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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



Lud says, ‘We should see Cambodia. We ought to go, you know.’

Khmer friends hear of this. ‘You need to see it, and then you will understand.’

‘Try to spend a long quiet time with my mother.’

‘I have nobody left but I want you to stand outside the prison where we were held and take a photo of it. Or if you would rather, take a photo of the pagoda across the road from the prison.’

‘My mother and father are very poor and they have suffered so much. Perhaps their hair will be white. Their house is easy to find. I will draw you a map. Try to take a photo of them.’

The very mention of a visit brings tears. Phaly sums it up, ‘Tell them I will soon be home.’ She has never before spoken to me so urgently. I want to do this for her.

‘Home for the harvest’, I am thinking. Home for the next harvest. If we go soon it will be harvest time when we arrive.

There is, of course, no safe land route from the border into Cambodia. To enter Cambodia through Pochentong Airport we need a visa. Lud has heard that a Cambodian man, a double amputee who lives in a village near the border, has contacts. We take the risk. He hands back our passports stamped with a visa.

The plane is small. It flies low. I see, through early morning mist, sights we were told to expect: sugar palms rising up from the fields exactly as the children in the camp had been taught to draw them, the Tonle Sap with fishing boats throwing nets on sparkling waters, the braided Mekong Delta. I press my face against the window of the plane swallowing the view, savouring it.

We walk out from the airport into a ragged city where women and men, so like our friends in the camp, are working to earn a wage. They are in control of their lives. Their expressions, their mannerisms, the cadence of their voices are all familiar. The difference is that they are free.

Our ‘man from the ministry’ waits to meet us as we arrive at the airport. We expect this. The government in Phnom Penh is still suspicious of foreigners. He gives us a choice of two hotels in which to stay. We choose the Monorom, which proves to be too expensive for us so we move to the Asie. ‘Our man’ visits us each night. We chat to him about what we have been doing and presume he reports back to his government department.

Slowly a few small doubts, like ripples from pebbles dropped into smooth water, ruffle the image we want to see.

When we stroll unintentionally into a rally on the street, ‘our man’ appears on a motorbike within minutes and whisks us way. When we stop outside Phsar Tmey to photograph the sign warning that rocket launchers, AK-47s and grenades must be left outside this market, a man passing close to us whispers, ‘Site 2 is a small prison, this country is one big prison.’ Once we see a woman running frantically through a crowd pursued by a well-dressed man. Nobody helps her.

The Asie hotel is adequate: there is one large bed in our room, there is a dipper shower and squat toilet in the adjoining closet.

At first light each morning we stand at our third-floor window and watch as the streets and alleys below stir into life. The footpaths and the rundown lane opposite our window are lined with people lying side by side. They stir from sleep, fold the cardboard or paper they had used for a bed, urinate in some corner of the laneway, comb their hair. Parents attend to their children as the light grows stronger. They tidy the space they have used for sleeping. Then they slip away.

The peeling paint and crumbling stucco of the popular central market up the road to our left, Phsar Tmey, absorbs the pink-gold of the sunrise. Soon after six each morning Lud and I walk through the town, through slush and garbage, past beggars, past mothers with small babies, past amputees in army uniform.

When the sun is higher in the sky we visit the families of our friends; the joy we bring with the letters we carry is always mixed with sadness. We listen to stories, share the news that families would want to hear, take photos and offer to return to collect letters to bring back to the camp.

Phaly’s mother welcomes us but her father is on his deathbed. He is begging for his daughter, not for two strangers, foreigners who bring letters and photos but cannot bring Phaly.

Close to the end of our eighteen days we still have last promises to keep. We want to visit the families of Nee and of Sopaul in Choeuteal, a village in Svey Rieng Province one hundred and fifty kilometres south-east of Phnom Penh. There are two problems: we require permission to travel to the provinces and we need transport.

Our man from the ministry offers to take us, provided we can leave at 5.30 in the morning, be back in Phnom Penh by nightfall, and pay for the petrol for his car. He will be our taxi driver and guide. With some disquiet about leading this man to families with connections to the camp of the opposition faction, we agree. We know that our other family visits have already been observed, yet families have always seemed genuinely grateful that we have come.

Beyond the Neak Leung ferry crossing, close to the point where the rough highway enters into the Svey Rieng province, there is a vendor selling sugarcane juice. We stop to quench our thirst, to chat with this man, and to enquire about the route to our destination. He knows immediately; the teacher in Choeuteal village was his schoolmaster. He tells us that this teacher was a good man killed by the Khmer Rouge simply because he was a teacher. If we could wait a minute for him to put on a clean shirt he would be honoured to guide us to the widow.

Thirty minutes further along the rough road we turn right into a dirt track, then swerve and bump towards Choeuteal. Tall bamboos flourish on each side of the track. Here and there small, thatched-roof timber houses come into sight, at first widely separated then clustered into a tight group. The bamboo is now so dense that it forms an archway across the track. This is the village.

The car slows and stops in front of a one-roomed timber house on stilts. Outside the house, close to the edge of the track, there is a ‘shop’ made of a bamboo platform on stilts with three bamboo walls, a thatch roof and a bench with a small selection of sweet drinks and coconuts. This kiosk is about two metres wide and three metres long; it is the kind of meeting place where neighbours gather when they have a few riel to spend on a treat.

We see the woman behind the counter, a short, slim, nut-brown woman with her dark hair cut straight, just covering her ears. She looks at the slowing car, a rare sight so far from the main road, snatches a krama to swab her face and rushes to greet us. Ignoring the men she clings to Lud and me. She has seen our photo in a message from her son Nee. ‘Is he dead? Is he hurt? Is he here?’

She holds me as we climb stiffly out of the car, leads me up to the platform of her small shop and places two low stools where we can sit together. Her questions come faster than I can frame answers in Khmer. ‘Is he good? Is he studying? He has a wife? What is she like? His children, my grandchildren, what are they like?’ I carry photos and have stories to tell. This middle-aged woman with deep lines of sadness and fun across her face is hungry for her son. I am a direct connection. We sit on the two stools, leaning towards each other.

People flock from other houses in the village. News from the border camps is important to many of them. Young village men remove the walls and roof of the little shop so that Nee’s mother and I are on a platform like a makeshift stage, where we can be seen and heard. She seems to be aware of nothing other than this flimsy link with her son. Lud has a bag of balloons and is teaching the children how to blow them up. Balloons are bursting, children are squealing. It is a carnival.

Sopaul’s family live close by. They have had no direct contact with Sopaul for nine years. He had feared that one or both of his parents might have died. Lud goes to them, taking Sopaul’s letters, and they prepare messages to send back to assure him that they are alive and well.

Time is slithering away. The man from the ministry decides that we should begin the journey back to the capital immediately. Without a word Nee’s mother folds a clean sarong and krama, tucks a toothbrush and a comb into the fold and climbs into the car with the sugar cane vendor, the man from the ministry and the two barang. She has no intention of saying goodbye until she has finished asking questions.

At the Asie the bed is large enough for the three of us. During restless nights there are more questions. ‘Is he good? Is he good?’ There is not enough language between us to enable me to be sure that she can comprehend what has happened in all of these years, that this eldest boy of hers has led a group of refugees to the border through minefields, that he has shivered and sweated with malaria longing to die, that he has become a man. I keep saying, ‘Yes, he is good.’

Each morning Nee’s mother showers with the dipper, dabs her hair and her body with her krama, rinses the krama and hangs it at the window to dry in the heat of the sun. She smooths back her hair and tucks it behind her ears. As it dries a few locks bend towards her face a little. What I notice most is her simplicity. She has a daily routine that she follows, she will always be neat and clean. Though there is a mirror in the room she never checks her appearance. She meets life as she is.

I wonder which stories of her son would cause her to be anxious and which would cause her to feel proud of him. Many times Nee’s mother says to me ‘He still needs a mother, be a second mother to him.’ She speaks no English but I keep trying to assure her in Khmer that she is the mother he needs; he needs to come home.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy