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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



‘I know my father better than he thinks I do,’ he says. The dust of the road rises through the broken window of the car and through the cracks where the door latch is loose. We taste dust, stop talking. The traffic tangles; it slows to the pace of walking. This lanky, dusky young man with his high cheekbones and large almond eyes exudes the confidence of the newly well-educated as he navigates it all. I watch his hands on the steering wheel, relaxed as he steers through a chaos of early morning motorbikes, pushbikes and tuk-tuks. His are strong, dark hands, like his father’s hands.

Drivers lean on their horns. No chance and no need for me to say ‘I knew your father before you were born.’ He knows that.

I count the years: it must be twenty-three years since he was born in a tiny makeshift shelter in the refugee camp. A little scrap of life lucky to survive. That day in 1989 the shelling between the Cambodian army and the Cambodian resistance was heavy and close to the camp.

On the day he was born his father asked, ‘Do you think his skin is too dark?’ and revealed the burden of a man whose walnut-brown skin would always mark him as of peasant-farmer stock. His mother said, ‘My husband will never be dead while this boy is alive. They are exactly the same.’

Today the north road to Battambang from the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh is surging with life; girls on the way to the garment factories dart between motorbikes loaded with passengers, with goods, with pigs and chickens in cane baskets.

A tight circle of locals is forming at the edge of the road. Drivers turn off their engines; they and their passengers crane to see through the dust and the throng, some shouting suggestions, children held aloft. An accident? A vendor of traditional medicine? Something more sinister?

A gap forms like a tunnel through the knot of vehicles. Raksmey veers into the opportunity: he rides the curb, left wheels on the embankment, right wheels to the road, one hand clamped firmly on our loudest of all horns, the other gripping the steering wheel, knuckles ridged. We break free of the pack, swerve to our proper side of the road and head into clear highway between rice fields. ‘Tell me about the camp,’ he says, looking ahead to the pale line of hills.

‘What do you want to know Raksmey?’

‘Everything,’ he replies.

It will be four or five hours before we reach Battambang. There is time. He waits, I weigh and sift all that I know, then plunge into the heart of his story.

‘It was a crowded camp with barbed wire all around it and Thai military guards. There were almost two-hundred-thousand Cambodians behind this barbed wire. Your dad was not much older than you are now. Rations were short; for each person three-and-a-half kilos of rice per week and one small tin of tuna donated by the Japanese, seven litres of water a day for cooking, washing, drinking, bathing, cleaning. People would cook their rice and fish carefully, a little at a time, outside their own shelter, being vigilant to make the firewood ration last. It was a war zone. Your mother was young and very beautiful; the most beautiful woman in the camp, your father told me. They were both delighted when you were born. They chose your name to mean “burst of light”.’

Raksmey reaches for a cassette, pushes it into the slot, presses the play button, turns up the volume. Traditional music builds to a crescendo; it wails. We reach the outskirts of a small town. He turns off the music and stops the car, then we walk into a wayside ‘restaurant’ without talking. He settles me at a table and joins the throng of travellers crowding around the servery, all competing to order a meal. I look around. It’s familiar: crowded dining room, cement floor awash with water and litter, cement tables and stools, dead exotic wild animals hanging on hooks ready to be rendered into stew or soup, steaming vats of pre-cooked food, many men and some women each holding the place at a table or shouting an order. I see no other white or pink face. There is the stench of an overflowing squat toilet with a door that will not stay shut.

The conversation has unsettled me. Did I say too much? These distant memories compete with the present as I sit alone minding our table, waiting for Raksmey to bring the food.

It was ’88 when I made my first visit to the border of Cambodia. From Bangkok to the refugee camp beyond Aranyaprathet was a long bus journey. There was a ‘comfort stop’ where vendors below the bus window shouted their wares, peeling green mango on a stick with a twist of paper holding ground chili and sugar for dipping. As I stepped down from that bus I smelled the stench of an overflowing squat toilet with a door that would not stay shut. There were flies.

