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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



COERR has provided a single cab utility truck and a new volunteer, Lud Thomassen, a psychiatric nurse from Belgium. We drive together to the camp each morning. The new volunteer is experienced, resourceful and strong; she becomes friend as well as colleague.

The truck has a personality of its own. It is somewhat battered and, unless you know it well, hard to start. On the bumpy tracks the key falls from the ignition while the engine keeps revving and the vehicle continues to move forward. With practice it is possible to steer with the left hand while groping on the floor to find the key and return it to the ignition. It must be found; the engine will only shut down by turning the key to off position. This is no worry. The hardy vehicle that we call ‘the Ute’ opens new possibilities; small inconveniences are overlooked.

There is a pattern to life and a sense of purpose. My first task each day is to stand with Nee as he completes the planning and preparation for the Centre of Healing in Site 2 North.

Even before a site for the new centre is confirmed he begins to bring potential staff to the COERR office for training. ‘You will need to teach us about Western ways of healing the spirit,’ he tells me.

Nee remembers and quotes words of advice his father had given before dying as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge. ‘Be a healer, son. When this is over our people will need healers.’ With these words in his mind, he has studied every course that Western medical specialists, who regularly volunteer in the camp, offer. He knows about Western treatments for tropical diseases, he can do basic surgery. While studying with the American Refugee Committee he became convinced that Western knowledge and Western drugs could be used side by side with traditional drugs and treatments. During nine years on the border he has seen many traumatised people; his mind is occupied with ways to be a healer.

For my first teaching venture in Site 2 there is a square blackboard tied with string to a bamboo partition in the COERR office. I stand there, chalk in hand. The students are all dressed in their best secondhand donated clothes bought from a pile of assorted garments heaped on a mat at the crossroad. They are sitting in rows with notebooks open, totally attentive. It is the hottest part of the day; they must have sacrificed siesta for this. They are trim and immaculately groomed, the men in long trousers and business shirts, clean and threadbare, the women in well-worn sarongs tight around waist and hips, topped with blouses surely donated by the French. I am hot and sweaty.

Nee introduces me at length in Khmer, then turns to me and says in English, ‘Just a few words at a time in English and I will say in Khmer.’ I look around at the faces. Twenty or so women and men look back at me expectantly, ballpoint pens ready. ‘Thank you. Welcome,’ I say. ‘Aa kohn. Sohm anjaen,’ he echoes. I could easily have said this in Khmer myself; I look at him with a smile and repeat it in Khmer, hoping to relax the class. Nobody laughs. They watch politely.

I take the chalk, grip the swinging blackboard and chalk the letters ‘LISTEN’. Nee writes it in Khmer. Everybody writes, and then looks up. ‘I have been taught that the first, the most useful thing to do for a person who is really very upset is to listen attentively, to hear what they say.’ Nee raises his hand signaling that I should stop. He translates to Khmer; everybody writes then looks to me expectantly. ‘I know that you often meet and listen to people who are extremely distressed.’ Pause for this to be told in Khmer. ‘Nee has told me that it is like being in the bottom of a deep, dark pit.’ He nods and interprets. I take the chalk, steady the board, and draw the deep pit with two stick figures at the bottom. Everyone nods, draws, writes and looks up. I draw another stick figure at the top; this one holds a line leading to the one below. ‘It is difficult to go down so far in the dark unless there is someone holding a rope for you … to help you get out. It is dangerous to be stuck down there in the darkness.’

I look questioningly at Nee; I have exceeded my quota of words. He looks back and nods. He understands and can take over from here. There is lively interaction. ‘Da veng da vo,’ he says, then looks sideways to me. I nod, ‘To and fro.’ When it is time to finish I say to the class, ‘I hope one day I will give my opinion and one of you will give your opinion. You will not hesitate to give an opinion that is different from mine. I will be a happy woman and will listen to you just as you listen to me.’ Nee says it in Khmer but nobody writes this down.

As we walk from the class Nee tells me that Khmer custom is to listen to the teacher, respect the teacher, memorise what the teacher says. Having a different thought is not Khmer way.

Alone in Ta Phraya I replay the lesson in my mind. Nee talked of a Khmer way to learn, yet when he took control and taught he did not do it that way. Teacher and student looked at experience together and learned together. He was following his instinct, not Khmer way. ‘One day soon I will tell him this,’ I think.

A small piece of wasteland is available in Site 2 North; it will be the site for the new Centre. We squat down in sparse shade, Nee and I, imagining the buildings that would rise in this barren space. Though it is still rainy season the clouds have not yet massed; the midday heat is searing.

‘Of course there will be counsellors,’ says Nee. He imagines that counsellors will listen to people’s needs and respond to what they hear. He is choosing them from among those coming to the classes in the COERR office: the ones who have the heart for it. ‘There will be women and men; some will have a background of Western medicine. They can make partnerships with the hospitals.’ We think about it together. Nee wants Western knowledge to be side by side with traditional ways of healing. The counsellors could have training in psychology, human development and community development.

Nee is scratching with a stick in a depression where the ground is still damp: these will be the buildings, these will be the workers. He says ‘The traditional healers are good men, keen to start.’ These men already know and practice traditional remedies trusted by Cambodians. Since Buddhism is embedded in the culture they should also know when to involve the monks. There are monks in the camp.

The healers and counsellors are the beginning of the team. Until the construction of the buildings is complete Nee will work side by side with them to build the Centre. They will work together as equals, measuring, cutting, tying the bamboo. They will all wear simple working clothes, krama tied round the waist. Building together will help them to share their hopes. They will not be paid with money; this doesn’t happen for him or for anyone. They will each have a few extra kilos of rice as compensation for their families.

Nee has been thinking about a name for this centre. ‘Mental Health and Traditional Healing, MHTH,’ he says. He likes the sound of it. The buildings will be arranged so that those who come for help can be cared for in the way that would be best for each particular person. He is still drawing with the stick in the mud, adding details as he talks.

After the building is complete each worker will have a specific role. Nee will take his place as director, bring his family to live here and be available for staff who will need to work with inpatients at night as well as during the day.

We walk back to our bikes as the bunched clouds teeter in the afternoon sky. Soft, warm rain splatters down ahead of the deluge. Nee gives no sign of noticing this; his face is tight with thought. ‘What do you think about all this?’ he asks.

I remind him of his father’s words. ‘When this is over our people will need healing.’

So much is happening in so short a time. I need to find a quiet place away from the village where I can go regularly to be alone and pray.

It is very early morning as I take the track out of the town to the south, picking my way in the tender light, overtaken and passed by boys herding the family buffalo to the fields. We share the path where the prickly grass is worn down by the heavy hoofs of the animals and the bare feet of the boys.

My own feet are in sandals with their rubber thongs wedged between my toes. I must concentrate on the track as well as looking to the sky where the glow of dawn is seeping in. The track is pocked with heaps of buffalo dung. ‘Here I am,’ I think to myself. ‘Most of my attention is on dodging dung while beauty is all around me.’

The track mounts a slope to a vantage point where the land spread out in the distance is Cambodian land, not Thai land. To my right is the stone wall of a simple Wat. I hear Buddhist chanting, soothing and repetitive. I step off the track in the direction of the Wat; dogs snarl and bark. This brings me to a halt; rabies is endemic here.

As I prepare to abandon my quest a young monk notices and calls the dogs back. He motions to a place for me to sit beside the wall. He sits quietly beside me. The red sun rises.

At COERR headquarters in Bangkok there is a director whose vision fits with Nee’s dream. Father Bunlert hopes to strengthen the spirit of the Cambodians in the camp, to free them to be leaders each in their own way. He sees potential for good in everyone he meets and will do whatever he can for this to develop. He was a young leader in times of struggle in Thailand; he wants to support, not to control. He believes that the Centre Nee dreams about can become a reality. ‘Nee is a good man,’ he tells me. ‘Work with him.’

