Culture > Books

Modern bondage

Books | Today's slaves, reports E. Benjamin Skinner, are numerous, cheap, and possibly in a neighborhood near you

Issue: "Home again," July 12, 2008

As newspapers and news magazines slice staffs before an internet juggernaut, journalism students worry about where they'll find work. They have reason for alarm, but the basic road to recognition is still paved with courage.

Nellie Bly, the first widely recognized female reporter in America, gained her job on Joseph Pulitzer's New York World by her willingness to do what others feared: She had herself committed to a brutal insane asylum and came out with a blazing story, "Ten Days in a Mad-House."

Many other young reporters have written stories from the front lines of war and disaster. E. Benjamin Skinner now joins the honor roll with his impressive first book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery (Free Press, 2008). In Haiti, Sudan, Romania, India, and other countries, Skinner looks at slavery both in its continuing ancient guises and its new global expansion into sex trafficking.

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Although guns show up in the book, part of its charm lies in its matter-of-fact notes on the normal difficulties of reporting in Africa: "I drank water from a fuel barrel. Despite the charcoal filter on my water bottle, it tasted like jet fuel. Dehydration would be a constant companion during my first month in southern Sudan. In this first week, I lost twenty pounds, and eventually repaired to Kenya vomiting and enflamed with dengue fever."

But to the survivor belongs the stories. Skinner writes about how he became used to the snakes in his hut, "but scorpions, perched on a mosquito net inches above my face, always raised my heart rate." Stories raise heart rates not when they're the usual (and often suspect) facts and figures, but when in-person reporting gives us the human interest to pause and notice not only that all is not right, but that it's possible to do something about it.

WORLD: What did you find out in Haiti about buying child slaves?

SKINNER: I did not, nor would I ever, buy a person-but in Haiti I learned how terrifyingly easy it would be to do so. I was offered a 10-year-old girl, to be used for sexual and domestic slavery, for $50. That was in broad daylight, an hour by plane from Florida. Compare that to 1850 when a slave in the American South would cost between $30,000-40,000, in today's dollars. Today slaves are cheaper and more numerous than ever.

WORLD: You write about Muong Nyong Muong in Sudan. What happened to him?

SKINNER: At age 12, Nyong was seized along with his mother and brother by an Arab militiaman who was conducting slave raids in southern Sudan. The militiaman was operating at the behest of Sudan's ruling National Islamic Front, which actively promoted programs of mass civilian killing and slave raids to depopulate areas of the south during the second phase of the civil war. After he and his family were held in violent bondage for over a decade, Nyong managed to find freedom-and, later, Christ-after a courageous escape and long odyssey that I detail in the book.

WORLD: You call the slave trail that begins in Moldova and Romania "the new Middle Passage."

SKINNER: It's a reference to the brutal Middle Passage along the triangular route between Europe, Africa, and the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. The modern incarnation is a worldwide phenomenon-nearly a million people are sold into slavery across international borders every year. Moldova has essentially suffered a silent, disorganized genocide since it gained independence as the Soviet Union broke down: As many as 400,000 Moldovans have been trafficked internationally. In Romania, a Bucharest pimp offered me a suicidal sex slave with Down syndrome in exchange for a used car.

WORLD: Does Amsterdam's legal prostitution make it a place of grace or disgrace?

SKINNER: Disgrace: Legal prostitution fosters a trade in human misery. Prostitution is always exploitative and it is often brutal. But I respectfully disagree with the argument that it is always slavery. Slaves are those forced to work, through fraud or under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence. Many, though not all, prostitutes fall into that category. I argue for a compassionate approach to the women involved. The Swedish government helps women leave prostitution and vigorously prosecutes pimps, johns, and traffickers. But a woman who chooses to be a prostitute (and such women do exist) needs different forms of assistance than one who is forced into the trade.

WORLD: Who are the "children of Vishnu"?

SKINNER: Previously known as "the untouchables," they are currently called the Dalit ("crushed"), who occupy the lowest tier of the Hindu caste system. (Mahatma Gandhi tried, unsuccessfully, to remind his fellow Indians of the Dalits' humanity by rebranding them Harijan, or "children of Vishnu.") Today, they form a majority of the 260 million Indians living on less than a dollar a day. Certainly, not all Dalits are slaves. But their outcast status and withering poverty make them vulnerable to traffickers-and in India, which has more slaves than any other country, most in bondage are also Dalits.

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