UCSC cop plans to help a human trafficking safe house in Cambodia
The truth about the Cambodian genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge following the Vietnam War, as well as the current political situation in Cambodia, is hard to come by. But when local resident Jon D. Haro visited an orphanage in Northern Cambodia last year that provides a safe house and vocational training for young girls rescued from human trafficking in the Cambodian sex industry, he was hit by one, overwhelming truth: “[That] I’ve got to do something to help this place.”
Haro (who goes by “J.D.”) is a Vietnam War veteran, a retired Santa Cruz County Sheriff, and is now serving in his “retirement job” as a Traffic Police Officer for UC Santa Cruz. He’s an affable man with an easygoing manner who seems like the type of cop who might be willing to listen to your story and let you go with a warning. “I’m not a do-gooder by nature,” he says, smiling, “but when you see something that needs doing, you just need to do it.”
Last year, Haro returned to the Southern Thailand/Northern Cambodian border region where he served as a U.S. Air Force sergeant in a parachute-rescue team 40 years ago. He was part of a humanitarian mission to build a medical clinic in the small village of Bovel, about two and a half hours north of Batdambang, the nearest town with anything like a hospital. This mission, completed with “four other fat, old guys” who were also Vietnam vets, according to Haro, was sponsored by Twin Lakes Church in Aptos.
While building the clinic in Boval, Haro met a young Christian minister who grew up in the village and is the pastor of a church in Batdambang. They got to talking, and the Cambodian minister invited Haro and his compatriots to visit a project associated with his church that he was particularly proud of: The Rabha House, located in a remote area outside of Batdambang, which provides a secure home for girls saved from the burgeoning Cambodian sex industry.
As a police officer, Haro was impressed with the tight security around the compound, which he remembers being almost like a jail, with its own, private, armed security guards. No pictures are allowed at The Rabha House, and the security guards scrutinize Westerners carefully. “This [is] because the pimps are trying to get the kids back,” Haro explains, “these girls are their property, and the girls are at real risk of getting kidnapped back into the sex trade by the guys who paid for them, at least for a couple of years.”
The Rabha House provides a home, healthcare, safety, and job training for about 95 girls, aged 6 to 16, for up to three years. Haro found that most of the girls were learning English and were eager to talk to him, and they all seemed well dressed, healthy and well cared for. The girls are generally delivered to The Rabha House by the police or military personnel, usually after they’ve busted a prostitution operation or on tips from relatives that a girl had been sold into trafficking. “Can you imagine how sick that is? Girls as young as 6 years old getting bought and sold into prostitution? I’m not sure I would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it,” says Haro.
The vocational training is mostly geared toward the garment and needlepoint industry, one of the fastest-growing industries in Cambodia. Several rooms were filled with girls working old fashioned, pedal-powered sewing machines. “They were all very proud of their embroidery and needle work, offering to give us samples with flowers and other designs,” says Haro.
A few girls were also very proud of their mastery of some simple computer programs, including Excel and English word processing. Without any Internet connection, the computers were used for simple accounting and schoolwork. There were only six old, funky computers at The Rabha House, according to Haro, but the few girls getting trained on them made it clear they felt very fortunate and optimistic about getting a good job with their computer skills. That’s where Haro saw his opportunity to help.
“One, old, used computer at The Rabha House would make such a huge difference in so many of these girls’ lives, and not just their lives but the lives of their children as well, that I decided that’s what I’m going to do,” he says. “I’m going to go home and round up at least 50 good, secondhand computers and bring them back and set them up myself for these girls. I figured where I come from, between the UC and Silicon Valley, I should be able to get my hands on 50 secondhand computers without too much trouble, and I decided to make sure they reach their destination by bringing them in myself.”
Haro explains that Cambodia is still in turmoil, and that almost an entire generation of Cambodians was slaughtered in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.
In 1975, soon after the American evacuation of Saigon and Phnom Penh at the end of the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia and began a reign of terror and death that killed at least 1.7 million Cambodians, more than 20 percent of the population, according to Yale University’s Cambodia Genocide Program. Other estimates, however, put the number as high as three million. The Khmer Rouge was one of the most radical and brutal communist regimes of the 20th century: During its four years in power between 1975-79, almost the entire urban, intellectual elite of the country was murdered and the entire population was forced into agricultural labor camps in which they were overworked and starved.
In 1978, the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia and removed the Khmer Rouge from power. A protracted civil war between the Vietnam-backed government in Phnom Penh and remnants of the Khmer Rouge in the countryside ensued throughout most of the 1980s, which resulted in another major problem for Cambodia; most of the country is landmined, killing and maiming hundreds each year. UNICEF has designated Cambodia the third most landmined country in the world.
“You just don’t see that many old people,” Haro says. “The average age of the population is something like 14 or 15, and every adult has been through hell from the Khmer Rouge days.” The UN reports 50 percent of the population is younger than 22. Although Cambodia is slowly making a comeback after the genocide and civil war, it remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. The UN’s Human Development Index ranked Cambodia 124 out of 164 counties in 2010, just above Pakistan. But for the Asia and Oceania Region, it ranks third from the bottom. By the Cambodian government’s own measure, 35 percent of the population is below the poverty line.
“I don’t want to get into the politics—I’ve done my best avoid politics all my life,” says Haro, “but the police forces in Cambodia are not trustworthy, neither are most of the military, and corruption is rampant, even with many of the non-governmental aid organizations. That’s why we’re going to bring these computers in ourselves, me and some of the other guys I visited The Rabha House with last year. We’re going to bring them in as our own personal goods, transport them ourselves, and make sure they make it to The Rabha House.”
Haro has made appeals to UCSC, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Assoication and Twin Lakes Church to round up the 50 secondhand computers he believes he and his four other veteran friends can get to The Rabha House.
“I’ll tell you this,” he says, “the five of us guys who went to The Rabha House that day were all big, burly guys, all [of] us vets with our war stories who had seen a lot of shit, but when that bus took off after our visit to that place, none of us had dry eyes.”
To date, he has about 20 computers that he is carefully stripping of any and all personal information that may be left on the hard drives. He says he has a Cambodian contact who will be critical for getting the computers through customs and hiring the transport to get them up country.
“My Cambodian contact told me not to try to bring in new computers in sealed boxes, because the government will think I’m just trying to sell them on the black market at a profit and will seize them. But with obviously used computers, and a letter from The Rabha House requesting them, we should be able to get them out of Phnom Penh and up country,” he explains. “If anybody out there wants to donate a used computer, tell them to get a hold of me.”
Those interested in donating computers or learning more can reach J.D. Haro at 335-5279.