The women outside the Best Western Cangi. Claudia, right, is about to climb on the truck; Nadia is third from left.
LAUDIA bends forward and lets out a weary sigh while she rubs her temples. She is
exhausted. The last 24 hours have been eventful and hectic.
First there was the raid on the Best Western Cangi Hotel when Claudia and five other
girls were rescued from their rooms amid a flurry of military police, human rights
workers and reporters. Then there was the extended questioning down at the military
police headquarters before the girls were taken to a safe house. And hours of anxiety
over whether a seventh girl would make it back safely from Sihanoukville where she
was spending the day with a Government official.
Today there have been more questions to answer from various officials, with Claudia
functioning more or less as an interpreter. She is the only one of the five Romanian
and two Moldovan girls who speaks proficient English.
Now, as the late afternoon rain is pouring down outside, Claudia, 23, hardly has
any energy left. Yet she summons up the courage - together with her friend Nadia,
24 - to tell the story of how they all were lured to Cambodia with promises of good
money and work as nightclub dancers. Promises that soon turned into threats, captivity
and occasional violence when the girls refused to turn themselves into prostitutes.
For Claudia it began back home in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, when she saw an
ad in a paper promising lucrative job opportunities abroad. It was placed by a company
run by a woman called Norica, who offered the girls work as dancers and hostesses
if they would travel outside the country.
Many girls applied for the jobs. Norica chose eight, among them Claudia and Nadia.
"We had bad luck. She chose us," Claudia muses ironically.
At the time it seemed good luck. The girls were promised a $600 monthly salary, commissions
on drinks their customers bought and plenty of tips. All they had to do was to sign
a six-month contract. Norica never mentioned anything about sexual services.
From Bucharest, the girls flew to Bangkok. Once there, Norica for the first time
told them they were going to Phnom Penh. When they arrived at Pochentong airport
on July 25, they were met by the owner of the Best Western Cangi Hotel, Richard Chun.
The small group was quickly whisked through immigration. No stamps, no forms to fill
out, no questions asked.
On the first night in Phnom Penh the girls were taken to the nightclub at the Best
Western Tai-Ming Plaza Hotel, where they were supposed to work as dancers and hostesses.
As the evening progressed, the true nature of their situation dawned on them.
"A customer had already paid for us to go up to the room and have sex with him.
We refused to go. Finally the manager had to give the money back to the customer.
He had paid $200," Nadia remembers.
Later that night, back at the Cangi Hotel, an argument broke out.
"We protested," says Claudia. "We wanted to go back home. First we
spoke with Norica. She admitted she had lied to us in Romania. She said if she hadn't
lied we wouldn't have come."
Then Chun interfered.
"He said we must sleep with the customers to pay for our tickets and for medical
checks - too many things - before we could go home. He also said we could disappear
and nobody would know where we were. Norica said that she would not do anything to
us, but somebody else would."
Night after night for more than two weeks the scene repeated itself. A minibus arrived
at 8 pm to take the girls to the nightclub, where they were told to sit at a table
and wait. When a customer arrived Norica, acting as mama-san, would line the girls
up in a private karaoke room.
"The customer would look at us and say 'I want this' or 'I want that'. This
was the worst - like we were some food in a supermarket that you chose to buy. It
was very humiliating," Claudia says.
Once chosen, the girls had to accommodate the customers.
"We had to smile, to make the customer feel comfortable and relaxed, give him
a massage. It made me feel used," says Claudia.
Eventually the demand for sex would come up, but both Claudia and Nadia say none
of the girls bowed to the demands.
"We never slept with the customers. We always refused. One night when I again
refused a customer - he was someone important - he slapped me in the face. The same
thing happened to Nadia," recalls Claudia.
The pressure started to bear down on the girls. Chun kept threatening them.
"It was hard," says Claudia. "We used to cry and beg Richard [Chun]
to let us go home. We tried everything. Sometimes we would lie and say we had our
periods so we couldn't sleep with the customers."
The girls even tried to escape down the back stairs, but they found that the stairs
were watched by a guard. They weren't allowed to leave the hotel without either Norica
or one of the hotel staff.
Finally, one of the girls gave in and started having sex with the customers. Chun,
however, was still not happy with the remaining six.
"This week we were supposed to be sold to another city. Richard wanted to sell
us this week if we didn't start to sleep with the customers," Claudia says.
The threat prompted the girls to make one last desperate effort to escape. From a
public phone in the hotel lobby they all called their parents, who contacted the
authorities in their home countries. The message reached human rights groups in Cambodia
and a raid was organized.
"We could hardly believe it when we saw the police coming to the hotel. We didn't
believe that we could finally go," says Claudia.
All the girls want now is to get home. Claudia hopes to get her old job as dealer
in a casino back and is longing to see her husband of five years again.