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Photo: Vannak Anan Prum

A new graphic memoir shares a brutal tale of modern slavery on the high seas

Shortly after he was kidnapped and sold into slavery on a Thai fishing boat, Vannak Anan Prum saw one of his fellow Cambodian workers fall overboard. He and the other crew members rushed to rescue him and pull him aboard, but the captain told them to throw the man back into the sea. It’s bad luck to save someone the sea gods have already claimed, the captain said.

Vannak felt helpless. “I took off my shirt and threw it in, and my cigarettes and lighter, so he would have something to smoke in the afterlife,” he wrote. Much later, Vannak drew that painfully beautiful scene: the man screaming and waving in blue water stretching to the horizon, and then the sun shining down on the empty sea.

The story, and the drawings, are included in Vannak’s new book, The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea: A Graphic Memoir of Modern Slavery, published at the end of June by Seven Stories Press. In 2005, at the age of 26, Vannak, like many Cambodian men, left home to try to earn a living in relatively wealthy Thailand to support his wife and unborn child. Crossing the border, he was kidnapped by “recruiters,” and sold into slavery on a Thai fishing boat. There, Vannak worked with other unpaid laborers, allowed only three hours of sleep and two meals of cold rice a day.

“Even taking a shit was dangerous,” Vannak writes. “We used a rope harness to hang over the stern. One night I nearly died doing this when the rope broke and I barely caught myself from falling in.”

Vannak spent three years and seven months at sea before the ship pulled close enough to land for him and a friend to swim ashore using fish sauce containers as floats. But his arrival in Malaysia brought little relief. He was sold again to work on a plantation, then kept in jail as an illegal migrant. When he finally returned home, it was 2010, almost five years after he had been captured.

Vannak Anan Prum

Vannak’s ordeal was hardly unique. The United Nations estimates that the Thai fishing fleet uses around 50,000 forced laborers a year, most of them undocumented immigrants from Cambodia or Malaysia. But Vannak was distinguished from his fellow trafficking victims in one way—he had a passion and talent for art. In a translated email, Vannak told me that as a child during the civil war in Cambodia, “there were no drawing books, no pens available.” Nonetheless, he taught himself art by drawing in the soil. Later he used wooden writing boards with dried clay, and on the boat, he adopted a fishing hook and a mixture of soot and toothpaste to sketch tattoos for the other men. Having a valued skill meant that he was insulated from the violence that constantly broke out on board.

The NGO workers who facilitated Vannak’s return were dazzled by his drawings, and connected him to filmmakers Ben and Jocelyn Pederick, who were making a short documentary about human trafficking for Radio Free Asia. “Very early, maybe even the first time we met him, I said to him, ‘Your drawings would sure make an amazing book!’ Jocelyn Pederick told me via Skype from Cambodia. “And he said, “‘Yeah, I know.’ He knew from the beginning that the drawings would be the best way of telling his story.”

“I want everyone to know about this,” Vannak told me. “I want to inform all cross-border migrant workers to be careful after they see my pictures.”

Pederick says that at one screening of her documentary film, Vannak, who was expected to give a short intro, held the audience spellbound for two and a half hours with a detailed account of his ordeal. The book offers even more. At over 200 pages, it is an extensive first-person narrative illustrated with color drawings that cover his childhood fighting against the Khmer Rouge during Cambodia’s civil war, meeting with his wife while both were harvesting crops, his desire to find better work after she became pregnant and then his long, brutal experience of slavery.

Pederick, who worked with Vannak creating the book, notes that he has an amazing memory and a passion for meticulous detail. In his drawings of the ship, you can see different species of fish splayed out on the deck, amidst the coils of ropes and the rigging. In one striking image, Vanak depicts a headless corpse that was pulled up in the fishing net, surrounded by rays, crabs and large flounder-like fish. Off to the side of the image, depicted so matter of factly you almost miss it, you can see one man vomiting over the side of the boat. It’s as if Vannak is determined to show you every part of the prison on which he sailed for three years.

Vannak Anan Prum

The detail is important to Vannak because it reveals the reality of his experience—not least to his wife. When Vannak returned home, his wife did not believe he had been kidnapped; she thought he had abandoned them. Being able to draw his story convinced her that it had happened. The pictures, he told me, “are proof of my life, of my experience being trafficked into forced labor.”

Men who return from trafficking often face skepticism and hostility from their families, according to Manfred Hornung, a director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Hornung was one of the NGO staff who met Vannak at the airport when he returned to Cambodia, and he’s worked with other returnees who’ve escaped slavery. “I’ve met many, many, many over the years,” he said via Skype. “I met them in custody, in prison, I picked them up at the airport when they came home.and all of them, I can say, have had to deal with huge trauma.

“If you go to the villages around Cambodia, especially in the rural parts, you’ll hardly find a family that doesn’t know about the fate of a young man who left for Thailand and the fishing fleet who then returned later severely traumatized,” Hornung says. “This is a very common thing, but they have no proof, they have no papers, they have no money, they have no photographs, they have nothing.” Families resent that the men were gone so long, and they don’t have resources to care for the returnees. It can be easier to assume that they left deliberately, and to refuse to accept them back into the family.

Vannak’s illustrations provide a kind of proof, both for his immediate relatives and for the international community. “Images are much stronger than reports,” Hornung says. Dry NGO accounts don’t show the horror of the fishing boats as Vannak does in his drawings of men shoveling rotten fish waste, crabs and snakes in the hold. He portrays the piles of refuse as a kind of brown mass with vaguely organic blobs embedded in it, so evocative you almost recoil from the stench.

Vannak hopes that his memoir will raise awareness about trafficking in Southeast Asia, but the book also demonstrates how difficult the problem will be to solve. In Malaysia, Vannak was actually sold by the police to work on a plantation run by a police official. “As long as there is this pervasive corruption within the system, there’s very little chance that you can change it in a fundamental way,” Hornung explains.

It doesn’t help either that most Western anti-trafficking resources are directed to helping women and girls specifically. Sex trafficking is a high-profile issue in the United States and the West, while human trafficking for manual labor is much less discussed, even though the UN’s International Labour Organization statistics suggest it’s more prevalent. Hornung believes that pressure from Western governments or consumers could force Thailand to regulate its fishing fleet more closely, or to crack down on recruiters.

Vannak’s family is still very poor, and there is still little work for him in Cambodia. He hopes that the proceeds from his book will help his family. “I wish I could make a living drawing pictures,” he writes at the conclusion of his story. “My physical injuries hurt less, but my memory is a wound that will never heal.”

The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea illustrates both that memory and that wound for an international audience. Hopefully, as Vannak told me, the book will help his countrymen, “so that they will not experience such a terrible life as I did.” Vannak may have escaped, but many Cambodians are still enslaved on Thai fishing boats. Vannak’s pictures draw on his past, but the abuses they illustrate are still occurring today.

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