During that first visit to Site 2 one small corner of that crowded camp snared my attention. Phaly, the Cambodian refugee woman who created it, told me it was a ‘Centre for Healing of Heart and Spirit’; officially it was known as Khmer People’s Depression Relief, KPDR. In response to the great sadness this was a brave attempt to offer respect and understanding. For days I sat in that centre: listening to the cadence of the conversations between helper and helped; smelling the pungent healing herbs offered as tea, lotion or balm; watching the stroking, the massage, the gentle soothing.

Crowds of refugees, the sad and the mad with sadness, found shelter here. Phaly invited me to stay as a friend-with-knowledge. There was something in my background that she thought would be useful. At first the idea of staying was preposterous but my meeting with the women and men and children of Site 2 troubled me; blotting this from my mind was impossible. Within months I returned to stay. Those early days are far in the past.

I look towards Raksmey, who threads his way back to the table, balancing steaming plates of rice and vegetables garnished with a little meat. He grins. He is starting to piece the past together. I am piecing the past together too. There is a web of stories more complex than he could ever guess.

He places the bowls carefully on the bare cement table and sits facing me. ‘Thank you Smey,’ I say. I make no promises, though I am already thinking that back in Australia there could be notes and photographs of those times to pass on to him.

From as early in my life as I can remember I have scribbled words on paper when sad or glad or puzzled or in awe. I usually burn these pages or tear them up. In the years when I first worked side by side with Cambodians I used thick little notebooks and ballpoint pen. Later I used a typewriter and, as the years went by, a laptop.

That first laptop was black. It was linked with alligator clips to a truck battery which could be balanced on the back of a motorbike and recharged on a generator in a village on the road to Banan. In the heat the shiny black case of this weighty laptop peeled off, revealing silver paint. The silver paint flaked off, revealing a translucent white case. Nevertheless the laptop continued to do what it was meant to do; it accepted and held many words.

During the past quarter-century there have been a lot of words.

Back in Australia, in our Footscray convent, we have a tall storage cupboard. It is a place to search for things that have not been sighted for years. I am hunting for anything I have written that might have details that Raksmey would want to know. Some empty suitcases and travel bags are stacked here, covered with a rug to protect them from dust. I am looking for a China Air bag that may have some old journals in it.

The bag is here. It is as I remembered it: luminous green and yellow. I bring it to the back veranda where winter sun gives more light, then tip the contents onto the mat: a heap of battered notebooks and hard-covered journals, letters, maps, newspaper clippings, my laminated camp-pass and photos. All a bit musty.

Saying farewells to friends has always been difficult for me: goodbye on leaving Australia and goodbye on leaving Cambodia. During the years, after spending many months in one place or the other, I have left on a one-way ticket. No wonder these scraps and relics have been kept. It was hard leaving this time. When my life of ‘home-in-two-places’ began I was a couple of years over fifty; now I am nudging towards eighty. There will be an end to this; it is inevitable. Love stretched across oceans is as taut as the skin of a ripening mango.

I make a plunger of coffee and settle into a cane chair. It is a relaxed Saturday afternoon. Just outside the glass door pansies bloom in a planter-box, brightening a patch of bitumen, sunlight translucent through magenta-coloured flowers. I’m listening to jazz on the ABC.

There are three or four fat journals that fit the timeframe of the Site 2 Camp; others are from the longer time in Cambodia. I begin to read.

Even before I sift the papers I know that what is written here is intimate; there are stories I could only write because of being trusted. What should be done with all of this? Ought I type from those scribbled pages? Is it too personal to be retold? Years ago these journals and letters could have been cleared away but it’s too late now to burn and tear. There are stories that ought to be handed on when another generation is ready to listen. The great-grandparent generation, the Cambodians who lived through the terror of the sixties and seventies and eighties, know this. So do I.

Here there are details I had forgotten. The day of Raksmey’s birth is recorded; there is even a photo of the newborn child in the camp. These things should be his, not mine. There are many things here that Raksmey deserves to know and, perhaps, stories that others should know too.

Before I close the journals it is almost dark on the back veranda. The music has stopped; I didn’t notice. The coffee is cold.

That border camp of decades ago is not just geography and history. It changed lives: all of our lives changed utterly.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy