By the River by Ian Flanders


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Ian Flandres first visited Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2011 where he stumbled across a young street-prostitute prospecting along the Mekong River. After a brief discussion he became struck and ultimately haunted by the look of despair and desolation in her eyes.

These young betrayed eyes drew Ian’s inquiry and finally his entire creative focus.

Back in Sydney, Ian emailed two of the largest NGO’s in the region for some advice, but frustratingly received no reply, so further down the rabbit hole he dived. He secretively built up relationships with many of the women surviving in small shacks and shelters where they never strayed. In particular, a desperate woman named Anh and her ‘dangerously’ coming-of-age daughter assisted him in discovering and documenting a shocking system of debt slavery where young women had to work off never ending payments to their controlling pimps.

Something would happened to me, and I would be beaten up and not allowed to abandon here. If paid up, there should be no trouble. Over here is very powerful, can't fight them.
Something would happened to me, and I would be beaten up and not allowed to abandon here. If paid up, there should be no trouble. Over here is very powerful, can’t fight them. [Official website]

Five self-funded trips to Phnom Penh later and Ian was slowly realising there were more chains on these women than he could ever have imagined. Ian grappled with the likes of the women’s cultural beliefs, local realities and a sense of filial duty that further inhibited the women from    leaving.

However, he simply could not cast aside his own morality after witnessing first hand the young women feeding their drug addiction, bruises from beatings, self-harm and submitting to their work duty no matter the condition of their health. In one instance, Ian went to find a pharmacy after seeing one young girl vomiting and holding her stomach in terrible pain – upon returning to the shack only moments later, she had already been chosen by a visiting client. As detailed in his  diary:

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What is your idea of misery? The worst pain in my life is when my husband left me and my child, but I am alright just sorry for my child because she lost a father at a young age but because I am poor so that my husband left me and my child. but this poverty was God’s arrangement for me so I have to accept it without resignation, I only hope that I have a sum money so I can repay all their debt then I will go back to live by my child and mother’s side.

Upon exiting the room, the entrance to the room had been opened by Anh. I hadn’t noticed, but Pham was crouched down in the hallway looking in at me. Only when she stood up did I see her. She looked in great pain, hunched over with her arms looking like they were locked together holding her stomach in, dry retching, with her hair pulled back and white as a ghost. It startled me. She came and sat beside me on the mattress. I point to my head, then my stomach asking her where does she feel sick. She made hand gestures to indicate she is throwing  up.

I left the shack determined to find a pharmacist. Even in this very poor area there had to be something. There was – incredibly down and across the road. I walked back to the shack after purchasing medicine and I got the feeling the girls had watched me from across the road. As I approached, the girls all smiled – one girl yelled “Give me” while reaching out. I approached Anh who was at the entrance, she spoke Vietnamese, I turned to my left and noticed it was the Madame she was speaking to. I raised the small plastic bag. “Medicine” I said. The Madame smiled and nodded – another first. I asked Anh if I can give it to Pham directly. She shook her head in denial – pointed over her   shoulder.

“Boom-Boom”  She said.

I couldn’t believe it. Within the space of five minutes, someone had chosen Pham to fuck – albeit in her terrible, vomiting condition. Maybe I should had believed it – she had no choice.

– Notes By the River, Day   23.

Anh and I are two sisters and were born by the same mother, do you understand?
Anh and I are two sisters and were born by the same mother, do you understand?

After three long years, Ian had something a lot more valuable than a gritty photographic expose of the sex- slave industry in Cambodia. He nervously handed over all recorded photos and evidence to the NGO’s and hounded them for action. On November 12th 2014, the shacks were raided and eight women and three  children were rescued, while two traffickers were charged and prosecuted. The Director of Investigations commented “This case and the positive result for the women and girls involved would not have been possible without the valuable assistance of Ian. His unwavering determination to help these trafficking victims over a long period of time despite the personal risk and cost to himself enabled us to gain the necessary information to build the case with the Police resulting in the rescue of the victims and the arrest and prosecution of the traffickers.”

Unfortunately, many of the women returned to the only thing they knew, to their addictions and to where the pressure to change disappeared and things made sense… it broke his heart. However, the intergenerational chain has been broken with children receiving education and support that will hopefully lead to a life of self- determination and options.

