Thursday, January 6, 2011
Twenty-first century chains
It's fitting that right as I finished reading E. Benjamin Skinner's A Crime So Monstrous, an e-mail popped up from the Holocaust Memorial reminding me about Sudan's referendum on Sunday. A large part of Skinner's book covers the slave trade still going on in Sudan, exacerbated by the continuing north-south conflict.
It is truly mystifying how little attention slavery gets today (and I don't tack on the 'modern-day' sobriquet). Aside from the prurient drooling of the Evangelical right over sex slavery, debt-bondage, child labor, domestic slavery, and other, more nebulous forms of slavery get scant attention from the media and governments.
Crime opens with an author's note that asks the reader to imagine an alternate history in which the Confederate States of America won the Civil War, spreading slavery to the Northern states, or if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor and incurred the wrath of America, but confined its slavery to Asia. In short, Skinner wants you to think about what the global situation would be like if the ideology of slavery had not been confronted in the Civil War or World War II. Then Skinner points out the schizophrenic reality of a world in which America, purportedly the shining beacon of hope to the beknighted, has roughly half a million slaves living in it right now, with nearly 20,000 trafficked to America every year.
Skinner is a travel writer, and he uses that background to ingenious effect in Crime. Following the path of both slaver and slave, Skinner starts chapter one at UN Headquarters in New York before taking the reader on the relatively short journey to Haiti, where domestic and sexual slavery (which is often one and the same) are rampant. In Haiti, Skinner tries to buy a child from a genial middleman, who cheerfully offers to sell the writer a 12 year old girl for $50. Leaving Port au Prince, Skinner goes to the Haitian countryside, where most of the enslaved children come from, to talk to the parents who sell their children, and finds himself in the unlikely position of rescuer. He's able to reunite a woman with her child who vanished into Port au Prince after being entrusted to a woman who promised to send her to school.
Skinner then takes us on to Sudan, where slavery has fostered some strange political bedfellows. American Evangelicals, moved by the enslavement of the mostly Christian south Sudanese by the mostly Islamic, Arabic-speaking north Sudanese, have bankrolled 'redemption' missions, carried out by characters like John Eibner, who travels across Sudan with a cadre of frightening mercenaries who call themselves the Archangel Group, composed of former Green Berets, Britain's SAS, and the Soviet Special Forces. Skinner has his doubts about the veracity of both Eibner's organization and his mission, but he relates the brutality of the Sudanese slave trade and the government's complicity in harshly evocative language.
Next, Skinner heads to Europe by way of Amsterdam, Moldova, and Romania, where he finds a journalist who can introduce him to contacts in the underworld of Eastern Europe's sex trade. There, Skinner goes to Bucharest and finds a man willing to sell him a teenager for a used car and a handful of Euros. In one of the book's most horrific passages, when Skinner demands to see the goods, the man returns with a weeping teenager with Down's syndrome.
It's here that Skinner becomes almost incandescent with rage, rage at the hypocrisy of the Netherlands' government at allowing a shadow slave trade to flourish in its red-light district, rage at the corrupt police force in the former Soviet satellite countries that ignore the human traffickers in favor of imprisoning the trafficked, and rage at the toothless flailing of the 'calcified' United Nations. Heading through the backwater of Moldova and retracing the path that many trafficked women take, Skinner finds ghost towns where less than 15% of the women remain, the rest having scattered to Western Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East.
Next up is India, to document the practice of debt bondage that leaves millions in slavery that stretches from generation to generation to repay dubious 'debts' to the owners of rock quarries, textile factories, and farms. Skinner chronicles the life of one family, whose bondage to a sadistic quarry owner has lasted nearly three generations, while local officials insist that slavery doesn't exist in their district. This chapter has one of the infrequent bright spots, with the successful rebellion of the enslaved inhabitants of one mining district, but overall the numbers are grim, as is the international community (and America's) reluctance to confront a valuable trading partner over the issue.
In the suburbs of Florida Skinner meets with Williathe, a Haitian girl nicknamed "Little Hope" who lived in domestic and sexual slavery for years in Pembroke Pines, outside of Miami. Taken from Haiti in 1996, at the age of nine, Williathe lived in Marie Pompee's house, regularly beaten and routinely raped by Marie's 20 year old son. It took three years for school administrators to notice anything, and as a result of utter, epic incompetence, Marie's son and husband were able to escape to Haiti and disappeared. Marie herself only received 6 months in jail.
Along the way, Skinner explains why governments, ours included, have been so reticent to address the issue. A confluence of things - the reluctance to define slavery as slavery, the disagreement over what constitutes slavery, the focus on sex trafficking to the exclusion of other forms of slavery, and simply that slavery helps drive the economic engine of countries like India - has contributed to the weak international response to trafficking and slavery, whereas outright corruption has contributed to persecution of the victims in many places that benefit from slavery.
Skinner's writing is blunt and forward, and his loyalties are obvious (the "calcified" UN, the hypocritical European governments) but his bravery is undoubtable. Skinner met with traffickers in Romania's most notorious prison, risked arrest at several borders, and endured disease and danger in Sudan, India, and the underworlds of several different countries to document the experiences of slaves and the official response (or lack thereof) to trafficking. He also does an excellent job in communicating the sheer, crushing weight of such an intractable problem and his own inability to stay disengaged from his subjects.
Skinner leaves the reader with a number of strategies to combat slavery in his epilogue, from calling for governments to enforce anti-slavery laws already in existence to partnerships between humanitarian organizations and government organs to end the demand and shrink the supply of slaves. However, it's incredibly hard to read any of Skinner's suggested without acidity or cynicism, given the monstrous failures so far.