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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



As soon as the rains stop, as soon as the mud bakes hard, as soon as tanks can move across the land, battles rage once more in Cambodia.

In Ta Phraya just before dawn each morning a squad of Thai men in uniform pounds down the street in a rhythmic synchronised jog, huffing in unison, precise in columns and lines. Bemused, I watch through my window. Thai troops are on alert. Covered army trucks stop on the roadside close to my house in the middle of the night. Male voices wake me, negotiating to buy something from a shopkeeper nearby, but I cannot distinguish the language or see what is sold. I’m careful not to be noticed as I watch.

Inexorably the frontline of battle draws closer to the camp and to Ta Phraya. We hear shelling day and night. Singapore sends two covert arms shipments, including anti-tank weapons. These weapons find their way into Khmer Rouge hands. The Khmer Rouge under Ta Kok overrun Anlong Veng, close to the Thai border. Government forces from Phnom Penh bombard the Khmer Rouge territory.

When the sound of battle is too close to be ignored rumours sweep through the camp. Cambodians who have begun to trust me tell me that Khmer Peoples’ National Liberation Front leaders, who hold power in camp administration, may deliberately ensure that women and children and the elderly are not evacuated to a place further from the shelling, as civilian casualties could draw international attention to this conflict. If this happens the cost in human suffering will be appalling. Everybody in the camp is fearful. Most have already experienced the terror of shells dropping around them and seen loved ones die.

It is Wednesday morning. After a week of tension the danger to Site 2 is now immediate. Situation One, the first I have experienced, is declared. It is the routine warning that the threat is real. Everybody knows.

UNBRO has a protocol to protect the lives of a few score foreign workers but not the lives of scores of thousands of refugees. As a foreigner I am required to carry a two-way field radio ‘at all times’ during this crisis, and to await instructions. In mid-morning Situation Two is declared; I must return immediately to the Centre for Healing and wait there. I wait. The next call could be a return to Situation One or could be either Situation Three or Four.

My Cambodian friends and colleagues do not carry field radios to instruct them; since they have lived through this many times they show me what to do. If Situation Four is suddenly called I must do what they have often done: when shells begin to fall, lie face down in a ditch or in the lowest place available, shield face, head and vital organs from flying shrapnel, protect myself if I can.

At lunchtime Situation Three is called. Foreigners must evacuate in a convoy of motor vehicles. No foreigner is permitted to stay in danger; no Cambodian is permitted to leave. I follow the radio instruction to ‘proceed out of the camp in an orderly manner’ and taste the bitter bile of claiming privilege and leaving others defenceless. My name must be checked off from the UNBRO list.

Back in Ta Phraya I listen to the shelling and write letters to send as faxes to people of influence in Australia, beginning with Bob Hawke, the Prime Minister:

I wonder if I can convey the feeling of the volunteers as we are driven to safety in air-conditioned vehicles and carefully checked from a list held by the United Nations Border Relief Operation: well protected while 170,000 people are still behind the fences of that shelled area and are kept there by armed guards. Half of the refugees are children, of the rest most are women. I don’t think I can convey to you what it is like to watch their faces as we drive out … people gather against the barbed wire fence furthest from the shelling. But nobody cuts the wires! They wait, they hope, for the military guards to give permission to evacuate.

There is no evacuation. The sound of war is unrelenting. The boy-conscripts I have seen carried off in the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front’s open trucks are surely in the thick of the suffering and dying.

Ta Phraya is safe even when the frontline is said to be less than three kilometres away. This Thai community is not a target. The sound of ‘shelling-out’ can be distinguished from ‘shelling-in’, Phaly has told me. ‘Shelling-out starts with a sound like a sarong ripping.’ I follow the sound of the battle. When Phnom Penh government troops shell in, the Thai troops and the KPNLF troops shell out. Darkness comes. On the horizon where shells are falling the sky flickers with light.

I am on my knees in every way: trying to pray, unable to sleep, wrestling with God. I write letters with little sensitivity to the friends who would receive them, write to distract myself and to let the sheltered world ‘out there’ know of this outrage.

Site 2 remains closed to the barang day after day, for as long as the immediate danger lasts. Day and night the dull thud of shelling is unyielding. I realise that war is work for those who man the guns. The Khmer word for work is in my mind. Tveu kah. This is the sound. Tveu kah. Tveu kah. The rhythm of the word is the rhythm of the thudding. This is day and night work, to destroy.

I am thinking of the Khmer word for dead. It sounds like slah!p. It throbs.


The mother of the innocent

weeping, weeping now,

the curtain of her life

is ripped in sobs

convulsive shuddering

of frail pale body

spending with abandon

all last strength on grief.


Grief for the children who

still must live

and watch her now

with wondering eyes.

slah!p. slah!p. slah!p. slah!p. slah!p.

Like Rachel weeping for her children

she cannot be comforted

because they are no more.

I write to Australia of things too obscene to be written, needing the world to know what I have seen.

This week there was a father with the sole care of a precious baby daughter. He sold everything he had for tinned milk to keep the baby alive. He even sold his trousers, but the baby died. He stood in line in his underpants at the makeshift crematorium, an open fire. He placed the little corpse wrapped in his hand-woven krama, a cotton scarf, onto the grill. We stood with him; the best we had been able to do for him was to make his wait in line shorter; we heard the crackling sound and smelt burning flesh.

The shelling has stopped, the danger has passed, we have permission to return to the camp. The mood of the Cambodians here has changed from fear to mourning. The monks are moving from house to house chanting the traditional chants for the dead. A great many KPNLF soldiers, including many conscripts new and untrained on the battlefield, have died. It seems that the chanting will never stop: it is so loud, so incessant, that conversation is impossible.

Phaly asks me to sit with a young soldier, Keing, who has been brought to the Centre crazed with anguish. Keing sits on a piece of blue plastic in a darkened corner where a single thread of light comes through a slit in the bamboo wall. His eyelids close across empty sockets. Everything is darkness for him. He is wearing a check flannelette shirt unbuttoned, and underpants. His head is bowed, his shoulders hunched. His bare right leg is flat on the ground in lotus position. His left knee is raised to his chest; he hugs his arms around it so that one hand grasps his ankle. I notice that his fingers are long and tapered, musician’s hands, perhaps, in a different life.

I hear his story. Keing’s father and mother, brother and sisters died in Khmer Rouge times. He honoured his army commander in place of the father he had lost. He did not hesitate when the commander asked him to crawl ahead through a field. A landmine exploded, his limbs were intact but his face and eyes bore the brunt of the flying fragments. In the battlefield tent-clinic the medics removed his eyes. Day after day he waits for the commander. The commander does not come.

Tears flow down Keing’s face from the tear ducts at the edge of his empty eye sockets, he believes that his eyes could have been saved. After many weeks he will feel my face and lips and eyes.

This time I am more sensitive in what I write back to Australia:

Keing, a young man just recently blinded in the war, has become a friend. In his grief he was particularly alone as he has no family members alive ‘after Pol Pot.’ He is strong, handsome, gentle and intelligent but his eye sockets are hollow and empty. One by one I have met his friends and begun to know their capacity to help Keing and to help me … They are loving, challenging, open about their own feelings of anguish as tears stream from Keing’s empty eyes.

In truth it is anguish for anybody to be close to Keing. We look for some way to soften his terrible grief. He is alert to the sound of music. I bring a cassette player and many batteries from Ta Phraya. He listens.

When the shelling around the border ceases, a small village just inside Cambodia is flattened by an attack from the Phnom Penh troops. It is not the usual attack. It is a hail of heavy rockets coming from a Russian multiple-missile launcher, many kilometres distant. Missiles follow each other second by second. This deluge makes a distinctive screaming sound. The weapon is not precisely accurate over the distance. It is designed to terrify the neighbourhood. Ammunition of such sophistication has not been heard in these parts before. Forty people are confirmed dead, though many more are not accounted for.

Two hundred surviving villagers flee to Site 2 for refuge. They are, of course, illegal immigrants here. They are stripped of all their possessions as the bribe for ‘permission to cross’ and are provided with a little rice and water as they huddle miserably in the same pagoda where monks chant day and night lamenting the dead soldiers.

One night a recently married soldier, traumatised by what he has seen and perhaps by what he has done, comes home to the camp, puts his two arms around his wife and pulls the pin on a hand grenade. They both die instantly.

Nee calls me aside. ‘This is hard for you,’ he says. ‘We have been here for nine years already. You get used to it.’

In Ta Phraya on a hot afternoon I trudge between the rows of dry stubble left behind from newly cut rice. The sun, though still strong, is lowering. Sunlight shimmers; it bounces in a heat haze.

I walk alone with my thoughts digging deeper into a groove of dilemmas. This is not the straightforward refugee camp that I imagined it to be.

My feet in rubber thongs sink in the dust; they drag with chaff between toes. Though I long for a breeze, just the slightest movement of air, I keep slogging and sweating. I sweat over a question. I need to be alone to think.

The Thai authorities see Site 2 as a detention camp for illegal immigrants. They are glad to have this buffer zone while the Vietnamese armies are still in Cambodia. Vietnam and Thailand harbour traditional enmities. Vietnam is supported by the USSR and Thailand by the USA.

The Cambodian warring faction controlling the camp, the Khmer Peoples’ National Liberation Front, sees it as a strategic military base where civilian refugees attract foreign aid and provide a pool of conscripts for their army.

And me? What does my presence do? Give credibility to a ruthless armed faction? I feel the sweat trickling down my body plastering clothes to skin. Where is truth?

The orb of sun grows big and orange as it lowers in the sky. The harvesters in a distant field are finishing for the day. One comes in my direction: Bob, a friend with chaff and dust clinging to him. ‘Will you go or will you stay?’

The sun slips from sight. Buffalos track back to the village with the buffalo-boys calling to urge them home. There comes a breeze, not strong, just enough to halt my trudging.

‘Will you go or will you stay?’ This is the quandary. The crocodile in the water or the tiger on the shore. To stay would add another gram of legitimacy to the warring faction, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, holding the refugees captive. To go would mean walking away from refugee friends who work to make this place more bearable for others. They are trapped here but they inspire me. They would say, ‘Of course you should stay.’

Darkness closes in. The smell of buffalo dung is strong now; it is earthy. I reach for the one edge of a truth that I can hold. It is a simple thing to stay where goodness manages to flourish, even if I know there is corruption all around.

The lights of the village guide me back through the darkness. As I make my way to the small timber house to write, all the dogs of the neighbourhood bark.

I stay. Right or wrong, I stay.

I can never get used to being the one to evacuate from the camp while others are left in danger. After being driven to safety time and again I begin to wonder whether it would be noticed if I simply ignored the radio message.

Situation 3 is called. Nee and Tolla and Bora come to the place where I am teaching. I can hear the horn of the Ute blaring. Nee is driving, swaggeringly doing wheelies on the dusty ground, tooting the horn. I have taught him to drive.

Tolla and Bora are standing at the back, clowning, each trying to shout louder than the other.

‘Have to save the barang, she is very precious.’

‘Slow down, slow down, she can jump on board if you drive slowly.’

‘Get her out of here’.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy