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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



There is an American whose experience and thoughtfulness I esteem even though his unpredictability frustrates me. I met Bob Maat when I first arrived. He was a Jesuit, then, on the edge of this tight community of expatriates in Ta Phraya. He laughingly gave me advice about illnesses I was likely to suffer.

He no longer comes to Site 2; he’s taking a year off from that, it is said. Since he has been a constant presence from the earliest days of the border, people wonder what he is thinking. Most international workers come and go. He offers a few words of advice to newcomers, perhaps always half in jest, as in his warning to me. I wonder how many volunteers have come and gone, how many he has welcomed and farewelled during the nine years he has been here.

Nobody expects to see Bob in the usual places, where we gather for meals. Nobody would ever imagine that he would appear at the Friday night Ta Phraya get-togethers where music is strident, drinks ample and images of the week blotted out. However, he is not unnoticed. There is talk and speculation.

It is said that he spent a decade campaigning for human rights for African Americans in the USA. Why this passion for justice and this commitment?

I recall my own path into the Josephites, though not at quite so young an age. It was a response to my deep, inexplicabe awareness of God’s love – enough to commit my life to whatever God intended for this planet. Vowed in a time of vision, lived in gritty reality. Gladly though. Is it like this for Bob, I wonder.

In 1979, when the appalling stories of Khmer Rouge atrocities began to be exposed, when survivors were pictured starving, homeless, traumatised at the edge of Thailand, Bob came to the refugee camps. As a Jesuit brother he was already qualified as physician’s assistant. He was soon working with the American Refugee Committee in training Cambodians to diagnose and treat TB.

Though he was young, Cambodians called Bob ‘Ta’. He was a wise one, a teacher, literally a grandfather. The title referred to more than medical knowledge; he was respected. In 1988, when the violence in these camps was exposed in world media, UNBRO recruited Bob as a Protection Officer. He agreed to take on this resposibility and, if the UN was serious in providing protection for the Cambodians, he was willing to pioneer a new strategy. There were at this time a quarter of a million people needing protection in the camps along the border.

I am told that Bob resigned disillusioned, when resources for protection were so meagre that he belived his role was a farce, a cover-up. He called it a lie.

On a hot afternoon our pathways intersect.

I had wanted to walk alone through the dusty rice field but am glad enough to fall into step with Bob, talking of the crop, the harvest, the heat, the camp.

He tells me that one day he was called to investigate the report of a body found just outside the barbed wire fence of Site 2. He found a middle-aged woman brutally hacked to death. The place where she was attacked was close to people living just inside the barbed wire. It was his responsibility to trace her family. He asked her son-in-law why nobody had reported hearing her screams. ‘She’s deaf and dumb.’

This haunts him; he sees it as metaphor for the camp. Nobody hears the screams. ‘It is a silent scream.’ He knew then that he must stop this pretence that the people were protected. He quotes Shakespeare. ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’ He has no doubts; he will no longer work in Site 2. He has seen too much.

In one more week it is December 10th, International Human Rights Day. The UN workers suggest that there could be celebrations in the camp. An elephant could be brought in. It would be like giving the people a glimpse of their country; they could celebrate. My Cambodian friends protest. ‘We are prisoners in this place and our rights are ignored every day. We should call it “Human Wrongs Day”.’ No elephant. Speeches instead.

Of all the Human Rights Day speeches, the one that is remembered is the one given by Bob. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of refugees gather to hear. He talks of the harvest which is in full swing outside the barbed wire, where these refugee rice farmers cannot see it. He talks of the struggles for peace, of the need to find peace without violence. War never brings peace. Peace is the way to peace. He finishes by shouting into the sunset, ‘Next year, home for the harvest.’ The chant is picked up, ‘Home for the harvest. Home for the harvest.’ It echoes. ‘Home for the harvest.’

We meet in Ta Phraya, a small group of foreign workers and some Cambodians out from the camp for workshops. There must surely be some way to make the silent scream heard. With our mix of contacts in many countries we could get messages out to the world. We will spread up-to-date information through all possible networks in our home countries. We will form a group. Bob doesn’t care what the group is called as long as the initials are CPR; it is a life and death situation and seems closer to death. The name will be Coalition for Peace and Reconciliation.

We design a logo, write and collate letters, fold pages, stuff envelopes. Bob will be the spokesperson for this group.

I read the Asia Watch report about protection at the border:

The first full-time protection officer was not in place until March 1988 and more staff was not recruited until September of that year. Despite the common belief that only a fraction of incidents ever reached the attention of UNBRO, in the first two years an astonishing number of complaints was recorded, including 792 incidents of beating, 261 incidents of knifing or axing, 101 shootings, 52 assaults by grenade, 57 assaults by shelling or mines, 64 reports of rape or sexual abuse, and 164 suicides. Many of the incidents involved factional administrations, the Thai border units, Task Force 80 and, to a lesser extent, its successor the Displaced Person’s Protection Unit (DPPU) … The first UNBRO protection officer resigned … returning all his pay checks to UNBRO … as a protest against the low priority the agency gave to disclosure, advocacy and supervision.

I am thinking that if good people out there in the world, people with power and influence, could start to understand the dark pit of Cambodian suffering on this border, if they could see it, they would work to change it. Surely. And so, on this Saturday morning, I head through gusts of hot wind to the makeshift Coalition for Peace and Reconciliation office in Ta Phraya.

It is here that we keep folding the news sheets Bob has written and photocopied in Aranyaprathet, stuffing them into the addressed envelopes, trying to keep them clean of sweat and dust, thinking that good people will surely take notice if we keep informing them about what we see and know. As I seal the envelopes I always note the ones addressed to Bob Hawke and to Gareth Evans. Australia should care.

On this Saturday morning Bob Maat tells me that a parcel has arrived from California, via Bangkok. He squats, Thai-farmer style, on a chair and reaches across the table to push aside the bundles of papers, the stacks of envelopes ready to fill, the boxes of addressed mail, the empty Coke cans. He finds the package and hands me a video cassette in a box. He tells me that Ellen Bruno, whom he met here on the Border in the early eighties, produced it. I take the box and turn it over.

It is a documentary filmed in Phnom Penh and called Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia. It is marked ‘Special Jury Recognition’ Sundance Film Festival. In this cluttered space there is no time to watch it, no projector and, on this particular morning, no electricity. It is my responsibility to view it and find a use for it.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy