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BOOK REVIEW: Where Were You? A Profile of Modern Slavery
By Matthew S. Friedman. Penguin Books. Paperback, 228 pages with Annex. US$25.94 on Amazon
Reviewed by: Toh Han Shih
When the word “slavery” is mentioned, many people think of African slaves in the Americas. In this book, Matthew Friedman is calling for a modern-day Abolitionist Movement against slavery today, which includes young girls tricked and forced into prostitution, many of them in Asia.
The title of this book, “Where Were You?”, came from a harrowing encounter between the author, when he was a US diplomat working on public health in Nepal, and a 15-year-old girl named Gita. Friedman tried with difficulty to interview Gita in a shelter for former prostitutes in Nepal. Previously, she had withdrawn angrily every time Friedman tried to approach her. Finally, Gita told him her story, which as the author described, was “one of the most gut-wrenching testimonials” he ever heard, involving deception, rape, torture, and disease.
As the book recounts, Gita looked accusingly at Friedman and his colleagues in the room. Her eyes blazing, she shouted, pointing her finger at Friedman and each of his colleagues in turn, “Where were you when I was in that terrible brothel? …. Why aren’t you down there, helping my sisters? …. I am not angry with the traffickers. They are just bad people doing what they do – bad things. I am angry at the good people, society, you! WHERE WERE YOU?”
That incident was a life-changing catalyst that led Friedman to establish in 2012 the Mekong Club, a Hong Kong-based NGO which works with businesses to fight slavery. He is the chief executive officer, married to Sylvia Yu Friedman, whose book, “A Long Road to Justice: Stories from the Frontline in Asia”, was reviewed in Asia Sentinel on January 8.
Matthew Friedman’s book contains first-hand accounts of victims of slavery, such as a Cambodian domestic worker in Malaysia who talked of being beaten by her employers and being raped by the master of the household. First-person accounts of a Cambodian victim in Thailand and a Myanmar victim in Thailand are also given.
Going from traumatic personal accounts to cold statistics, the challenge of tackling slavery appears daunting. According to the book, it is estimated that 500,000 criminals are involved in modern slavery but only 20,000 people globally are fighting it. More than 40 million men, women, and children are in forced labor or prostitution today. Fewer than 0.2 percent of the victims are identified and helped every year around the world, according to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2021.
In the face of such overwhelmingly discouraging numbers, it is tempting to throw up one’s hands in despair and not do anything. However, the author repeated an oft-told story of starfishes. A father and son were walking along a beach full of starfishes. The father picked up and threw a few starfishes from the beach into the ocean at intervals. The son asked his father what difference rescuing a few starfishes made, since there were so many dying starfishes on the beach. The father replied it made all the difference to each starfish he saved, highlighting the importance of every human life.
The book contains suggestions for fighting slavery including best practices, some theoretical concepts as well as lessons for character development. For instance, the book pointed out that aid workers should not be thinking how great they are by embarking on a crusade against slavery, but keep in mind this is about helping others, not boosting their egos. The book also includes what the author learned from mistakes.
One of Friedman’s mistakes was trusting a secret trafficker who worked with him to counter human trafficking, as detailed in a section appropriately titled “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.” This double agent, assigned the fictitious name of David, had a strong grasp of slavery beyond nearly everyone else whom Friedman knew.
“He was a very well-informed, intelligent, and articulate person who could captivate his audience with his many stories. He had an uncanny ability to describe how the human trafficking process unfolded at a visceral level,” Friedman recalled.
David told Friedman of a Russian mafia-run brothel network based in the US, whose members were allegedly former KGB spies. According to David, this network catered to high net worth individuals, politicians, and other VIPs willing to pay large fees for sex with young prostitutes including underage girls. Friedman was so shocked by David’s story that he wrote a novel and screenplay on this case entitled “Just beyond the spider’s web.” The novel was never published, but David’s story is being considered for a movie production in Hollywood.
A few years later, Friedman learned David was sentenced to 12 years in prison for human trafficking. As for David’s deep knowledge of slavery, as the saying goes, it takes a crook to know another.
Friedman wrote, “When Jeffrey Epstein was arrested on human trafficking charges, I came to realize that David’s horrific detailed description of the sexual enslavement of young girls to cater to the wealthy and powerful in Europe and North America mirrored his story.”
Parts of this book contain vivid first-hand descriptions of suffering. For example, the author described his experiences in brothels in India where the toilets reeked of vomit and urine. Other parts of this book are practical in tone, giving matter-of-fact advice on how to help in the fight against slavery. Through the practical advice, the reader understands something can be done to reduce this enormous problem. In this sense, the narrative progresses from horror to action and hope. It is an important book for understanding modern slavery and learning how one can contribute to countering this evil.
Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consultancy.