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Do You Believe Somaly Mam?
Every story has at least three or four sides, with different accounts and versions.
As Somaly Mam tries to rebuild her foundation in Cambodia, it’s time to listen to another voice, that of her ex-husband, Pierre Legros. He co-founded Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP) in 1996 and is a former director of AFESIP International.
Mama and Legros were together for 15 years, of which 13 years were legally married. According to Legros, “I’m the only person in the world who really knows most of the story. I want to tell the truth and stop the lies. I also want to prevent her from using Nieng – my adopted daughter – as part of her campaign to come back.”
Pierre Legros sits in his chair in a restaurant in Phnom Penh. “First of all, I’m not against Somalia. We had some good years together, we have two biological children and an adopted daughter. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to see my 12-year-old son Nicolai. We separated in 2004 when I was dismissed from AFESIP, but I didn’t divorce until 2006. Then in 2007 she founded the Somali Mam Foundation in the United States.”
He shrugs, “So what if she told some lies. Everyone in Asia lies and it’s part of social behavior.”
“Let’s take her name for example. I knew her as Viriya or Aya, her mother called her Someny, and now she’s Somaly Mam. Who cares?”
“I don’t want to destroy her reputation – because she did a good job and I’m proud of her. But people also need to know that there are allegations from Spain that she took a lot of donations that were meant for the foundation and it ended up for her personal use.
“The reason why I emphasize this is that AFESIP was a group of local NGOs that I founded across Europe and Asia. AFESIP Spain has become one of the most effective in terms of activities in Madrid – protest against human trafficking – and throughout Spain, for sensitization – advocacy. Then AFESIP Spain facilitated fundraising with the foundation and the Spanish government, specifically the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They investigated and discovered some questions about whether Somaly had committed financial fraud.”
“Her salary in 2011 was $125,642, which is a real fortune in Cambodia.”
“A sign for sale on a villa to convince people she’s poor. That’s not true. Then they’ll donate more money. The problem is that people in America believe whatever they’re told and don’t do their due diligence. That might change now that questions have been raised in Spain about financial fraud in relation to the former AFESIP Madrid office.”
The beginnings of the icon
“Yes, Somaly was a prostitute when I met her. Then we fell in love and everything changed.”
“UNICEF started donating money and we established a center to help girls and women who were trafficked in the sex industry. We all need to dream. I considered it my destiny to help other people. That’s what I was – and still am – committed to doing.”
“I was the director and organizer of the operation, actually a person in the shadows. I knew the direction we needed to go. So I took a risk and encouraged Somaly to develop her freedom and to escape from her cultural dictates. I know that if you feed a woman what she needs, create you’re going to superwoman. And that’s what happened: she became an icon. Because, indeed, she’s also very smart, more so than I am.”
“Somaly was the face of the operation, the spokeswoman, the marketing machine. It was her personality at work. She told her story—and other accounts of trafficked girls and women so well—that money started flowing into AFESIP.”
Legros further commented that he suggested she write a book, after she appeared many times on television and began to gain international recognition. The book was first published in France in 2005, before she established her foundation in America in 2007. The Way of Lost Innocence became an instant bestseller when it was translated into English.
“I didn’t tell her what to write. It was her story, not mine. It’s interesting, though, that the French and English versions are nothing like each other.”
“After the book, she was invited everywhere and met everyone who mattered. Her contact list ranges from Oprah, to Hilary Clinton, to the Queen of Spain and politicians from all over the world. Of course I encouraged and supported her. She was my wife and the mother of my children. We were already separated, but I pushed her to accept the invitation to open the Special Olympics in 2005.”
Some questions about personality disorder
Starting life in a small village in Kompong Cham province where life was, at best, subsistence, and ending up as an international celebrity is not a journey without demands and problems.
Legros and an American psychologist who volunteered at AFESIP theorized that as Mom began mixing more and more with the rich and famous, she was headed toward developing narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Indications of NPD include a grandiose sense of self-importance and a constant demand for attention and admiration. Other traits include exploiting others and a complete lack of empathy.
Legros and the psychologist now suggest that mom is showing full-blown NPD signs. In the discussion of the saint and the sinner, he is the first person to raise the question of the borderline problems of personality.
“Somaly is not happy. She is a depressed woman.” Other reports from staff at the center confirm that she is temperamental and can be explosive in small incidents.
“The only time I came out publicly to challenge the lies she told was when she said that eight girls at the center were killed. The other time was when she stated that our adopted daughter was gang-raped. I’m in those cases to set the record straight.”
Legros keeps quiet. “I want this article to be published outside Cambodia because that is where most of Somalia’s supporters are. I think they need to know the truth. Here in Phnom Penh it would be too dangerous. She is very well connected and knows many high-ranking people in the government, police and military .”
“When we broke up in 2004, she moved her bodyguard into the bedroom. He had a gun and a license to kill. I know I can disappear tomorrow, this is the Kingdom.”
Legros currently works in Phnom Penh.
He smiles: “In time, I want to retire on a boat and not have too much contact with other people. But before I do that, I want to tell the real story of Somaly Mam and how she became an icon. I have a duty to do it without gray areas or lies. “
“To me, Somalia is a lie. But within a corrupt system full of similar people, it’s hardly a surprise.”
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