Wasn’t slavery abolished? Actually, no. In fact, there are more slaves in the world today than at any point in our history. Slave Hunter by Aaron Cohen and Christine Buckley (New York, NY: Simon Schuster, Inc., 2009) looks at the eye-opening truth behind human trafficking from Cohen’s perspective as a “slave hunter,” documenting and rescuing victims of sexual exploitation and forced labor.
Cohen, inspired by Jubilee, a movement to forgive debt and free slaves, began his human-rights activism first by building a grass-roots campaign with his friend Perry Farrell called Drop the Debt. Believing awareness is the first step to eradication, Cohen dedicated himself to bringing public awareness to the existence of modern-day slavery. Cohen characterizes human trafficking as the new face of slavery, dedicating his book its victims.
Cohen is a “slave hunter,” identifying human beings who are trafficked and exploited for labor and/or sexual purposes. Cohen’s memoir recounts his first-hand experiences in brothels, massage parlors, restaurants, bars, and war zones. A one-time former partner with Jane’s Addiction front-man Perry Farrell, Cohen used his musical connections and social skills to promote his activism alongside Bono, Ricky Martin and the Dalai Lama.
Slave Hunter documents Cohen’s journey in distinct sections, each describing a different area of the world where he has traveled: Cambodia, Sudan, Latin America, Myanmar, and the Middle East. Cohen’s fieldwork begins with a process he calls “night frighting,” where he poses as a sex tourist collecting evidence against traffickers in brothels. He easily finds brothels through taxi drivers who earn vouchers for gas when they bring in customers. Cohen keeps a video journal, where he photographs and records interviews with trafficked women and children on his cell phone. After buying some time with them, he then engages them to talk about their lives and experiences. “Yum-yum thirty dollar. Boom-boom fifty dollar,” says one of the children he meets in a brothel. He notes for twenty dollars more a man can have unprotected sex with this child. Cohen is aware he might not be able to save the girl he is talking to at the moment, but he believes his efforts will help prevent future potential victims. Through Cohen’s words, we hear the victim’s stories: their pain, their fear, and their misery. In many cases, he helps keep hope alive for the numerous women and children he encounters.
While Cohen’s work has documented slavery, he has also seen genocide in Sudan and terrorist operations in Asia. Through his field work around the world, Cohen has identified links between the trafficked women and connections to organized crime, gangs, drug cartels, and natural resources such as oil, gold, and uranium.
Brothels usually have the backing of at least one mafia family. In situations where Cohen is able to buy the freedom of the women and children he encounters, the madams (or slave masters) and the girls sign statements that will keep Cohen and his fellow rescuers from being charged with kidnapping. While Cohen’s critics express outrage that he gives money to the traffickers, the money keeps the girls’ families safe from mafia threats. The trafficked women and children are then provided safety for the time being. Instead of sitting in meetings talking about human rights, Cohen wants to make sure trafficked victims have a safe place to sleep. After they are taken to safety, the women and children are given a chance at an education and reintegration into society.
At one point in the memoir, Cohen describes how he has hit men coming after him after he has raided several brothels. “Our actions have probably roused more than one gang boss tonight with some very bad news. By taking back nearly thirty girls, we have cut off the bad guys’ cash flow to the tune of about $3 million,” Cohen writes. He points out that ‘Canadian journalist Victor Malarek’s research would later put the average profit a trafficker could make from one woman at about $160,000.’
Many governments do not recognize trafficked women as victims, which is why Cohen’s work is so important. Cohen teamed together with Michele Clark to promote public education and awareness seminars. Clark works on the policy side of things, as a coordinator at a think-tank based at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Cohen and Clark both share a victim-centered approach towards human trafficking, which they believe is essential to anti-trafficking work. Cohen has presented his research to help develop prevention programs, and discussed the importance of the Internet in the exploitation of women and children.
We live in a global community, one in which slave labor effects everyone. Cohen exposes this world-wide problem in all the countries he has visited. In Ecuador, where there are no victim shelters, trafficked women are not considered refugees, and therefore are not admitted to refugee camps. Cohen served as a field operative and consultant in Ecuador, intending to shed more light on trafficking patterns there by documenting and photographing trafficked victims.
Cohen’s missions involved analyzing the scope of trafficking and helping locals develop a national anti-trafficking strategy. Cohen’s journeys also led him to Sudan, where he documented slave redemptions, buying the freedom of slaves for anywhere from twenty to eighty dollars each. Under Sudan’s penal code, slave redemption is a violation of sharia law, punishable by limb amputation, death or crucifixion. Cohen’s travels also led him to Myanmar, where ethnic Shans are employed by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The SPDC uses slave labor to build infrastructure in the country’s new capital, as well as at facilities producing uranium, that is used to process fuel for nuclear reactors (which is in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions). In Thailand on another visit, Cohen documented the indigenous people from the Hmong ethnic group, who are denied political refugee status elsewhere, and wait in camps where they easily fall prey to traffickers that take advantage of their situation.
Cohen’s memoir gives us access to experiences and thoughts we may otherwise never have had. Arguably, the single most important thing to take away from reading Cohen’s memoir is that it illustrates the fact that governments and organizations, as well as individuals, are capable of making a difference in taking a human being out of enslavement. We live in a world that is growing smaller by the minute, and we must all develop a greater sense of universal responsibility for each other.
Perspectives on Global Issues’s Spring 2010 issue on Human Security will feature an interview with Slave Hunter author Aaron Cohen. The issue will be available in late April 2010.
A review of the book Slave Hunter by Rada Ghemigian
By PGI Staff