Human trafficking victim Vannak Anan Prum uses art to tell his story

June 20, 2012

Vannak Anan Prum rolls up the sleeves of his navy-blue plaid shirt, as if it is his duty to inspect the memorial to the 16th president of the United States. He stretches his tattooed arms around the columns of the Lincoln Memorial and examines every curve, line and crack of the yule marble from behind black-and-yellow Levi’s glasses.

Prum is 33, a calm and patient former monk from Cambodia. This is his first visit to the United States — his first time anywhere outside of Southeast Asia — and he marvels at the buildings around him. “He can’t believe it’s really stone!” says Prum’s interpreter, Hok Lor.

Lor, a Gaithersburg native, has been assigned to Prum as a tour guide and mentor. He explains to Prum who Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were, and how they fought for equality for all people in the United States.

“In Cambodia, they just stack the stones on top of each other,” Lor said. “He’s never seen stone so smooth.”

Little in Prum’s life had gone smoothly until this point. On Tuesday, he was recognized by the State Department as one of 10 “heroes” in the fight against human trafficking. Prum isn’t merely an observer but a victim, and he has captured his experiences in a series of drawings that he hopes will help stop this modern form of slavery.

In 2006, Prum was kidnapped from Cambodia and forced into virtual slavery in Thailand. For three years, he worked on a fishing boat for 20 hours a day and was, according to the State Department, “mistreated, starved, and tortured.” He slept little and worked fatigued. Those who could not perform were beaten, thrown overboard or killed. Prum says he saw a man decapitated and his body tossed into the sea. Even those who tried jumping ship could not stray far; the boat would just turn around and retrieve them.

When the boat stopped in Malaysia, Prum and his cousin escaped, swimming to shore and then running into the jungle. They sought help from police officers and were placed in jail until the Malaysian Embassy could be contacted. But they soon realized that they had fallen into another trap.

Two men arrived at the jail and paid the police officers for Prum. He was taken to a palm oil plantation where he worked for the next four months, paid only enough money to buy a carton of cigarettes.

Freedom did not come easily or quickly. On the plantation, Prum was injured by others who had started a sword fight. After being treated in a hospital, he again found himself behind bars. His mother was ultimately notified of her son’s fate and contacted Manfred Hornung, a legal adviser with a Cambodian human rights organization. With Hornung’s help, Prum returned home on May 15, 2010.

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