Shining a light on today's slaves

By Mary H. Meier
Globe Correspondent / February 19, 2009
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Of all the unhappy women and men whose paths cross author E. Benjamin Skinner's in his book on present-day slavery, the saddest is undoubtedly the nameless Romanian girl with Down syndrome in a Bucharest brothel. "Mascara ran from pools of tears around deep-set eyes," Skinner writes. "Below her right bicep were no less than ten deep, angry red slashes, raised, some freshly scabbed."

Her image pervades "A Crime So Monstrous," a devastating exposé of the millions of suffering enslaved human beings around the world, including children.

Under threat of brutality, they toil in wealthy Haitian households, European brothels, and Indian quarries. Skinner encountered many such cases as he traveled to these sites with John Miller, the former head of the US State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Field action to halt slavery is carried out through private groups funded from the office's annual budget of $375 million.

In theory, the office has the authority to publicly rank, from a US viewpoint, other countries from Tier One (best) to Tier Three (worst) for efforts to eliminate slavery within their borders. In practice, unfortunately, the office is prey to shifts in American foreign policy.

Skinner had his first experience with slaves as a reporter for Newsweek International among people (chiefly women and children) kidnapped and held in harsh bondage by rival tribesmen in Darfur.

To document more of the stark horror of slavery in other countries, he traveled widely, from Haiti, to the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, where severe poverty was endemic, to the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, and to India, where peasants and quarry workers who amass even small amounts of debt can remain in virtual slavery to their creditors for generations. In Moldova (part of which was once known as Moldavia and belonged to the former Soviet Union), some 400,000 women have disappeared since independence into slave prostitution.

According to Skinner, whatever attention was given to slave trafficking by the second Bush administration was mostly thanks to the evangelical Michael Gerson, a Bush speechwriter and aide. Whenever possible, Gerson strove to insert subtle condemnations of slavery into his speeches for President George W. Bush. And he had the backing of many evangelicals who had supported Bush.

The problem of winning emancipation in so many countries is huge, but there are isolated bright lights. In Moldova, psychologist Dr. Lidia Gorceag operates a shelter for former sex slaves, funded by the International Organization for Migration in the United States. Many of these women come to her with physical injuries; their emotional scars are even deeper. Gorceag and the IOM help them to start their own small businesses such as selling sunflower oil or working in hair salons to gain economic independence. And in Washington, D.C., Kevin Bales runs Free the Slaves, an umbrella organization working to halt trafficking.

High literary style in nonfiction books like "A Crime So Monstrous" is often rare. As Skinner moves from continent to continent, the thread of his argument is a little tangled. No matter. The subject itself is eloquent.

Mary H. Meier is a former member of the Globe staff.

A CRIME SO MONSTROUS: Face-to-Face With Modern-Day Slavery By E. Benjamin Skinner

Free Press, 352 pp.,

paperback, $16

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