Slave Hunter co-author Christine Buckley wears her journalism on her sleeve
LA Weekly and 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?
Aaron can answer this better than I can, since I'm based in Paris and am not clocking the situation in OC very closely at the moment. But yes, I'm sure there are still slaves working in the local massage (a.k.a. prostitution) parlors and nail salons, but also in restaurants
and private homes as domestics. Slaves are everywhere (remember, as many as 17,000 new slaves are brought into this country every year, which means there are somewhere around 50,000 slaves in the U.S. at any one time), and anywhere from 40 percent to 50 percent of them are NOT sex slaves (the media tends to focus on this because it gets big ratings/hits).
Let's not forget about the agricultural workers brought in under false pretenses and held by force or threats in the fields of California, Florida, Texas and elsewhere while they pick our tomatoes and oranges. Most people do not want to know why certain items they buy are so cheap. The answer is that somewhere along the line, someone is not getting paid. We now have the resources to investigate slave labor in corporations' supply chains. Some corps have agreed to do so, but many others have not yet signed on. The good news is that no major industry has more than 2 percent to 3 percent slave labor in its supply chain. So boycotting is not the answer; this will just harm all of the farmers. The solution is to call upon the corporations to take responsibility for what's happenin,g even on the bottom rung of their supply chain. I Tweet regularly on this issue. Here's one place people can go to do this: www.chainstorereaction.com.
It sounds as if there are slaves all around us?
I really think it's important to stress that there are MANY kinds of slaves, not just sex slaves. And also crucial for you to give readers the tools they need to identify victims and help prevent the slavery that is prevalent in all of our communities. Once we tune into it, we can't help but see it. Once we've seen it, we're unable to forget it, and so we refuse to tolerate it . . . and next thing you know, the traffickers and slaveholders will be forced to find themselves a new business. And America will truly be the land of the free.
What do you think of the early, positive reaction to the book?
I'm thankful and hopeful that it raises awareness of human trafficking and draws people into the cause, spurs activism. We don't purport to have written an academic work. Other people can do (and already have done) that better than us. But in telling Aaron's action-packed life
story and recounting the tales of victims through his eyes, I hope we've honored them and made sure that their suffering will help prevent others from the same fate.
A portion of the proceeds will go to Abolish Slavery Coalition, an umbrella organization Aaron has founded to bring together many of the nonprofits and activists working on the cause. Sometimes the cause gets lost when individual egos get in the way. As I say in the epilogue, "Well-meaning activists, policy makers and journalists have wasted time squabbling over the definition of human trafficking or slavery, choosing sides and allowing personal agendas to get in the way of collective progress." The idea of Abolish Slavery is that we all need to join forces to truly wipe this crime against humanity off the planet.
Any other projects coming up?
This summer I'm helping a friend of mine, John Bowe (the guy who broke the story of slave labor in the fields of Immokalee, Florida, in The New Yorker and published the book Nobodies) out with some editing and interviews for his next book, an oral history collection in the Studs Turkel mold called Dear: Americans Talk About Love (to be published by Faber on Valentine's Day 2010). A bit of a change from human trafficking. But it reminds me that love, too, seems to cause us universal suffering.
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[This month,] I'll go back to France and join a good friend harvesting organic strawberries and hanging out with donkeys in Corsica while working on my own book. Healthy eating/growing practices and sustainable living are passions of mine. The second book is a bit of a
memoir about the many strange jobs, adventures and travels I've undertaken in the past decade. And yes, it will actually be funny.
Meanwhile, I'll remain active in this cause. I plan to return to Southeast Asia this winter to implement a program that will teach yoga to sex-trafficking victims. I know far too many American and French women who've done yoga-teacher training and are longing to find an outlet for this skill. I want to enable these friends and colleagues to spend their vacations giving back and helping these young damaged
women get in touch with their bodies and recover their lives. Eventually, I'd like to fund these programs in other regions of the world, as well as in the U.S.
For more Slave Hunter news, see "'Slave Hunter' Aaron Cohen Throws the Book at Human Trafficking."