Nee is preoccupied with calculating and ordering materials for the building, with forging relationships among potential team members, with connecting to all who must authorise the land for the new venture. UNBRO will deliver bamboo to the site: high centre poles for each main area, sturdy corner poles, lighter bamboo for the framework, bamboo lattice for windows, and thatch for roofing. While sharing his enthusiasm I notice he is becoming even thinner.

Lud is alarmed and clinical. ‘If he is losing weight so fast he should take the test for TB; he is a medic. He must know that rapid weight loss requires a diagnosis. He will listen to you; talk to him about it.’

‘He’s a competent adult. I don’t push him to talk about what he doesn’t want to talk about.’

‘You have to. He will listen to you.’

After a routine meeting with Nee I enquire about his wife Monee, as I know that she is pregnant. I hesitate then enquire about his own health, saying that friends worry that he may have TB.

Nee looks at me for a few moments without comment. His medical knowledge is far in advance of mine; I have crossed a line that I immediately regret crossing. ‘It isn’t TB.’ He speaks kindly as if giving a lesson to a group of new medics: not arrogant but informative. He reminds me that the UNBRO ration is exactly enough to sustain life. It is called humane deterrence; they don’t want to attract people from inside Cambodia to come to the border just because they are hungry. They try to balance enough protein, enough carbohydrate to sustain life. No more. A pregnant woman needs more for herself and for the baby. ‘This is our baby. I can do with less. Monee needs more.’

Next morning Lud and I begin to smuggle eggs into the camp. Under the seat of the Ute, below the broken springs but above the floor is a space the right size for a small packet of fresh eggs. The young Thai guards search the Ute day after day without uncovering anything amiss, or at least not mentioning it if they do notice. Challenging Lud may need more courage than they can muster. Our egg delivery becomes part of our routine.

Though the eggs are delivered Nee remains thin and gaunt.

On an ordinary morning as I arrive from Ta Phraya ready to start work, Nee is waiting for me with more urgency than usual. ‘Come to my house. Come now.’ I cycle after him, catching his excitement, guessing. Resting my bike against the wall of his home of bamboo and blue plastic sheeting, I stoop through the doorway and adjust to the dim light inside.

It is a small room with the bamboo bench-bed filling much of the space. Monee is resting there dressed in fresh sarong fastened under her arm pits, her shoulders bare, her face pale and her dark hair loose. Her baby, born in the night, is a boy, perfectly formed. He lies on his stomach across his mother’s knees. She strokes his bare back with her right hand while her left cups his head. She smiles briefly then looks down again, absorbed in the tiny boy.

Monee’s mother sits beside her, her task well done. She has delivered the baby and cleansed him. She has burned the sarong her daughter wore during the birth. She has massaged the new mother with saffron coloured herbs and lit the small charcoal fire under the bed bench. This small space smells of smoke and herbs. Monee’s bare shoulders and face glisten with sweat. All is according to tradition.

Monee is strikingly beautiful: full lips, high cheekbones, skin smooth and honey tan. Her face is rounded in the manner of classic Khmer attractiveness. Her husband crosses the room and stands close to her: gaunt, darker, and with circles under his eyes. Their daughter Srey Leak stands to the side, huge eyes thoughtful, lips pressed tightly together. Her limbs are rounded; she is a normal little three-year-old here in this camp of skinny children. Her father’s arm rests lightly around her, protective. With two hands she grips a blue mug with ‘Angkor Wat’ stencilled in white on its side. Her short dark hair is cut in a fringe, glossy and abundant.

The newborn baby brother is to be called Raksmey. He is healthy, so is his mother. His father is more than content.

I become part of the joy, congratulating everyone, speaking in faltering Khmer to the shy Monee and to her mother.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy