by J.J. Gould
Slaves pan for gold in Accra, Ghana. Many have children with them as they wade in water poisoned by mercury that’s used in the extraction process. (Lisa Kristine)
RANGOON, Burma — Earlier this year, Ko Lin, 21 at the time, left his hometown of Bago, 50 miles northeast of Rangoon, along with a friend to look for work in Myawaddy, near the Thai border. The two found jobs there as day laborers loading and offloading goods, anything from rice to motorcycles, that were being illicitly transported by truck in and out of Thailand. After a month, Ko Lin had saved up the equivalent of about US$150 and decided to rejoin his family in Bago. Stopping first to pray at a local pagoda, the two friends met a super-amiable young woman who ended up pitching them an offer to work in Thailand. Her uncle, she said, could arrange a great job for them there.
Ko Lin was reluctant but bent to his friend’s enthusiasm. The uncle turned out to be a trafficker who forced them to walk through the jungle for more than a week. They ended up in weeks of forced labor in Chonburi, a city 60 miles east of Bangkok, after which Ko Lin was knocked unconscious and woke up separated from his friend on a fishing boat in the Gulf of Thailand. For months, he then rarely if ever had more than two hours of sleep a night, always on a shared, cramped bed; he was given three meals only on days when the captain felt he’d pulled in enough fish to earn it; and when he was fed, it was always dregs from a catch that couldn’t be sold on the market. His arms regularly became infected from the extended exposure of minor wounds to sea water. If he complained that he was feeling unwell, the crew would beat him. He was injured multiple times by heavy blocks and booms, once having to tend to a head wound himself with a handful of wet rice. Three months out, Ko Lin was rescued in a police raid….