There were times during this journey when Ian felt like a man on a meaningful mission, a champion of humanity! But the rejection of freedom from enslaved prostitution by most of these young women also left Ian feeling naïve and privileged.

I also want to leave here but it will be impossible. Because I have owed them here much money there's no way to pay off. For 5 years I haven’t been able to go back home to see my family, I miss them very much. I wish someday someone would take compassion on me and pay off the debt for me, how happy it was then. In here by making small mistakes will be beaten terribly, I am very afraid of being beaten.
I also want to leave here but it will be impossible. Because I have owed them here much money there’s no way to pay off. For 5 years I haven’t been able to go back home to see my family, I miss them very much. I wish someday someone would take compassion on me and pay off the debt for me, how happy it was then. In here by making small mistakes will be beaten terribly, I am very afraid of being beaten.
I have been here a long time, and would also like to go home. Through your helps to my friend Anh, I know you are a good person. You have given Anh money so she could go home and did not have to continue to do this kind of work. Anh and I live close to each other in Vietnam. Anh’s current life is very good and she often asks about you. Anh asks me when you come around, can you go back to Vietnam to visit her. If possible, can you stay here with me tomorrow, I can guarantee nothing will happen and more time to talk. I also have a lot to tell you. As for the other girls, they don’t look at things the way as Anh and myself therefore I am worry that will cause you trouble. I hope you understand.
I have been here a long time, and would also like to go home. Through your helps to my friend Anh, I know you are a good person. You have given Anh money so she could go home and did not have to continue to do this kind of work. Anh and I live close to each other in Vietnam. Anh’s current life is very good and she often asks about you. Anh asks me when you come around, can you go back to Vietnam to visit her. If possible, can you stay here with me tomorrow, I can guarantee nothing will happen and more time to talk. I also have a lot to tell you. As for the other girls, they don’t look at things the way as Anh and myself therefore I am worry that will cause you trouble. I hope you understand.
I am sorry that I did not work yesterday because I slept want but I have no money to pay them can you please help me I say I will never lie to you I won't tell you lie like Pham (sic) lied to you like Pham lied to you.........(sic) I want to go home but I can't do you believe me I am not telling you lie ....yes if I live next door with Anh (sic) and Pham - is there anything that make you ask so many people - but could you please let me know if you would help me - I am not telling you a lie please take me back to my home ...(sic) I really miss my dad and mum.
I am sorry that I did not work yesterday because I slept want but I have no money to pay them can you please help me I say I will never lie to you I won’t tell you lie like Pham (sic) lied to you like Pham lied to you………(sic) I want to go home but I can’t do you believe me I am not telling you lie ….yes if I live next door with Anh (sic) and Pham – is there anything that make you ask so many people – but could you please let me know if you would help me – I am not telling you a lie please take me back to my home …(sic) I really miss my dad and mum.
The Posters – Contradicting the stench, heat and damp mattress on the filthy concrete floor, the shack walls are coated with vibrant yet torn and tarnished posters of Thai, Korean pop and movie stars, flowers, babies and glorified serene landscapes. The posters created a sense of fantasy, an escapism – so far removed from the silent misery contained in the enslaved women.
The Posters – Contradicting the stench, heat and damp mattress on the filthy concrete floor, the shack walls are coated with vibrant yet torn and tarnished posters of Thai, Korean pop and movie stars, flowers, babies and glorified serene landscapes. The posters created a sense of fantasy, an escapism – so far removed from the silent misery contained in the enslaved women.
I have been here because I did borrowed money in advance to send to my family. Therefore, I have not been allowed to go anywhere, just working until paying off the debt and go. Yet about the beating up story, only a little thing done wrong to clients those who come here for relaxing will be beaten up, I sometimes feel very sad and also want to abandon here for seeking another good job to do and quit this one but don't know how to make my wish come true. It's sincere words from my heart.
I have been here because I did borrowed money in advance to send to my family. Therefore, I have not been allowed to go anywhere, just working until paying off the debt and go. Yet about the beating up story, only a little thing done wrong to clients those who come here for relaxing will be beaten up, I sometimes feel very sad and also want to abandon here for seeking another good job to do and quit this one but don’t know how to make my wish come true. It’s sincere words from my heart.
I borrowed money in advance for my family, I have owed them a lot of money, up to seven hundred dollars. Have to work until the end of the month to get pay. If I want to get out of here, I have to pay all of my debt; do you understand? You promise me that my picture here would not be published in newspaper otherwise death is on the way, if you have compassion on me you take me back to Australia, then that's no problem. I am really worried about this.
I borrowed money in advance for my family, I have owed them a lot of money, up to seven hundred dollars. Have to work until the end of the month to get pay. If I want to get out of here, I have to pay all of my debt; do you understand? You promise me that my picture here would not be published in newspaper otherwise death is on the way, if you have compassion on me you take me back to Australia, then that’s no problem. I am really worried about this.
When I came here I was told to work as a sale assistant in the bar. Because the person who took me here had told me that I could earn a lot of money, so I agreed to go in order to make money for supporting my parents and younger siblings. When being here then I’ve just knew such a job I have no choice but to accept it, because my family does not have money to take care of my younger siblings schooling.
When I came here I was told to work as a sale assistant in the bar. Because the person who took me here had told me that I could earn a lot of money, so I agreed to go in order to make money for supporting my parents and younger siblings. When being here then I’ve just knew such a job I have no choice but to accept it, because my family does not have money to take care of my younger siblings schooling.
Because I don't have the money to take care for my parents & kid's schooling {sic} I don't know how to tell you because I am sincere in telling you the truth and not lying to you I only know you are the person who helped Anh & Pham. I really want to go home but don't have the money to settle {sic} Let me tell you, I am sincere in telling & never lie to you. I just know you because I don't tell you lie but I am sincerely telling you that I want to go home because I miss my parents It has been 3 years I can't go home. Anh & Pham could go home whereas no one pay for me help me if you pity me.
Because I don’t have the money to take care for my parents & kid’s schooling {sic} I don’t know how to tell you because I am sincere in telling you the truth and not lying to you I only know you are the person who helped Anh & Pham. I really want to go home but don’t have the money to settle {sic} Let me tell you, I am sincere in telling & never lie to you. I just know you because I don’t tell you lie but I am sincerely telling you that I want to go home because I miss my parents It has been 3 years I can’t go home. Anh & Pham could go home whereas no one pay for me help me if you pity me. I am telling you but please don’t tell Anh… Pham… sorry (sic) as you are sincere & because I don’t tell you lie if you would listen I will tell you the truth that my mother was arrested by the police so I don’t get to see (sic)…(sic) I really want to go home please help me I beg you. Once you pay I will not stay here. If you think I am not sincere then it’s alright because I want to go home.
How do you want to be remembered? For me, I want to be considered as a friend; because I no longer have a heart in loving with anybody again.
How do you want to be remembered?
For me, I want to be considered as a friend; because I no longer have a heart in loving with anybody again.
I am sorry that I can’t meet up with you because my mother came and take me back urgently so I am unable to see you. Let me go home then I will contact you later, my family are really grateful of you I love you.
I am sorry that I can’t meet up with you because my mother came and take me back urgently so I am unable to see you. Let me go home then I will contact you later, my family are really grateful of you
I love you.
If I go home my sister will stay behind, please don't do anything that would cause her to be hurt and her life to be in danger. After I have gone home and if you visit this place, please don’t take photo, they will notice then my sister would be beaten up. Please don’t take photo anymore.
If I go home my sister will stay behind, please don’t do anything that would cause her to be hurt and her life to be in danger. After I have gone home and if you visit this place, please don’t take photo, they will notice then my sister would be beaten up.
Please don’t take photo anymore.
I don’t need anything at all in terms of happiness, what I only need is some day I could live with my mother and my child. That's enough happiness for me.
I don’t need anything at all in terms of happiness, what I only need is some day I could live with my mother and my child. That’s enough happiness for me.
How do you want to be remembered? I really don’t know that; however I wish people would always consider me as a lovely and noteworthy person.
How do you want to be remembered?
I really don’t know that; however I wish people would always consider me as a lovely and noteworthy person.
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