Some things in life are easy. We know them, we think of them, we understand them. And then there are those phenomena we would rather not know about. All the bad things … murder, rape, child molestation. We try hard to look away, and most of the time we succeed – until someone like Aaron Cohen reminds us that many people in the world do not share our comfortable life in freedom.
When preparing this interview with Mr. Cohen I felt very uneasy. What he experiences almost on a daily basis is the lowest of the low ends life has in stow. Aaron Cohen is a free-wheeling agent fighting human trafficking. Or slavery, as some put it.
It is not meant metaphorically, we are not talking about cubicle workers in New York high-risers in search for a rich living in the Hamptons. This is about people, most often underage, even children, sold by their parents, robbed from their homes to satisfy middle-aged man in city brothels. Man and women forced to work under inhuman conditions, beaten up and tortured regularly, raped 30 or more times a day. In real life, not some Hollywood adventure film set in the 1800s.
It happens now. Here. Everywhere. Human trafficking is taking place on a worldwide scale, it is not exclusive to some backwater banana republics.
Before Aaron Cohen started to look into the trade of human souls, he was more or less like many other young people in the West. With his friend Perry Farrell from Jane’s Addiction he grabbed life at its tail, celebrated every minute of it. Groupies, alcohol, clubs, drugs, parties. The usual. Until he found a purpose in life: Help free the slaves.
Cohen became a human rights activist, a specialist in finding those sold into slavery and those selling. He travelled South America and Asia in his search and rescue missions. His work does not consist of rushing in guns ablaze, he knows well that this does not help anybody. He talks to governments, connects with NGOs.
I talked to Aaron Cohen about his life, his mission, and the lives he saves.
Aaron Cohen is an author and human rights activist specializing in human trafficking.
Thinking back to ‘this tall, lanky kid from Orange County living the rock-star life’ you once were, how alien does that part of your life seem to you now?
It’s not alien to me at all. I’m still making music and produced a track for the show “Cougar Town”. I’m still very much involved in the art world and all the ethics that come with it. I think the key to our growth here is to make the realization that all the good and bad that happens for us in this life becomes a watering of sorts. We begin as soul seeds and need light, water and soil to grow. So all that happened before, the good and the bad, I’m remembering that it didn’t happen to me, it’s happening for me––helping me to grow. I’m still a tall lanky, slightly odd, slash, eccentric person. Maybe we can all realize, again, that all the dark days don’t happen to us. They happen for us. And now rather than seeing those experiences as alien, I see them more as rings in my growing tree.
By the late 1990s you started making volunteer trips to Sudan. You were among the first Westerners to document slavery and genocide by Muslim militia. Did you know from the start helping these people would become your life’s ambition?
By the mid 1990s I had already written my graduate thesis on the topic of the Jubilee, the ancient law of slave redemption. “Jubilee” the man was this fantastic musician who used music and time as ways to redeem the enslaved, so when I went to Sudan, I knew what I wanted to pursue, but at the same time, the path it took me on…I could never have planned for. Yes, I knew I wanted to redeem slaves, and I knew to extend the benefit of the doubt to real believers in any religion being associated with genocide. Sure there was persecution of Christians and Jews going on, and there was certainly prejudice coming from the west as well. While certain groups utilize the religion and politics to pursue their power agenda, I go out of my way not to associate these killings and militias with Islam. In fact, it was the Muslim humanitarians in Sudan who had set up the underground railway to bring Christian slaves out of the north to freedom in the south. There were good and bad people working on all sides––for the UN there were people who knew what was going on but kept silent because of policy positions. Good and not so good people working in the activist community were there as well. And certainly among the religious communities trying to help––one can easily see if the motives are LOVE for the Creator or LUST for power. I saw the genocide, and still do see the ongoing genocide there, as being related more to the politics of the oil reserves.
Since then you landed on a death list put out by an extremist publication linked to Al Qaeda ending your 12-year career in the music industry. Do you get many death threats? How do you deal with these?
In the days prior to 911 lot’s of human rights activists were put on death lists if they spoke out about slavery in Sudan. It was something that awed me to learn more about Al Qaeda and their motives. It did change my life after 911, as the culture of fear crept even into the concert world I was working in, and the articles written about it in New York added to the hysteria. Clearly it changed my life and I learned to live off the grid so to speak. To be less accessible. I do get people upset and threatening me quite a bit even now. That’s what happens when you hurt someone’s financial enterprise, but I learned early to stop playing who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, and instead to see the light in each set of eyes….to try and see all people as having that divine spark in them. If we could string the light together in people both good and not so good, then maybe the darkness just might disappear. This is how we deal with the issue, by realizing we’re growing through these experiences, by meditating on our enemies and trying our best to love them. Just as the darkness disappears when we turn the light on, so the fear goes away when we’re living our love for everyone.
Let’s make one thing clear: human trafficking is not a Muslim inclination. You have met a lot more of it with other groups. It is an economic consequence, right?
Well, of course economics is a major component of the problem, but I see it also related to greed and lust for power. I’ve been involved with trafficking victims from affluent families, and I’ve seen poor people looking for work get sucked into the machine of slavery. From the victim side, poverty is certainly an issue, but from the side of the traffickers themselves and from the demand side, lust and greed play into the equation.
Could you tell our readers how the situation in the world is – where is human trafficking most rampant? Who is behind it? Can you give us numbers?
Human trafficking is the fastest growing illegal business in the world, it’s already passed arms sales and its in position to pass drug sales when you factor in prostitution and pornography. Basically, human trafficking is everywhere you go, whether in the United States, England, India, Cambodia, or Brazil…slavery is everywhere. The UN has recently released some new statistics that seem to indicate that at any one given time, millions of people are being trafficked. Statisticians and scholars tend to side with the the lowest numbers citing the available data, but the real data just isn’t there. Most say there’s somewhere close to 27 million slaves world wide, but really, we don’t know the numbers. What we do know is that globalization and the Internet are breeding a new generation of pedophiles and sex addicts. We know that there are not enough women willing to enter the industry on their own to satisfy the demand for illicit sex for sale. Our society is becoming more sex centered, and pornography is bigger than all media combined at an estimated 100 billion dollars a year. Prostitution is also a multi hundred billion dollar business, so if you do the real math, it’s easy to see that the human trafficking statistics we’re relying on now are just the tip of a massive ice berg that’s growing bigger by the minute. Through globalization, the Internet, social media, and technology, the ease with which traffickers are subjugating human beings into slavery is increasing exponentially. The discussion should not just be about who is behind it, but also how can we as a society work to be aware of our own place in the subjugation of others. Are we using anti slavery aps from Not For Sale or Slave Free? Are we checking bar codes on the things we buy to see if they were manufactured with slave labor? We all need to pay attention to this because there are these companion industries in manufacturing, in pornography, in prostitution, modeling, and tourism that are feeding the problem, and the traffickers are out there more and more, luring human beings into slavery.
So there is no substantial difference, like, say, ethnics, religion, race, nationality, sex? Anybody in any country could fall prey to the slave traders?
Certainly millions of pretty young girls all over the world are in high demand. Just look at pornography and the popularity of the “barely legal” movement online. However, it is not so simply defined by race, religion or gender. According the UN the illicit sex industry, including prostitution and pornography, are responsible for up to 80% of the trafficking going on. It raises a lot of interesting questions. What percentage of pornography benefits from human trafficking? What percentage of prostituted women are human trafficking victims? Women under the age of 21 are the key demographic predominantly being exploited. Russian women enslaved in Israel, Colombian women in Miami, Asian women in California; they’re all being preyed upon by the human traffickers. The differences are affected by this demand. And run away minors also make up a major part of the victim population. However, I am not saying that it is just women being trafficked. I’ve seen the contract laborers from Vietnam and Thailand, the boys enslaved in fishing, carpet making in India, and chocolate industries in Ivory Coast.
Every race, every religion, every gender, every class of people are simultaneously being trafficked and operating as traffickers. This is a global problem and a domestic problem, which involves all of us and therefore requires effort and solutions by us all.
You work undercover. On the one hand, this undercover method sounds a bit like James Bond, but it is surely more dangerous. How often did you risk your life for your investigations? Now that you are more prominent, will you go on with your undercover work?
I don’t like to glamorize this work, I think the term “posing” gives the wrong connotation. It’s really just about honestly helping the person in front of you and letting people know that there are things they can do to help. In facing death there is uncertainty for all of us. Yes being shot, poisoned, abducted, or tortured are things that can happened to anyone working undercover, but we are working to minimize the risks by not being cavalier about it and by creating professional standards and protocols around doing this work. What really scares me is my inability to raise the funding to help more people be free from slavery. And also when I get down about this, it’s the words that come out of my mouth that are most destructive. The thing I’m most concerned about, really, is my ego leading me to say the wrong things, my addictions leading me into bad choices, and self pity influencing me to blame or speak negatively of others. The trap doors to my old problems are always there calling my name.
For this reason I actually don’t like the title to my own memoir. Contractually I was responsible for the document and words, but the term “Slave Hunter” was coined by—- and was chosen by Simon and Schuster, I don’t like it. But I have to live with that and feel a sense of remorse for not protesting it stronger than I did. The reason “Slave Hunter” is a bad title is because it conveys the idea of going it alone, and slave hunters in the past were the traffickers, but I get it that people need a simple way to understand human trafficking investigations.
I will continue to do undercover work, until my public appearances make it unsafe, and I don’t think I’ve reached that point, but I can see training police and writing more books is in my future, Lord willing. I teach my guys that the best way to keep alive in this game of cat searching for slaves, is to have our feet on the ground, trusting our instincts, and to constantly check ourselves spiritually.
We must remember to let our soul lead and not be seduced by our physical desires to receive.
If we can remember to restrain our egos and see ourselves as a simple guys and gals trying to help as many prostituted women as we can, then I’m okay with that.
It’s when I am tempted to walk through one of those trap doors, that the supernatural horror shows me its ugly face. Rescuing women and children from slavery can be an addictive adrenaline rush as well, so keeping myself spiritually tuned, like an instrument that’s what I have to pay attention to. It’s what I’m trying to teach our survivors as well. We are all here to work on ourselves and grow our souls. The spiritual work on myself is the cleansing tool I utilize to channel all of the negativity away. That begins with my own negativity. As long as we’re trying to love people as ourselves, then that’s everything. It’s when I start to pity myself for going over budget and using my own resources, or getting so isolated that I have to remind myself to stay in one place and rest… in the place where I have what it takes, in spiritual growth: that’s in the light of truth regarding my own flaws, listening to my critics and appreciating what they are teaching me about my mistakes. I’m still working on a lot of issues, I’m a flawed person with wants and desires that can be unhealthy, but by trusting in goodness, by trusting my family, co workers, and friends, by having faith, certainty comes, and with certainty all things are possible. It’s when I go inward that I get in trouble. My friends call me “Howard” joking after Howard Hughes, because he wouldn’t leave his home, and after the missions I have a tendency to isolate maybe a bit too much. I travel so much, and when I’m finally home, I prefer being in bed for a few days. But then I have to force myself to start surfing, running and working out again. Because there’s always another mission in front of me that I have to prepare for.
How do you develop a relationship with the victims of human trafficking? They do have to trust you, the stranger, a lot, don’t they? Tell us about your ‘night-frighting’ technique, what is it, how does it work?
Relationships with the victims is a sensitive issue. This is where women can play a critical role. It’s where the rescue is really at, in the long term relationship. But It all starts with task force building. I’m not out there as a rogue agent like some character in a revenge driven movie or something. Working in coalition is the way to go. This is why I work with various organizations. I call it the “royal flush”. The royal flush is two pronged. There is the justice component and the after care component. Both are essential in creating sustainable solutions to combating human trafficking. I develop relationship with the survivors when we have them in the care of professionals, but I also have to practice cutting the chord somewhat so that they can learn to be independent, to find female mentors, and develop self reliance.
The work does not end and begin with just going into brothels and allowing young women/children an opportunity to change their lives. The work begins with identifying the key components missing in the task force and it continues with building and sustaining relationships to these key stake holders.
It’s through these task forces, forming them, analyzing them, and mentoring them –– This is where we are creating a sustainable and duplicatable model for abolishing slavery.
Finding the stakeholders: the Justice Minister, the local police, the chiefs of police, the federal law enforcement and international law enforcement officials. Building relationships to protective services, witness protection, to the psychologists, drug councilors, to the shelters, transitional living, and the vocational training professionals. So there’s a lot to the work, from prosecution, to protection, to prevention, but the essential component is in partnership, building and maintaining task forces.
Once you have those things established then you can do this work and build healthy relationships with the survivors because the means are in place to take care of them from A to Z.
It’s really a matter of connecting the organizations for the best interest of the victims, so they become survivors. After you have all of that put together, then with the jurisdiction granted through law enforcement, we can take a group of vice detectives and train them on safety, investigative integrity, victim analysis, interrogations techniques, and standards and practices. In teaching investigators and building task forces, I think that’s where I can continue contributing, but it takes a team. I’m working with The Abolish Slavery Coalition which does the task force building. I’m also a partner and do policy work with CATW. And for legislation in my own state, I like the work of CAS. There’s a lot of good organizations out there. It’s really a matter of picking up the phone and making the first call.
I like to think of the analogy of throwing a rock in the water. When you cast a stone into the water, concentric circles come out. This is like each of us. We bring what we do best to the cause and activate our first circle, the family and friends around us…. then the next outer circle, our colleagues and community associates, our cities, state policies, and national strategies. At the end of the day we are all interconnected. But the important thing to bear in mind is to start where you are, and motivate the people around you. I’m always amazed by what we accomplish as a team. Without the executive directors of Abolish Slavery, Sandy and Richard Leger, I don’t know if I could have continued. Richard has talked me out of many situations when after weeks of all nighters I wasn’t thinking straight. He talks me off the ledge and knows how to speak with police and gun culture. And Kimberly Herman has inspired me to really listen to the policy experts and see them as an asset rather than as critics. Her analysis of the policy positions has changed my views, and I don’t know where I would be without the support of Norma Ramos. When ever I have an important appearance or speech, like the time I was on Larry King Live, I call Norma for advice and talking points. So the thing to understand is that I am only one person in a movement. I got started early in this cause, and have been so blessed to have the light team of inspired activists around me, building a real grass roots movement. I know that together we can do this. We can end slavery in our lifetime.
How long did it take to assume and develop those techniques? Any major mistakes endangering you and your informants?
It’s taken me more than ten years. When I started people didn’t think slavery existed, so we worked to create evidence for the first round of legislations. Bear in mind we had no predecessors. We pioneered this from the beginning, while others threw stones at us. Then the laws came, the policy positions, the standards and practices. The critics from the academics…all healthy steps in the process. Once the police started being trained there was a need for my services.
When it comes to the investigation, I teach the detectives not to trust anyone. Don’t blow your cover, and follow the evidence. There’s also something to be said about following your instincts. Being free to see the trends and go where you need to go. When we develop a package of evidence and hand it over to local or federal authorities, that’s the first step. But unfortunately, because of their own protocols and restrictions their hands are tied in many ways, which is why there are so few rescues happening. I wish there were more people doing what we are doing, working to develop legal standard cases to assist who ever has jurisdiction with finding the traffickers and arresting them, while at the same time rescuing the victims and making sure they are placed into good programs long term.
It’s important to remember that certain agencies do specific pieces of the work. But we can’t be satisfied with moving the survivors from point A to point B. This is the beauty of having a task force because we can connect all the right dots, to love, rescue, and heal the survivors, assisting them on their journey of freedom from A to Z. But providing this holistic approach is unique and very costly.
I can never raise enough money to rescue as many as we would like. There’s so many slaves out there, but we end up leaving more victims behind because the resources just aren’t there. And people have stigmatized prostitution, and this has also divided the movement in an unhealthy way.
Inevitably I end up using my own money and resources, yet I’m still haunted that we have left so many women and children behind. It forces me to see my errors clearly. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I wrote about a lot of the mistakes I have made along the way it in my memoir, Slave Hunter, and I still receive a lot of criticism from folks who would prefer that I make no mistakes, but that’s not how life is. I’ve had informants give me over, I’ve looked down the barrel of more guns than I can tell you. I’ve been that guy on the floor, head in hands, being kicked in the ribs, but the mistakes are part of my growth process.
I’m still growing and learning. Now when we arrange a date with a trafficking victim I instruct my guys to not end up on the bed, but order dinner in the room. Sit and talk, then during the meal, use professional interrogation techniques, such as false avatar projection, or empathy projection. For example, with avatar projection we suggest they are something they are not, so they have the chance to set the record straight. For example, ask the victim if she chose to be a prostitute because she loves having sex, and she’ll immediately begin turning evidence, telling how she was lured, how she has a debt, and didn’t choose this. She’ll tell you she never thought her life would end up like this and that she doesn’t have any other way out. This leads into the solicitation because as she faces the reality, from my experience, they go right into the deal points. Once we have the evidentiary standards for whatever jurisdiction we’re working with, then that’s it, a warrant can be issued and the SWAT team can do its job rescuing the victims.
So I didn’t just arrive here all at once. I drew from years of experience and failures, I drew from my left over party skills from the rock and roll era long gone, and using all of this I developed these protocols with a lot of trial and error. I used my academic interests to read books on interrogation and investigative techniques. I’m still a work in progress, still learning, still trying to pass on what I’m learning to police around me so we can duplicate the process of task force building and move, really, toward making freedom a reality.
Aaron Cohen with Iraqi soldiers at the Tigris River
With all the pain and sorrow you see, how tough is it to stay sane and not become cynical yourself? How do you recuperate afterwards?
I have to do a lot of work on myself to process the supernatural horror I am a witness to. For me the bible has been an incredible life line for inspiring me, feeding me when my spirit is down, and leading me in the ways in which I need to work on myself. I think we are all slaves to our own cravings and addictions. Learning to see all of us as interconnected in a blessed oneness has been a very therapeutic path for me. I don’t see the police or the human traffickers as good guys or bad guys. No, there’s an enemy within and there’s an enemy without, and the reality is these forces of light and darkness are playing both sides. So it all comes down to loving everyone in the context of the investigation, and resisting the physical desire to receive for the self. Yes there is justice, but there is also mercy, and when we allow our souls to lead, then there’s a lot more mercy.
Everyone in the investigation needs mercy, including myself, understanding and knowing that we are all interconnected in a beautiful unity, that we make mistakes, yes, but we can also work together to make things right. We really can be the light of the world, if we learn to control our own wants and desires, and instead, desire the best for everyone, so I think there is some wisdom in trying to see the best in people.
You are just back from your last journey, during which you met up with girls you helped rescue a few years ago. They are growing up, going to school, and getting married – trying to live a normal life. Tell us about them, how they cope with their past. Do they get support from governments, NGOs? Is anybody providing them with what they need – education, money, psychological?
Well, I’m not at liberty to discuss pending cases. But I can tell you that I was recently in Haiti again. My goodness, after disasters, the problem of human trafficking becomes pandemic. Haiti had a terrible problem of labor slavery prior to the earthquake, as did Thailand before the tsunami, but after these disasters the problems went into exponential growth. Haiti is a very difficult assignment. Once the body recovery was finished, the smell of death was everywhere, and of course they were bringing in hundreds of thousand of child slaves to clean up the rubble. I was absolutely stunned.
During nights in Haiti I trained police inspectors in how to conduct sex trafficking investigations. By day, I would visit the Justice Minister and the Chief of Police and inspectors to report our findings, then we’d strap on those vests and helmets, get in the armored vehicle and ride with SWAT into the most dangerous places looking to arrest the traffickers. When the earthquake came thousands of the worst criminals, the pirates of the Caribbean, they all escaped in a single day.
