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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



I stand at a corner in Ta Phraya waiting for the minibus to take me to the camp. Within months of the ’88 visit I have returned as a volunteer with the Jesuit Refugee Service. There wasn’t much sleep last night and I am finding it difficult to remember what has motivated me to come back.

I stand at the corner with my identification pinned to my tee-shirt. My pass is stamped and signed in Bangkok, and signed again in Aranyaprathet – still eighty kilometres from Site 2. The United Nations Border Relief Operation requires this. So do the Thai authorities. All permissions are in place.

This feels more like dream than reality. I am awkward, gawky. The 1988 visit was only that: an exposure for a limited time. My life, where I live, is now in this place, though it is as if I am in the wrong skin here.

The bus comes; there is nothing to do other than to board it. We are crammed together, volunteers from many nations. There are introductions. Rice fields and small clusters of Thai houses are lit with early sunshine as we pass. The first glimpse of the high fence and barbed wire of the camp jolts me into reality. As we stop at the entrance armed Thai guards check our passes and search the bus. It is the wet season; I am hot and wet already though the day is just beginning.

This is a place of detention. There are only two ways to enter it: as a foreigner with a stamped pass or as an asylum-seeker finding a track through the minefield, crawling under the fence to immediately be detained. Thailand has not signed the UN Refugee Convention; these asylum-seekers are illegal immigrants.

Through the gates is the bamboo-and-thatch city of mud in the wet season, dust in the dry season. From my reading I know that in the flimsy temporary dwellings there are enough women, children and men to populate a small city, at least one-hundred-and-fifty thousand, though the numbers given are never precisely reliable. More than half are children.

The crammed space inside the barbed wire teems with life. You notice those with limbs missing; ‘the amputees’, they are called here. You notice the women with babies at breast and small children clinging to a mother’s faded sarong. There are children everywhere, impishly shouting the only English they know: ‘Okay bye-bye.’ Some cluster in a group: little boys naked; little girls with a skirt or knickers, probably not both. Most children’s stomachs are swollen with parasites.

This is as I expect it to be; these are the memories I have carried from my visit last year. I balance on a push bike, heading to the Centre for Healing of Heart and Spirit.

My Australian experience has been in community development and social work with traumatised people. I’m on the brink of finding how much I don’t know of either.

The bike is provided by the Thai Catholic Office of Emergency Relief and Refugees, COERR, pronounced as ‘co-err’. The only way forward is to wobble and push through squelchy red-laterite mud and to cross a slippery plank bridge, lurching, narrowly avoiding slithering into water. Here I am in washed-out jeans and crimson cotton tee-shirt mud-splattered already. I hear full-throated laughter, risk my balance and turn my head for a second, then glimpse the man: ancient, wrinkled, skeletal, brown, mouth-wide-open, gummy jaws bare of teeth. He squats on his heels and hoots. Holding the bike still with my right foot planted in the mud I turn and grin back, the two of us linked by laughter. It surely is ridiculous that I can’t manage the bike, can’t wear proper clothes, am lanky and blotchy pink. I’m glad he can laugh.

In the south of the camp is the Centre for Healing of Heart and Spirit, the Khmer People’s Depression Relief, KPDR.

Phaly and Soeun and the team are hard-pressed; happy to see me back, but busy. There is a young woman whose arms are amputated close to her shoulders. As I come through the doorway Phaly notices and covers the stumps with a krama. The woman nods with gratitude as if it is immodest to be seen naked of arms.

I sit to the side, listening to the lilt of the conversations between helper and helped, again smelling the pungent healing herbs, hearing the soft conversations and watching the stroking, the massage, and the gentle soothing. This is the daily rhythm of listening and healing. Sounds merge in gentle rhythm: reassuring the man who fell out of the coconut tree back in Cambodia and can’t get his head together any more, massaging saffron-coloured herbs into the body of a woman limp with depression after the birth of her baby, comforting a boy-soldier fresh in from battle. I am hesitant, on edge, wishing I could be useful but not knowing how.

The radio crackles. UNBRO – the United Nations Border Relief Operation – is asking the Centre for a response. In this place without phones, two-way radio requests are public announcements, they echo like commands. KPDR is requested to assist.

This is their problem. A tiny girl like a small, wild animal has made her way inside the UNBRO office and there is no way that the UN staff can restrain her. Someone needs to leave their work and go. Phaly says, ‘Joan you can go, you are not busy, this will be good for you to see.’ Soeun will come with me; he can deal with the Cambodians, I can talk to the foreigners at UNBRO.

The little girl is called Mom; she looks about five years old. When we find her she is curled up in a ball on the floor with her wrists guarding her face, lashing out with elbows and legs, flailing at anyone who approaches. She is grimy and smells of urine. Her hair is matted and her eyes, when she lets you see them, are wild. I squat down beside her, barely touching her as I stroke her skin. She quietens a little, jolted perhaps by a new experience. I edge closer almost imperceptibly while Soeun talks long and earnestly with the Cambodian UN workers, then closer still, careful to make no sudden movement. Mom turns her head and slides her wrists away from her bloodshot eyes. I hold out my arms. Mom falls into my lap, curls into a damp ball tightly, tightly, and falls asleep. Soeun tells in halting English what he heard in Khmer.

She is known in the camp as the ‘crazy girl’. She is eleven years old, though so small. She roams the camp alone and is used for sex. She seems to have fits.

This child is the same size as my beloved little niece, Jess, in Melbourne. I am sitting on the floor with my arms around her, rocking her to and fro.

Soeun carries Mom to the American Refugee Committee hospital, a busy bamboo and thatch institution where talented Cambodian medical students are learning from talented medical volunteers. It is clear to me that something should be done to control the fits. A young doctor from Minnesota takes the details; he is interested in the symptoms, eager to consider a diagnosis. He will admit Mom. We should wait; he needs to check with someone more experienced. Eventually he returns, apologetic that he had not known more. He speaks in English, looking at me, avoiding Soeun’s gaze.

‘Conditions like the fits suffered by this child are not on the list for treatment here.’

I understand. What is permitted under the conditions of the agreement for this camp is limited. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is not in control; the arrangement is between the Thai government and the United Nations Border Relief Organisation. Our usual professional expectations do not apply.

We both know these facts. We had not considered the implications for this small girl, an illegal immigrant. The American doctor is as new to the camp as I am; we both try to ignore the fact that there are tears in his eyes.

Back at the Centre while Mom sleeps the sleep of exhaustion, Phaly gives me advice. ‘Drink tea. You will sweat a lot. Take care not to be dehydrated.’

I cycle back to the COERR office, a bamboo, thatch and dirt-floor gathering-space, to meet the man who plans to build a Centre for Healing in the northern part of the camp. He waits for me, a painfully thin young man in a spotless white shirt with sleeves turned back to below the elbow and unpressed, freshly washed navy business trousers held up with a brown belt. There are hollows beneath his large, dark eyes. ‘My name is Meas Nee.’

I feel too casual and far too smelly. ‘Pleased to meet you Mister Nee.’

He has plans. ‘There is an old woman and child I want you to see. We will go to her house. Can you ride?’

We cycle along the red-laterite road, then push through mud with no tracks to be seen, wheeling the bikes around puddles, weaving between small bamboo huts.

The house isn’t a house, just the remnants of thatch on top of four bamboo poles with a bamboo bench beneath and a little cloth for privacy and shade. The old woman isn’t old. She looks eighty to me but is said to be about forty. She is curled on the bench like a foetus. She cannot see any more and can scarcely hear. One eye socket is empty, the other is an immense mass of puss. Her skin, the parchment skin of an old woman, is stretched across her bones.

The neighbours, those who had asked Nee to come, say that the small daughter, the only other member of the family, is away scrounging for food. The husband deserted them long ago; he managed to take the family food-ration book with him.

Nee squats on his heels beside the woman, speaks close to her ear and touches her gently.

The child returns; she nods to Nee’s offer to care for them both, and quietly folds up the few possessions. There is no expression on her face. Nee rests his hand lightly on the little girl’s shoulder. My hands clutch the handlebars of my bike; my feet are still planted in the mud beside each pedal. I am swamped with pity, immobilised, ashamed of my uselessness, mortified by my own pampered life.

A neighbour will transport the woman in a handcart. Nee holds the child’s hand. As he pushes his bike through the mud he explains to me in halting English that this eye injury that the mother sustained while scrounging for firewood to sell is not a new injury. Her life has been degenerating for a long time.

‘How do you feel about this?’ he asks.

What can I say? ‘I’m full of sadness for them both, and outraged that this should be. Every person deserves care and dignity.’ I don’t know Nee yet. Haven’t even realised that Meas is his family name and Nee his given name. ‘How do you feel?’ I ask.

‘I have no words’ he says.

That night in Ta Phraya I sit, exhausted, on the mattress on the floor, the weight of the day pressing. I write in my journal. ‘To walk humbly … perhaps that is all that I can do.’

Many months later, after we have finished a day of teaching together, Nee tells me a story. ‘There was once a village where the people had a hard life. They did not know how they could survive. They ploughed the land the hard way, by hand. They wished they had a buffalo. Then one day they saw a wild buffalo in the jungle. They said they would catch it and tame it.’ He looks at me as he speaks. ‘They slowly coaxed it to the field. They showed it this new place far from the beautiful green trees it was used to. They hoped that one day it would be useful.’

‘Me?’ I say. He protests that it was someone else. He protests too much; we are starting to understand each other now. I laugh.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy