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A year ago, a pimp handed me a quivering teenage girl. Her name was Srey Neth, and she was one of the hundreds of thousands of teenagers who are enslaved by the sex trafficking industry worldwide.
Then I did something dreadfully unjournalistic: I bought her.
I purchased Srey Neth for $150 and another teenager, Srey Mom, for $203, receiving receipts from the brothel owners. As readers may remember, I then freed the girls and took them back to their villages.
Now I've come back to find out how they coped with freedom.
At first, it turns out, everything went well for Srey Neth. Our plan was for her to start a shop in her village, near Battambang. She invested $100 I had given her to build a shack and stock it with food and clothing. For a few months, business boomed.
The problem was her family. Srey Neth's parents and older brothers and sisters had a hard time understanding why they should go hungry when their sister had a store full of food. And her little nephews and nieces, running around the yard, helped themselves when she wasn't looking.
"Srey Neth got mad," her mother recalled. "She said we had to stay away, or everything would be gone. She said she had to have money to buy new things."
But in a Cambodian village, nobody listens to an uneducated teenage girl. Indeed, the low status of girls is the underlying reason why so many daughters are sold to the brothels. So by May, Srey Neth's shop was empty, and she had no money to restock it.
"It was our fault," her father told me, looking ashamed. "It was not Srey Neth's fault."
Srey Neth worried about her father, who was coughing up blood from tuberculosis. She also worried about her older brother, who could not afford to get married, and about the family debts, which could cost her family its land.
It was that kind of concern for her family that had led her, at the suggestion of a female cousin, to sell herself to the brothel in late 2003 and send the proceeds home.
This time, she thought about looking for work as a dishwasher in neighboring Thailand for $1.50 a day. A trafficker said he could smuggle her into Thailand and get her a dishwashing job, but only if she promised him $100.
Some 700,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, and that's often how they end up in the sex industry: they assume debts and then, when they cannot quickly repay the money, gangs force them into brothels - where they are stuck until they are dying of AIDS.
Fortunately, I'd arranged for American Assistance for Cambodia (http://www.cambodiaschools.com/), an aid group, to keep track of Srey Neth. It offered her something less risky: a move to Phnom Penh to learn to be a beautician. So, with money sent to the group by New York Times readers a year ago, Srey Neth started in the beauty school.
That's where I met her again. She was beaming, and she proudly told how she had learned to give manicures and haircuts. She placed third in her class in applying makeup, and she's even studying English. She bubbles with happiness in the way a teenager should.
"I'm happy with Srey Neth," said the beauty school's owner, Sapor Rendall. "She studies hard."
Ms. Rendall added that there was only one problem with Srey Neth: "She doesn't want to do massage. ... I've talked to her about it many times, but she's very reluctant."
Massages are routine in beauty shops in Cambodia and are not sexual, but for Srey Neth, they scream danger. I'm delighted.
Srey Neth cut my hair - I was her first paying customer - and she is excitedly talking about starting her own beauty shop so she can support her family again. She says she'll call it Nick and Bernie's, after me and Bernard Krisher, the chairman of American Assistance for Cambodia.
Today Srey Neth steers clear of the boys trying to flirt with her - she's still deeply distrustful of boys and men - but she has learned to laugh again. She is a happy, giggly, self-confident reminder that we should never give up on the slaves of the 21st century. I couldn't be more proud of her.
That's the good news. In my column on Saturday, I'll tell you about Srey Mom.