So I rode along into the city where they were setting up their illicit activities and saw the difficult job my colleagues from SWAT had to endure. We arrested bad guys, found young labor slaves, worked with social services, and we had the great honor to reunite many of these rescued slave children with their parents.
One case in particular, a young 12 year old boy named “Erason” had spent most of his life in bondage, when his aunt sold him as a “Restavec” domestic slave. he would work 14 hours a day and he was beaten if he did not obey. IOM and The program www.CATWinternational.org are still supporting Erason’s education.
It was emotional for me to bring Erason back to his family and see him reunited with his mother. It’s those sweet reunions that remind me that a heart cleansed in tears is eternally pure and beautiful.
I returned a year later after those retrievals to do more work with police, as some of the churches in the US raised money to free slaves through Pastor Rod Parsley. Seeing Erason reading and writing, finding out about his progress, playing soccer, it was just so beautiful. He’s my godson and I must admit it’s nice to learn a little Creole and teach him a little English. I hope we can stay close as he matures into a man. Yes there’s a lot of tragedy in human suffering, but there are success stories as well.
But the only way to have these success stories is for people to give their time, to donate to the cause, and to keep helping every way they can. I tell activists to do what they do best and drive that to the cause. If more people were doing this then we could free a lot more slaves and start making a dent in the world’s fastest growing illegal business. It’s important that activists start at home, identify your local task force, and find out which organizations are doing the real work where you live. Charity starts at home. If people want to bring support to our task force building and rescue work, they can go on the website (www.abolishslavery.org) and get involved. It’s a good time to start because we’re getting ready to start another round of investigations in the United States. But the important thing to bear in mind is start where you are, motivate the people around you, and you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish at home.
Erason reunited with his mother, Aaron Cohen
Human life seems to have become a commodity, a cheap one at that. Any idea why we devalue humans today, in our enlightened world?
Yes, some people are turning human being into a disposal commodity. There’s a problem with men feeling entitled to buy sex, regardless of whether they know if the victim is a slave or not.
My view is that there is this epic battle that has to do with how we regard our bodies and how we regard our souls. Do men still see sex and love as being united? Is there a problem with men? There can be sex without love and there can be love without sex, but it seems that with the pervasive expansion of pornography a lot of men are disassociating love from sex. This is a tragedy few people want to speak about. Women should have the right to make decisions about their own body, an we shouldn’t be re-victimizing the victims, but should men be able to freely and clearly contribute to this multi-billion dollar monster that’s wrapping it’s tentacles around our young people and eating the children alive? And what is the separation between body and spirit? How do we deal with the divides regarding the issue of prostitution?
These are all tough questions. As a man of faith, my view is that we are one and that we can all learn and grow together soulfully. But I am also inspired by people who see things much different than I do. From various points of view we learn to connect the dots. Atheists, for example, with their ethics of reason and skepticism, scientists, wanting proofs and solutions…everyone has their own point of view that can become a piece of the inspiration, but for me it’s the notion of moving closer to the light in the soul, to the divine. Since I believe we’re here to grow our souls into immortal beings, I see the slavery and suffering like I see the truth. These two paths (suffering and truth) lead to the same place: enlightenment. We all go the way of suffering, but thank goodness, there is also the way of truth, which can alleviate not only our own pain, but the pain of others.
And it’s fine that others take a more clinical view than I do. But from seeing survivors who made it and victims who didn’t, I can tell you spirituality is a key ingredient in healing victims of human trafficking.
I have to be truthful with myself about my own selfish desires. I think it comes down to this. When the desire to receive for the self out weighs the desire to receive for sharing, the world ends up a dark and dismal place. But when we realize that we are all interconnected, then your pain becomes mine. And when we share each other’s burdens, then we also share each others blessings. I like how the Arab’s say “Maktub” “It is written”, and the more I learn and discover just how programmed everything is, our body DNA, our soul DNA, the programming of the laws of nature and the universe…the more I know that all this suffering in the world can lead us into taking care of each other. It can lead us to a time when we can all live together in freedom.
It transpires ever more that the very successful economic expansion of the past quarter century, which helped many a developing country, has too often exacerbated existing social differences. The rich became richer, the poor poorer, the middle class eroded. How does this reflect in human trafficking?
When you look at the flow of human history from the Babylonian era, through the Persian era, the Greek and Roman eras… to today, it seems as if there is nothing new under the sun. As the rich get richer and poor get poorer, the middle class goes to one side or the other. We’re just waking up to certain technologies and problems that have always been with us. Yes, central banking, transnational business, globalization, and the Internet are creating some rather large cracks in the pavement for people to fall in to. We are watching the disintegration of the middle class largely due to corrupt banking practices and market manipulations. But just like the sages of blessed memory, we are here to play our role in bringing a world out of fear, out of segregation, and into unity, but it’s going to require dropping debts and freeing the enslaved to restore some of these balances. This is the interconnectedness of humanity, when we develop both micro and macro solutions to our problems. And just as globalization can be a culprit, so it can be a solution, as we learn allow our emergence and social networking to intelligently apply and sustain all these solutions. It’s our greatest hope of surviving, preserving both humanity and the environment. It’s a shared responsibility––to live up to helping the least of all people in our society. We start where we are now, and we turn our little ripple into something bigger, and just maybe, the era of real freedom will be accomplished in this generation. But we have to work on ourselves and change some greedy financial policies, forgive third world debt, and set the captives free in order to get there. This is what Jubilee is all about, forgiving debts and freeing slaves. It’s where I started, and it’s where I want to end up.
Recently you wrote a memoir Slave Hunter / One Man’s Global Quest to Free Victims of Human Trafficking, together with Christine Buckley. How did your collaboration come to about?
Christine’s a journalist and did an article on my work. We became good friends and decided to do the book together. I really admire Christine, she’s fluent in Vietnamese and French, Spanish, she travels and writes about important social issues and really pours her heart into everything she does. I just love her! It was a difficult process for me to share words with other people, but what can I say? It happened. The book was translated into several languages, a lot of people seem to like it, and it will be coming out in Chinese this year. I’ve even started work on the second memoir which will have more to do with driving the human rights movement to the geopolitical clash of societies in the Middle East, and I’m working on a text book about building human trafficking task forces as the sustainable solution to abolishing slavery world wide. We’d like to get major universities more involved in doing more than just researching and talking about the issue, because by establishing task forces around the world, we can do more than talk the talk. We can walk the walk.
In your book you write: ‘I’m not making this journey out of duty to country or mission. There are not friendships to ambassadors or diplomats, no tenured positions with well-appointed offices at stake. I’m riding this path away from my inability to stop grieving for my father. And for the slaves who deserve a voice.’ Does this sentiment still hold up to reality, I guess many and governments try to embrace you for their purposes?
I’m having a good laugh reading that now. I can hear Christine’s voice. It’s dramatic and sounds like something she would write. I think when my Papa passed it was hard for me to reconcile everything. But my father and my mother gave me the greatest gift. My dad worked with police and fallen officer charities. My mother worked at shelters, and I got to glean from them both and build a life out of the blessings they passed on to me, because through their love for each other I saw clearly how justice and mercy kiss.
As far as governments go… there’s a huge role to be played. It’s not perfect but we’re making progress. I’m not so cynical as I was before, because I’ve seen so much progress and because of the work I’ve been fortunate to see come to fruition such as the Trafficking Victim Protection Act, the Palermo Protocol, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the US State Department, the work Interpol is doing, the UNODC and their Blue Heart Campaign, MTV Exit…I am getting more hopeful all the time. Maybe because I’ve seen so much progress. To go from having no one believe that slavery exists to seeing over 150 legislations around the world, a global movement, and thousands of activists and organizations joining the movement and making a difference.
For me––it’s a dream come true.
Aaron Cohen, thank you so much for this conversation.
This interview is cross posted with Sibica magazine.
Abolitionist – Aaron Cohen – Human Trafficking in The United States and Around The World
World’s Untold Stories – Innocence for sale / CNN.com
In this expose of South-East Asia’s child sex industry, Aaron Cohen goes undercover in Cambodia’s karaoke brothels.