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Swimming to freedom, and into center of fight against modern-day slavery

By Matthew Schofield, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — In 2009, Cambodian Prom Vannak Anan dove into a dark sea and away from a life of beatings, unpaid labor and imprisonment on a fishing boat. The lights of a port, four miles distant, guided him. The desire to be free kept him swimming.

Anan had been a new father and husband in 2005 when a “job agent” offered him a path to a better life, then moved him far from home. Instead of a job, he was sold as a laborer to a Thai boat owner. For years, he endured physical and emotional pain, hoping for a chance to escape.

(PHOTO: In 2009, Prom Vannak, pictured in a Washington, D.C., hotel June 17, 2012, jumped from a Thai fishing boat on which he was a slave and swam for freedom in Borneo. In Washington on June 19, he’s being recognized as one of the world’s heroes in the fight against human trafficking.)

So around midnight in 2009, as the crew slept on a rare night when they anchored near enough to see the shore, he swam for freedom.

Instead of mercy, the Malaysian police he’d hoped would help sold him to a palm oil plantation. It took him another year — much of it in jail — to finally find help, freedom and a way back to his family.

On Tuesday, the State Department named Anan among 10 people who made a difference in fighting modern-day slavery worldwide. Releasing its annual global report on human trafficking, the department called these individuals heroes for combating the tragic trafficking in young children for the sex trade and the sale of adults, like Anan, who were trapped in lives of unpaid labor.

Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who heads the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said that publicizing stories like Anan’s could inspire others to help fight what he called a global epidemic. The numbers released Tuesday in the department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report show that the tragedy of Anan’s story isn’t just that it is so horrible and so cruel, but that it is so common.

Worldwide, an estimated 27 million people live as slaves. For context, consider that in the pre-Civil War United States, the very open and public Southern slave population peaked at around 4 million. U.S. officials say, in fact, that the world has never been home to more slaves than it is today.

The State Department report says that while slaves are held in captivity in places such as Cambodia and Malaysia and Thailand, they also can be found as forced hotel housekeepers, prostitutes or dishwashers in places such as Kansas City, Mo., Charlotte, N.C., and Sacramento, Calif.

“We’re seeing more prosecution, and more victims identified and freed, helped,” said CdeBaca. “But it’s a good trend. It means we’re finally learning the depth of the problem. As we collect better data, the numbers will continue to get worse for a couple years now, as more nations join the fight against human trafficking.”

While officials say the situation is dire, they offer reasons for hope. One is Prom Vannak Anan. His life today is telling his stories, to motivate others to take a stand. He has recreated his ordeal in a series of drawings that anti-slavery activists hope to publish to raise awareness.

During a visit to Washington this week to accept his hero award from the State Department, in a mundane hotel lobby on a muggy afternoon, Anan proclaimed himself a lucky man. “How many people get chances such as this, to come to the United States, to be treated well,” he said.

The daughter he didn’t meet until he was free now waits for him to come home. He lives a simple life in his native Cambodia, but he spent years in bondage dreaming of such a simple life.

“I don’t know what the future holds, whether it will be black or white, good or bad,” he said in between sips of Coke. “I can’t know the future. But I do know that I will try hard. I wish to live a better life, a free life.”

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