The children's champion

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2012, 12:00am


Even before moving to Thailand, Malina Zlatkova Enlund had heard stories about children being subjected to sexual abuse and then sold to human trafficking rings in Southeast Asia. But a meeting with an Aids-stricken 12-year-old in a desolate hospital room finally drove the Bulgarian-Canadian to act to fight a trade that overpowers and destroys young bodies and minds.

When Enlund met Janie during a visit to Thailand to investigate the trafficking trade, the 12-year-old had already spent three agonising months on her own in a hospital ward. The girl had been severely abused by an uncle since she was two; Enlund sought to ease her anguish by taking her books and toys. Later, she converted the girl to Christianity shortly before she died.

'Her eyes were different. There was no fear but peace. And she finally started to smile,' Enlund said.

The episode set Enlund on the path to establishing the first of several safe houses for trafficked and sexually abused children in Cambodia in 2009. She has since helped put together a collection of victims' stories called For Their Tears I Died, the Chinese-language version of which will be launched at the Hong Kong Book Fair today.

'With children, there is never, ever, ever a choice. They were sold, kidnapped and then trafficked,' said Enlund, who will be at the Convention and Exhibition Centre for today's launch.

While not all the children she worked with were sold into brothels, most were seriously sexually abused from the age of four upwards. 'We wanted to collect their stories and tell the world what is happening.'

Enlund has included some of the more horrifying cases she has seen over the years. For example, there's the young girl who was stitched up after each violation, so she could be passed off as a virgin again - four times, until it became impossible.

In the past three years, she has seen children so battered and abused that many will never talk, walk, or function like normal humans again.

So far Enlund's organisation, XP Missions, has successfully rescued 10 children. The small number showed how hard it was to get children completely out of the system, she said.

The rescued children eventually went through extensive medical treatment and counselling, spent time in the safe house and were then placed either with family members who would care for them or with families who volunteered to take them in.

Enlund said these children now have friends, go to school and have a chance at a normal life. But it costs a lot to help even one child and a huge amount of money is needed to sustain the operation.

'People think that this doesn't touch them. But remember, there are men from every country in the world, who pay for these children. There is a huge demand,' she said.

According to a US State Department report in 2011, human trafficking is estimated to be at an all-time high, with 27 million people living in slavery, 56 per cent of them Asians. At least 13 million of these people are sex slaves.

'Sometimes I just ask: how did it [the human race] come to this? How did we get here?' Enlund said.

What keeps her going is the fact that she believes that there is hope. She recounted the story of a six-year-old Cambodian boy who was sold for sex in Thailand by his stepfather.

The Thai police and Enlund's organisation rescued him along with his two siblings earlier this year. Police were unable to press charges against the man, and the three children were returned to him.

They disappeared and Enlund searched for the boy for three months. Then, when it seemed like all hope was gone, she found him standing outside a car she was getting into in Cambodia. She told him she had been looking for him for months but could not find him and the little boy replied: 'But I found you!'

The boy and his siblings are now safe, although the youngest - who is not yet two - is still very sick in hospital. Their stepfather fled Cambodia.

'You have to give these children hope, something to go back to,' said Enlund. 'Whenever I see children, I remember Janie.'