A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery

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9780743290074: A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery

To be a moral witness is perhaps the highest calling of journalism, and in this unforgettable, highly readable account of contemporary slavery, author Benjamin Skinner travels around the globe to personally tell stories that need to be told -- and heard.

As Samantha Power and Philip Gourevitch did for genocide, Skinner has now done for modern-day slavery. With years of reporting in such places as Haiti, Sudan, India, Eastern Europe, The Netherlands, and, yes, even suburban America, he has produced a vivid testament and moving reportage on one of the great evils of our time.

There are more slaves in the world today than at any time in history. After spending four years visiting a dozen countries where slavery flourishes, Skinner tells the story, in gripping narrative style, of individuals who live in slavery, those who have escaped from bondage, those who own or traffic in slaves, and the mixed political motives of those who seek to combat the crime.

Skinner infiltrates trafficking networks and slave sales on five continents, exposing a modern flesh trade never before portrayed in such proximity. From mega-harems in Dubai to illicit brothels in Bucharest, from slave quarries in India to child markets in Haiti, he explores the underside of a world we scarcely recognize as our own and lays bare a parallel universe where human beings are bought, sold, used, and discarded. He travels from the White House to war zones and immerses us in the political and flesh-and-blood battles on the front lines of the unheralded new abolitionist movement.

At the heart of the story are the slaves themselves. Their stories are heartbreaking but, in the midst of tragedy, readers discover a quiet dignity that leads some slaves to resist and aspire to freedom. Despite being abandoned by the international community, despite suffering a crime so monstrous as to strip their awareness of their own humanity, somehow, some enslaved men regain their dignity, some enslaved women learn to trust men, and some enslaved children manage to be kids. Skinner bears witness for them, and for the millions who are held in the shadows.

In so doing, he has written one of the most morally courageous books of our time, one that will long linger in the conscience of all who encounter it, and one that -- just perhaps -- may move the world to constructive action.

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About the Author:

E. Benjamin Skinner was born in Wisconsin and is a graduate of Wesleyan University. He has reported on a wide range of topics from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East for such publications as Newsweek International, Travel + Leisure, and Foreign Affairs. He currently lives in Brooklyn. This is his first book.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

The Riches of the Poor

For our purposes, let's say that the center of the moral universe is in Room S-3800 of the UN Secretariat, Manhattan. From here, you are some five hours from being able to negotiate the sale, in broad daylight, of a healthy boy or girl. Your slave will come in any color you like, as Henry Ford said, as long as it's black. Maximum age: fifteen. He or she can be used for anything. Sex or domestic labor are the most frequent uses, but it's up to you.

Before you go, et's be clear on what you are buying. A slave is a human being who is forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence. Agreed? Good. You may have thought you missed your chance to own a slave. Maybe you imagined that slavery died along with the 360,000 Union soldiers whose blood fertilized the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. Perhaps you assumed that there was meaning behind the dozen international conventions banning the slave trade, or that the deaths of 30 million people in world wars had spread freedom across the globe.

But you're in luck. By our mere definition, you are living at a time when there are more slaves than at any point in history. If you're going to buy one in five hours, however, you've really got to stop navel-gazing over things like law and the moral advance of humanity. Get a move on.

First, hail a taxi to JFK International Airport. If you choose the Queensboro Bridge to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the drive should take under an hour. With no baggage, you'll speed through security in time to make a direct flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Flying time: three hours.

The final hour is the strangest. After disembarking, you will cross the tarmac to the terminal where drummers in vodou getup and a dancing midget greet you with song. Based on Transportation Security Administration warnings posted in the departure terminal at JFK, you might expect abject chaos at Toussaint L'Ouverture Airport. Instead, you find orderly lines leading to the visa stamp, no bribes asked, a short wait for your bag, then a breeze through customs. Outside the airport, the cabbies and porters will be aggressive, but not threatening. Assuming you speak no Creole, find an English-speaking porter and offer him $20 to translate for the day.

Ask your translator to hail the most common form of transport, a tap­tap, a flatbed pickup retrofitted with benches and a brightly colored canopy. You will have to take a couple of these, but they only cost 10 gourdes (25 cents) each. Usually handpainted with signs in broken English or Creole, tap­taps often include the words MY GOD or JESUS. MY GOD IT'S MY LIFE reads one; another announces WELCOME TO JESUS. Many are ornate, featuring windshields covered in frill, doodads, and homages to such figures as Che Guevara, Ronaldinho, or reggae legend Gregory Isaacs. The driver's navigation is based on memory, instinct. There will be no air conditioning. Earplugs are useful, as the sound system, which cost more than the rig itself, will make your chest vibrate with the beats of Haitian pop and American hip­hop. Up to twenty people may accompany you: five square inches on a wooden bench will miraculously accommodate a woman with a posterior the size of a tractor tire. Prepare your spine.

You'll want to head up Route de Delmas toward the suburb of Pétionville, where many of the ­country's wealthiest thirty families -- who control the nation's economy -- maintain a pied-à-terre. As you drive southeast away from the sea, the smells change from rotting fish to rotting vegetables. Exhaust fumes fill the air. You'll pass a billboard featuring a smiling girl in pigtails and the words: Give me your hand. Give me tomorrow. Down with Child Servitude. Chances are, like the majority of Haitians, you ­can't read French or Creole. Like them, you ignore the sign.

Heading out of the airport, you'll pass two UN peacekeepers, one with a Brazilian patch, the other with an Argentine flag. As you pass the blue helmets, smile, wave, and receive dumbfounded stares in return. The United Nations also has Jordanians and Peruvians here, parked in APVs fifteen minutes northwest, along the edge of the hyperviolent Cité Soleil slum, the poorest and most densely populated six square miles in the poorest and most densely populated country in the hemisphere. The peacekeepers don't go in much, neither do the national police. If they do, the gangsters that run the place start shooting. Best to steer clear, although you'd get a cheap price on children there. You might even get offered a child gratis.

You'll notice the streets of the Haitian capital are, like the tap-taps, overstuffed, banged up, yet colorful. The road surfaces range from bad to terrible, and grind even the toughest SUVs down to the chassis. Parts of Delmas are so steep that the truck may sputter and die under the exertion.

Port-au-Prince was built to accommodate about 150,000 people, and hasn't seen too many centrally planned upgrades since 1804. Over the last fifty years, some 2 million people, a quarter of the nation's population, have arrived from the countryside. They've brought their animals. Chickens scratch on side streets, and boys lead prizefighting cocks on string leashes. Monstrously fat black pigs root in sooty, putrid garbage piled eight feet high on street corners or even higher in enormous pits that drop off sidewalks and wind behind houses.

A crowd swells out of a Catholic church broadcasting a fervent mass. Most Haitians are Catholic. Despite the efforts of Catholic priests, most also practice vodou. In the countryside, vodou is often all they practice.

You may see a white jeep or van with a siren, a red cross, and the word ambulence handpainted on it. You might assume this is an ambulance. It is not. These private vehicles only carry dead people. Public health is spotty at best. The annual budget for the health care of the UN peacekeepers in Haiti is greater than the annual budget for the ­ountry's Health Ministry. It's a bad idea to get sick here, as I was to find out.

At night, those with homes pack into tin-roofed, plywood, or cinder-block dwellings, on dirt roads bisected by gullies of raw sewage. Most people loot electricity from street wires to enjoy a light or two until rolling blackouts enshroud the city and end the sounds of dancehall reggae and hip-hop. Then total darkness reigns, and total silence, save for the spasmodic barking of dogs, and the nightly gunfire that can be heard from Cité Soleil to Pétionville. Only the generator-driven lights of the fortified UN compounds illuminate the haze over the city.

But now, in the daytime, many Haitians, particularly the 70 percent with no formal employment, will be on the sweaty, steamy, dusty streets. When either gender needs to urinate, they simply find a quiet pole or a ditch. No point going home for relief since few have indoor plumbing. Haitians take great pride in their appearance, but as more than three quarters live on less than two dollars per day, they don't have many pieces in their wardrobe. Some beg, like the thirtysomething woman sitting in the middle of Delmas, one horribly infected breast, glistening with pus, hanging out of her shirt.

Some hustle. There are more than 10,000 street kids, mostly boys as young as six, some selling unprotected sex for $1.75. Haiti has the highest prevalence of HIV infection outside of sub-Saharan Africa, and Haitians who believe sex with virgins protects against, or even cures, AIDS have driven up the price of such intercourse to $5.00. Haiti has also become a magnet for sex tourists and pedophiles. One left a review of the children in an online chatroom: "The younger ones are even more kinker [sic] than the older women....Park on the street and tell them to go at it!!!!!!!!! If anyone sees you they just ignore you. No police but the multi-national military force is still here." Locals say that the main contribution of the peacekeepers to Haiti's economy comes via the brothels. Opposite a UN camp on an otherwise desolate road outside of Port-au-Prince, Le Perfection nightclub does booming business.

Most city dwellers who work do so on an ad hoc basis. A doubled-over, shirtless man strains under a donkey cart laden with the burnt-out carcass of a car. An elderly woman balances a hundred eggs in five tiers on her head and nimbly navigates a pulverized side road. A young man pushes up the bustling sidewalk with two queen-sized mattresses on his head. The tinkling of shoeshine bells is constant. An old man -- probably no more than fifty-seven, the average life span for a Haitian -- pushes a wheelbarrow filled with empty bottles. He catches you smiling at his threadbare, oversized T-shirt bearing an image of Snoopy, Woodstock, and the words WORLD'S MOST HUGGABLE GRANDMA. Bubbling with good humor, he shoots back a toothless grin. Many peddle trinkets, bouillon cubes, single-shot plastic bags of water, plantain chips, "Megawatt" energy soda, or vegetables in various states of decay.

A man hawks cell phone chargers with which he swats stray dogs as they slink by. Another man on Delmas sells cowhide rigwaz whips and leather martinets. Those are for beating a different kind of creature. "Timoun se ti bet," a Haitian saying relates: "Children are little animals." "Ti neg se baton ki fe I mache," goes another: "It is the whip which makes the little guy walk."

You are now about halfway up Delmas, and slaves are everywhere. Assuming that this is your first trip to Haiti, you won't be able to identify them. But to a lower-middle-class Haitian, their status is "written in blood." Some are as young as three or four years old. But they'll always be the small ones, even if they're older. The average fifteen-year-old child slave is 1.5 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than the average free fifteen-year-old. They may have burns from cooking for their overseer's family over an open fire; or scars from beatings, sometimes in...

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