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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



I am sitting where I can hear Sopaul as he listens to a woman newly arrived in the camp. It is mid-afternoon, the tropical rain pools and puddles around us. The woman talks and sobs. She weeps as though she will never stop, until her eyes have no more tears.

Her husband was fleeing conscription. They made their way from Battambang to the Thai border carrying their baby and their small child. They met with a unit of soldiers. She doesn’t know from which faction. This mother, her children and the man who would not fight, annoyed the soldiers, who surrounded them. One snatched the baby and swung him against a tree trunk. He died with his head battered in. She is shuddering with sobs. She tells it while the rain hammers on our thatch roof. The small son is watching with big eyes, listening to the words recounting the horror he too witnessed. They killed her husband. They left her to walk on alone with this child.

Sopaul listens to her story as she weeps. His voice is comforting, he reaches out to her grief with his eyes. A Cambodian man who upholds tradition should not touch a woman, not even his wife, in public. Sopaul signals to me to come closer and the weeping woman buries her face in the hollow beneath my shoulder, wraps both arms around me and holds tight. Tears soak through tee-shirt to flesh.

Sopaul is no stranger to this dark grief. There is a well of pain in his own life. He listens until she really has no more tears.

A young man, perhaps a soldier, is brought on the back of a bike to MHTH. He is lying on a bench outside the shelter, delivered with no explanation. He has been tortured horribly; by the look of it just this week. He isn’t talking. Can’t talk or won’t talk, we don’t know.

I stand looking down at him. He is young, just a boy. I am shocked, too shocked to move. He looks into my face and gropes towards my hand. He holds it tight. He squeezes it and hangs on to it like a lifeline. His lips are swollen and split but he is forming a word. I bend down closer. ‘Momma’, he says, ‘Momma.’

It is still raining when I reach my wooden house in Ta Phraya. Water swishes beneath its low foundations and runs down to the unpaved road where it pools. The four timber steps to the front door are wet and slippery. I fumble with the key. Rain is thudding on the tin roof and leaking into the kitchen.

There is an easy solution to prevent the house from flooding. The handles of spoons twisted between the floorboards widen the gap in the floor so that what comes through the roof pours down to the stream below the house. I’m adjusting to the domestic chores needed to survive the wet season. It is not cold. It is sheltered. It is home.

I have a gas bottle here. I make hot green tea, light a candle, sit back on my floor cushion and prop another cushion at my back. The candle glows on the rough timber of the walls, the rafters of the ceiling and the ribs of the house frame. It lights up the bars on the glassless windows and reaches as far as the inside of the tin roof with its smudges of rust. I am looking for my twenty-centimetre-long fat gecko who is sure to be somewhere on the walls or roof. He announces himself, ‘Ghe gau.’

Since I am at home tears can stream down my face unchecked.

Tears for the mother and for the child with the big eyes. He will listen again and again to the retelling of the horror that he has witnessed. Tears for the tortured boy. Tears for Momma. Momma is not a word I have heard used in Khmer. Was he Vietnamese? Chinese-Vietnamese? Whoever she is, may she never have to know what has happened to him.

The candle is burning low. I am too restless to go to bed. The faction who did the killing or the faction who did the torture could be the Khmer Peoples’ National Liberation Front, of Site 2.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy