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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



Among my refugee friends in the camp Soeun is the only one with whom I talk of world affairs. I tell him about the video. ‘Bring it in here to me,’ he says. Within a few days Soeun has a small generator, has linked it to a TV set and the TV to a video player. When the day’s work at the Centre For Healing is over he plays Samsara, likes it, and tells me about it.

I am intrigued at the ease with which this happened.

KPDR is respected by camp authorities. The Cambodian resistance leaders who control the camp come to this Centre of Healing for relief from their own aches and rashes and sleeplessness. They believe in traditional ways and would rather come here than to camp hospitals controlled by Westerners. Because of this, Phaly and Soeun can often get what they need for their projects. After many small concessions this Centre for Healing in Site 2 South has become an oasis, with water for steam baths and then for tending flower pots, with glass canisters for the herbs, leaves and bark needed for the traditional medicines. There is a sense of normality here that I have not seen anywhere else in Site 2.

When Soeun is ready to show Samsara to me I stay overnight in the Centre. I settle on a floor cushion in candlelight, a guest. Phaly serves me hot tea with fresh jasmine flowers floating on top. She has snipped them from a flower pot in her little garden. They smell of summer holidays.

I picture Phaly as she would have been in Phnom Penh, offering friends all that her income and her husband’s income could provide. Her dark hair may have been swept into a chignon, her movements would have been graceful. Now, though I am the only guest, she revels in hospitality. Good things are for sharing. All that she asks of me is friendly companionship: to sit with the family and to watch a movie. We settle down together, entering the world of Cambodia, familiar in memory for Phaly and Soeun, known to me only from reading.

Phaly’s son Thero sits beside me. I’m interested in the way that he is navigating young adulthood in this place. He studies, he reads books and is learning English. Most days Thero and I will greet each other with a few words in English, it’s good practice for him. Tonight I am glad to have time for a longer conversation.

Thalika, Soeun’s nephew, is here too. Souen is sure that both parents of this young man died in the Khmer Rouge time. He has an obligation to give his relative a start in life. Thalika lives in the KPDR compound and has joined the classes for the staff. He has natural talent and enjoys the work.

We hush and settle. Soeun flicks the switches. The twenty-eight minute reel shows life as it was just a few months ago in and around the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Cambodian men and women look into the camera from doorways, from roadsides, from among lush tropical growth. They tell of their suffering, tell of their hopes. There is poetry in word and in earthy images both Buddhist and Khmer: the cycle of birth, of blood then the milk, darkness and light, drought and rain, the spirits of a generation of murdered babies entering into a new generation of babies, killing fields becoming rice fields once more. There is a background narrative that interchanges between ancient prophecy, folklore and dreams. Images of destruction alternate with depictions of beauty, of regeneration, of hope. I am sniffing and wiping my eyes. As it finishes I turn to Soeun watching for his reaction.

Soeun’s face is as set and serene as the stone-carved faces in the Angkor temples. He has grasped a message. ‘Everyone has suffered; there must be love now.’ And then, ‘We need to show this film around the camp.’

It will be a challenge. There is of course no theatre. Much of the commentary is in English and very few will understand this. Soeun is not daunted. ‘They have a right to see and hear it.’ He has thought about how it could be adapted for Site 2.

Cambodians filmed on the streets of Phnom Penh speak Khmer, of course. For viewers in America there are subtitles in English. We can get rid of these. Everyone here speaks Khmer. On the other hand, the commentary spoken in English adds reflection to what the people say: it is poetic. Soeun thinks that if I could transcribe the English content his friend Barnabas would translate it to Khmer. ‘Maybe,’ I say, ‘Maybe.’

Soeun’s plan is to produce this in time for the next Human Rights Day. He will involve the leaders of the Centre for Healing in Site 2 North MHTH together with the Site 2 South KPDR with this project. They will see its value; they have the heart for it.

Day after day during spare lunchtime moments in the camp I cycle to KPDR to wind and rewind the tape, writing down each word as I hear a woman and a man in the USA speak it in English. I cycle back to MHTH in the red-laterite glare of noon, wondering whether the effort is worthwhile.

Barnabas is the most optimistic refugee I have met; nothing can daunt him. As fast as I transcribe the English he arrives on a bicycle to translate it to Khmer.

Phaly is scouting the camp for actors, a woman and a man, to record the script he is writing. Many artists and actors have sought refuge at the border. Phaly can talk to the powerful and those who have grown rich in this place. She is using all of her persuasion to cover the cost of producing the entire film in Khmer. A man and a woman who are recommended for the Khmer commentary watch the film. Stirred by what they see and hear neither will accept the payment that is offered. They persuade musicians in the camp to provide the music behind their voices.

‘This film is about healing,’ Nee says.

‘Where will you show it?’ I ask. Soeun, Nee and Phaly have talked about this; they will show it from the Ute. It will be possible to set up a generator and cassette player in the tray of the Ute and TV screens on a platform above the cabin. There is enough talent in Site 2 to manage this; technicians who qualified and practiced in Phnom Penh before Khmer Rouge times want to be part of it. Soeun has friends and friends of friends to find the skills that are needed.

All I will need to do on December 10th is to have the Ute in the camp by 6 am so that the equipment can be set up for a first showing at 8 am. Every hour on the hour, Samsara in Khmer will be shown in a different section of Site 2.

Notices are hand-written and taped to walls close to where people queue for their ration of rice or of water. Samsara, a film in Cambodian language about Cambodian people, will be shown in this Section at 10 am on Human Rights Day, December 10th.’ The route between each showing is carefully planned: this will be the venue at 9 am, this at 10 am, and this at 11 am. There will of course be no charge. The audience can stand or squat or sit on the ground in any of these open spaces.

On Human Rights Day, as soon as it is light, the Ute is parked in a small clearing in the camp. I am standing watching as it is transformed for the mobile cinema.

People around us are awakening as on any other December morning. It is the coolest season of the year. A fresh smell rises from the earth. Women squat to swish loose dust and insects from the thresholds of their huts; families share a toothbrush and a little water, brushing and gargling noisily; dogs bark; the first pushbike taxis trundle past.

Carpenters fit a wooden platform on the cabin of the Ute. Technicians position four TV sets onto the platform and secure them. They load a video player and generator into the Ute’s tray and link each TV to the player. By now children sense something unusual happening. They cluster around to watch, hugging themselves in the cool air, smelling of their crowded sleep, sniffing and rubbing their eyes. ‘Okay. Bye-bye.’ Some cling to my skirt, nestling in with their runny noses. The carpenters adjust a canopy to shield the TV screens from glare. Technicians tune the speakers.

Leaders from both of the Centres for Healing are waiting and ready; once the roadshow is set up it will be their responsibility to keep it moving on time and to ensure that those who are watching are cared for. ‘Many people watching this will remember sad things. We need to be on standby.’

The first showing is at the margin of the camp. Neighbours surround the Ute. There is a screen to the north, the south, the east and the west. People encircle this astounding display to see what is happening. Wherever they choose to sit or stand they can see a screen. The men, mostly off-duty soldiers, lift small children on to their shoulders. Women knot their kramas into a sling to hold their babies. Children wriggle through the throng to gain a better view. Among the jostling audience most are seeing a TV for the first time; they are fascinated. Those who recognise a landmark in Phnom Penh call out in excitement. They lift their children and explain to them, ‘This is your country.’ Some laugh. Others weep quietly.

After the half-hour showing the Ute moves slowly to the next site. Many in the audience follow to watch again and again. Word spreads. The crowd swells to several hundred. I leave the driving to Soeun and walk with the people to catch their conversation. Some recount the horror of Khmer Rouge times. Some touch hope as if it is an unfamiliar garment being fitted. The day is already hot. I am wiping away sweat with my krama and using it to shield my head and face from the sun. I watch each viewing.

One image grabs the attention of many. The camera zooms to a message chalked in Khmer characters on a crumbling wall beside an empty opening where once a door was fitted. There is no house behind; the doorway leads to a vacant space. The chalked Khmer message reads, ‘Husband, if you are alive come to the house of my aunt near Psar Thmey. I will wait for you there.’ The audience becomes still. I watch the faces, the furrowed forehead, the clenched lower lip. Each watcher has left a familiar doorway, or a hut in a village. Each has some loved one who may be alive or may be dead.

For the 5 pm showing, the tenth of the day, we are in the centre of the camp, the margin between south and north, exhausted and exhilarated. Even this broad space at the crossroads close to the UNBRO office is not large enough for the crowd to spread out; people are packed shoulder to shoulder. Some have followed for most of the day, some have heard news of the film from earlier viewers, some have been waiting for the scheduled time in this place.

Shadows are long, the sun is low in the sky, any small movement of air is a welcome gift as the day cools. I watch from among the tight-packed throng. Though I am tall I need to crane to view the screen in the distance and to estimate the numbers in this biggest audience of the day. There may be thousands of people packed close together filling the space. It is impossible to count. The man beside me has hoisted to his shoulders a friend who has had both legs amputated. Both men worry that I may not have a good enough view. ‘Can you see? You need to see. This is our country.’

A man pushes through the crowd ignoring the screen, looking for me. ‘Mr Lay Khec wants to see you, follow me.’ This is a command, not an invitation. My throat tightens. I try in vain to look unconcerned. Mr Lay Khec, whom I have never met, is widely feared both as an army chief and as the leader of Site 2 North; he has a reputation for being ruthless. I squeeze through the throng, breathing deeply, trying to form answers to questions I can’t imagine.

Mr Lay Khec makes no greeting. He sits behind a table, the authority. I stand just inside his door, called in to be reprimanded. ‘This film should not be shown. The people should not be seeing this.’

‘But it’s their country,’ I say. As the words leave my mouth I know that my reply is both lame and naive. Site 2 exists to oppose the political and military forces in Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh is the enemy.

‘It is a security risk’, he says. ‘Anybody could toss a hand grenade into this packed crowd. It would be carnage.’ This sounds like a threat; he has the power to cause a grenade attack and I can feel his anger. On the other hand, he is also in a better position than I am to gauge danger.

If his purpose is for me to feel responsible he has succeeded. I push to the centre of the crowd towards the Ute where Soeun, Bora, Thalika and Nee are clustered together, concentrating on the technology. I tug for Nee’s attention. ‘Mr Lay Khec says we should stop. He says that the crowd is out of control. Someone could throw a hand grenade.’

We are close to the boom of the amplifiers but he has heard what I said. ‘This is not a political movie. If the people are not permitted to think of their own story and to see images of their own homeland then we truly are frogs in the bottom of a deep well.’

The show finishes. The slow-moving Ute turns to the south for a final dusk event at the rice distribution field in Site 2 South. Many supporters crowd around and behind it. I am swept into following what I fear may be a disaster, carnage, retribution, revenge. I am clammy and jerky with fear. The sky is pink now. I believe danger is real but am powerless to stop the surge that has started. The crowd is elated as if suddenly united with a purpose.

I saw Les Miserables before I left Australia. What I am watching feels as unreal as a stage setting. Women and men, surely strangers to each other, talk together while they walk shoulder to shoulder on the red road I have cycled along so often. ‘It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.’ That is it.

I concentrate on one thought, ‘Soeun, Nee, Bora and Thalika understand the cost of dissent more than I ever will.’

The pink sky softens to grey. I know that these men, my friends, my pupils for a short time, are strong and independent. I am walking behind.

There is a final showing, there is orderly dismantling of the equipment, I drive back to Ta Phraya. The events of the day crowd my thoughts through a restless night. At first light I abandon the effort to sleep and quieten into meditation.

The Josephite tradition has the words ‘… a call to encounter God in the many faces of the poor, to learn from them, to receive from them, to support them in their struggle for justice and equity. It is an experience of God … painful … disturbing …’

After coffee and a mango I wait to catch a bus to Bangkok for a scheduled meeting with COERR, my mind hovering around the encounter with Lay Khec, replaying it, realising that it is a conversation that ought not be left unfinished. I crumple the bus ticket and drive back to Site 2.

Khec seems to half expect me. This time I sit down without being invited. He glares at me across his desk. We move into the conversation we had barely started. I am adding the heated words that have shaped in my mind overnight. Becoming calmer we embroider with anecdotes from our experience. I guess that we were born at about the same time.


‘So you became a teacher in a primary school in the countryside before you were twenty years old?’

‘So did I.’ Our ideals were so similar then. Our opinions are so different now. ‘So?’


‘You didn’t see your family killed in front of you,’ he says.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy