PHITSANULOK, Thailand (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Air’s young body bears the scars of her five years as a child slave. Wounds crisscross her neck, chest and back, while scalded, melted skin runs the length of her left arm.
The daughter of Karen migrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar, “Air” - whose name has been withheld to protect her identity - was abducted in 2008 when she was seven.
She was held at a home in Kamphaeng Phet province in central Thailand and beaten almost daily. Her kidnappers, a couple she once considered friends, threw boiling water over her and snipped off part of her left earlobe. She finally escaped in January 2013.
Last month, a court in Thailand awarded $143,000 in compensation to Air, now 13, but her abusers were granted bail and have since disappeared.
At a shelter where she is staying in Phitsanulok province, Air told Thomson Reuters Foundation her story.
“It was around 4 o’clock when this couple came to my house and said they had something to tell me. I was alone. I came back to cook dinner while my parents were working in the sugarcane field.
“I can’t really remember their names, but my parents knew them and I’d been to their home.
“They took me to their house in their car. After a while, I asked them to take me back to my mother’s house and they refused.
“I started crying and kept asking them to send me back to my mum. But they said ‘no’ repeatedly and I became afraid. So I just sat still and kept quiet.
“I can’t remember how long exactly, but I was with them for a long time.
“I had to wake up at 6 am every day. I would clean the house before having breakfast. Sometimes they would take me out with them to their dog grooming business. I wanted to run away then but I was scared, and I also didn’t know which direction was home.
“If I didn’t clean the house well, they would beat me up.
“They didn’t pay me. They did not buy me any clothes or candies either. I had to wear the wife’s clothes.
“I managed to run away once, after I had finished cleaning the house one morning. I asked a neighbour to send me back to my mum, but I couldn’t say where my mum was beyond that she worked in a sugarcane field.
“The neighbour called the police, but by the time I got to the police station, the couple was already there waiting for me. They had reported me missing. They tried to take me home right there, but I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go back with you’. So the police told them to let me stay at the station and they went home. But later, the police sent me back to their house.
“They were furious I tried to run away and the woman snipped my left ear with scissors. Since then, they never let me out ever again and started to beat me up even more frequently, like everyday. Usually it was the woman who hit me. The man yelled a lot.
“One day the woman told me to clean the house. It was late at night and she told me to stop before I had finished. They got angry because they thought my cleaning was slow. The man threw boiling water from a kettle over me.
“It was so painful I cried the whole night, until the morning.
“I was given some kind of gel to put on my injuries afterwards. No doctors.
“Every single day, I thought of how I could escape from this house. Then one day, on 31 January 2013, I was feeding the cat and the cat ran away. I was scared the couple would hit me so I followed the cat by climbing through the fence and realised I was outside the house.
“I came across another neighbour who called a teacher. The teacher recognised me because I used to be her student and sent me to the government shelter.
“I’m now studying to be a hairdresser at another shelter. My favourite part is to curl the hair because it’s easy. I’ve been curling many of my friends’ hair.
“I can’t remember how long I’ve been here. I now sleep in a dorm room with many other girls. It’s nice.
“I don’t know what happened to the couple. They never really told me why they kidnapped me. When I asked them to send me back to my mum, they said, ‘You’d better stay here because your parents are so poor. You have a better chance if you stay with us.’
“I want to tell other children not to listen to strangers, not to trust them.
“There were other people who knew I was with this couple, but they didn’t help.
“I want to be a soldier when I grow up … I think it’s good to be a soldier because you can help and protect the people.
“I’m happier now and I feel safer but I haven’t really been thinking of the future. All I know is that when I’m ready to get out of this place, I want to go and stay with my family. I have three other sisters.
“We don’t get to see each other often, but we speak on the phone. I get to see her (my mother) when I go to the hospital for treatment.
“I miss my family, especially my mum. I just want to hug them when I see them.”
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Alisa Tang: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com)