very top—cabinet holders such as former Phnom Penh police chief Hok Lundy, mentioned in our book).
When I started to connect the dots after doing my own investigation, I started having problems in Vietnam. I left the country in order to find out what was going on, and when I returned to the States in 2006 and started asking questions, I eventually came across Aaron (a human-rights activist who had started an online petition to free a jailed woman in Vietnam gave me his number). We met briefly in Florida at an anti-slavery conference in February 2007, and although he originally told me he had only a few minutes to talk, we ended up talking for
hours. He managed to fill in a lot of the blanks for me and told me that what I knew was just the tip of the iceberg. From then on, I became his confidante, since I, like he, had been to some of these places and seen for myself what an 8-year-old brothel slave looks like. I had more than just an academic understanding of the issue. Like him, I was emotionally involved. From there, the story unwound much as it does in the piece I wrote for the Weekly.
You write of being in some spy novel-worthy adventures here in the States, but all the international intrigue is confined to Aaron's journals and interviews with you. Have you experienced anything like that abroad?
I lived in Vietnam in 2000 and from 2003 to 2006, with in-depth travel around much of Southeast Asia. I grew up with two adopted Vietnamese brothers and speak the language. In many ways, Vietnamese is a second culture to me, so it tears my heart out to see young Vietnamese children systematically victimized. Of course, as I began to research the scope of human trafficking, I realized it was happening everywhere, even right here in the U.S. Which was why I agreed to help Aaron tell his story in this book. Because it's not about him—it's about the victims and what we as a society can do to stop victimizing them.
I'm no longer interested in doing journalism that presents a problem without a solution. It's not enough for me to say, "Here, look, there's an awful thing happening in country X or in town Y. But I've got to remain objective, so I'm not going to say or do anything beyond simply presenting the facts." I guess that's why I've stayed freelance. I have the luxury to allow myself to get emotionally involved and to live up to the promises I make to my subjects: "I won't just take this information, walk away and forget you. I'm going to get it to the people who can help you, and whenever I can, help you myself."
Did writing the story and book change you, and if so, how?
Before I met Aaron Cohen, I was already doing volunteer work, and my writing was often about people who couldn't speak up for themselves. But Aaron's unorthodox (some would even say crazy, for in many ways, I feel he has replaced his drug addiction with an addiction to putting himself in dangerous places and situations) example showed me that one person really could make a difference, and so I guess you could say that all this time spent with him made me into even more of an activist, particularly on this issue, and made me stop questioning my right to speak up about it or call myself an "expert." I haven't done a thesis on the subject, true, but I've inadvertently become that expert, and I feel as though I've got to do something with that to change things for the better.
I did a lot of research (with the help of an amazing research assistant, Mary Bowers, who had just graduated from Columbia Journalism School when I found her) while writing this book, particularly on Sudan and Iraq. I think the reader will be as surprised as I was to see the parallels. I also found out, largely by reading the experts on this issue (namely Kevin Bales, author of Ending Slavery and his new book, The Slave Next Door, co-authored with Ron Soodalter), that although modern-day slavery is more widespread than ever, it is very much in our power to wipe it out within a generation. That's not just naive optimism talking!
Your story on Aaron appeared in the Weekly in 2007. Do you know if since that time, with the work of the anti-trafficking initiatives here in Orange County, if it has made a dent in the problem. Is it possible some of those ladies at the local nail salons are still slaves?