Ton and Viet are neighbours in a village about two hours drive from Hanoi. The roads turn into alleys and then into dirt tracks, winding through the hills towards the quiet settlement that they call home.
Both boys are aged 15 now. Both are the only child in their family; both have grown up with just their mother; and both live in houses so dilapidated that they are beyond being fit for any person to inhabit.
With all this in common, both boys ran away from home together more than a year ago, and both found themselves targets of pedophile rings in Vietnam’s capital city.
Ton had been to Hanoi before. He had lived on one of the city’s bridges, surviving by scavenging at night and hanging out with gangs of teens who live by stealing. When he fell afoul of one of the gangs, he was beaten almost to death and left, bleeding and naked, by the river. He was just 13 then. One of the Blue Dragon social workers found him, took him to hospital, and nursed him back to health.
Eventually Ton went home, but his self esteem was through the floor. Home life was miserable: in a house with no electricity, no comforts to speak of, and holes in the wall, he was embarrassed to mix with other kids his age. Only Viet, living down the road, could share his feelings, and so it’s no surprise that they made a plan to run away together. They dreamt of excitement and a better life, as teens do.
The predators in Hanoi have their tentacles everywhere; they are constantly on the lookout for new kids, both girls and boys, arriving in the city and in need of cash. Fuelled by their sense of worthlessness, Ton and Viet succumbed to the offers of money and, over the course of a year, became the disposable playthings of dozens of men, both Vietnamese and foreign, who would pay them from $1 to $10 for sex in parks, hotels, and houses.
Some kids who experience this abuse feel compelled to find an escape as soon as they can. Others, like Ton and Viet, just give up all hope and let it happen. They allow themselves to be exploited, seeing it as a punishment they deserve to suffer. They ‘work’ for a few hours at night until they have enough money to last the next day, and drown out the pain with meth and computer games.
My staff at Blue Dragon spent many months caring for Ton and Viet before they would agree to receive our help. Social workers would meet them at the parks, or go to the internet cafes where they slept, and invite them out for a meal. Building trust took a long time, and critical to our approach was showing the boys that we would not judge them, no matter what they did.
Finally Ton and Viet agreed to go back to see their mothers. Ly, one of our social workers, and I traveled with them, doing our best to allay their apprehension at going home.
Sitting in Viet’s tiny, half-collapsed house, Ly put into words the feeling I had in my heart: “If only someone had helped these children a few years ago, maybe they would never have run away from home… And maybe none of this would have happened to them.”
Her thought was simple, yet profound. If only. All of this mess that has engulfed their lives could well have been avoided. If only someone had cared.
Ton and Viet are doing well now. They have worked hard to break out of the cycle of abuse they were caught up in. I don’t know how they have found the strength to do so, but their progress has been remarkable. I see them fairly regularly and they are adjusting as best they can to a ‘post-exploitation’ life.
And yet I can’t get it out of my mind: If only. How different their lives could have been.
We can’t change the past. If we could, Ton and Viet might now have very different lives. But for these 2 kids, it’s too late. The damage has been done.
It’s not too late, though, for someone else. There are so many young people out there, in Vietnam and throughout our world, who desperately need someone to care for them before disaster strikes. It’s not too late to prevent a similar cycle of abuse for another boy or girl who is living in misery and dreaming that life could be better.
We can’t allow more children to be trapped like Ton and Viet because the alternatives seem no better. We can’t allow ourselves to say “If only” for any more children.