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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



Theary has responded to an invitation to speak at a conference in Sydney sponsored by a partnership between the Josephite Sisters at St Margaret’s Hospital and the Refugee Council of Australia. ‘The Never-Ending Story’, they name it.

I stand waiting in the old Bangkok airport to meet her on her return. Because those detained in Site 2 have only the passport of the coalition of the resistance factions, more is often needed. She is carrying papers prepared by Australian officials in Bangkok. It takes courage to do what she has done. I have had messages from Sydney that her presentation and her presence have been important to the conference. This is reassuring. I try to imagine the challenge of sudden transition from Site 2 to Australia. She left the camp with just a small shoulder bag and a change of clothes. Here in a department store in Bangkok we bought warm clothes to prepare for cold Sydney weather. She chose a pair of high-heeled shoes, her first. She carried in her shoulder bag a typed copy of the paper she would give.

The arrivals screen indicates that her Qantas flight has landed almost on time. There is a surge of excitement among those who wait to greet the passengers. I’m excited too. I watch the first travellers come through with their business class luggage. No need to expect Theary among these. I wait as the arrivals through the customs doors dwindle to one or two at a time, then the occasional one. When there are no more I go to the enquiry desk. ‘There is nobody else,’ the man behind the glass window says. ‘There must be. I know for sure that she caught the plane.’ I know that my voice sounds high and anxious. He turns away from me. ‘Sorry, there is nothing we can do. There will be no more passengers.’ The window closes, the blind is pulled down.

Lights throughout the terminal dim. The small band of Thai workers who remain pay no attention to my escalating panic. They push big oblong orange mops across the bare stretches of terrazzo floor calling to each other as the long day’s work is finishing. The customs officers begin to close their gates.

I am desperate to do something. The only thing I can think to do is to walk into the customs area through an exit, looking neither right nor left, believing that if I keep a steady calm pace the polite Thai officials, probably all men, will not know what to do with me: an ‘older’ barang woman who seems to be deaf.

Ahead is a long, dim corridor edged by benches. At the end of it I can see Theary encircled by men in uniforms. She looks up and sees me. She breaks away from the circle. We run towards each other with open arms. I hold her tightly with no plan of what to do next. At this moment, for the first time since I was a child, my nose begins to bleed, not gently but in great spurts.

In an instant Theary becomes the nurse in total charge of the patient. The men who had been questioning her and certainly should have been dealing severely with me follow her commands without hesitation. She speaks with authority and, besides, there is a lot of blood around. ‘Pull that bench over here; we need to make a bed. Get me cold water. Well if there is no water get me cold Coke. Hurry. Lie down. Lean your head back. Hold the bridge of your nose.’ Theary bends over me, mopping up blood and whispers, ‘It is so good that this happened.’

Late one afternoon, as I should be leaving the camp, Tolla calls me over to where he sits talking to a slender young woman with a wounded eye and badly bruised face. In each arm she holds a squirming baby boy, twins of about one year old. As is usual the babies are not clothed, and as is also usual one is trying to suck at her breast. The mother, despite her injuries, has the air of one who has matters well in hand. Tolla is practical and exact, this is the way he tells me her story.

The woman became pregnant even though breast-feeding, but miscarried three days ago after a severe beating from her husband. Onlookers ran to get the Khmer police, a force becoming effective in the camp, and the husband was gaoled. While he awaited trial there was nobody to ‘bail him out’ but herself. He is a powerful man, a commander in the army. There is immense pressure for her to take him from the gaol and rescue him from the course the new justice committee should take. This afternoon two of his army friends threatened her with a gun. Firearms and grenades are readily available and vengeance all too easy.

I hear this young woman saying to Tolla that she cannot always run. She has to turn and face the fear.

The weekend is sometimes an opportunity for a friendly visit to families of the people I work among during the week. I drive into the camp on a Sunday morning and sense that something is amiss. A glance at Thalika’s worried face confirms that this is so. He needs time to talk to me alone. We move to a bench outside, assuring his wife that I will come inside to be with the family later.

‘Something very bad happened here last night. Soeun says I should tell you about it.’ This sounds official. On Saturday night there would have been no foreigners in the camp and I am the first on this Sunday morning. I wriggle back on the bench into the meagre shade of the tattered thatch roofing and reach into my bag for notebook and pencil.

Thalika speaks English well. He is a student in the advanced course of counselling. His report of what he saw and heard is methodical.

About sixty bandits wearing a variety of pieces of KPNLF and KR uniform, armed with AK-47s, rocket launchers and mortars, entered Site 2 from the south. He points in the direction. It all happened close to where we now sit. The bandits were challenged by a Khmer policeman and retaliated by opening fire and moving deeper into the camp, still shooting.

KPDR was adjacent to the worst of the violence. When Phaly and Soeun heard the first firing at about 7.30 pm they immediately gathered patients and their families into the bunkers and under the traditional-medicine drying racks. There was a message from the American Refugee Committee Hospital across the road that one of their workers was hit in the mouth with shrapnel and was bleeding profusely. They ran to the hospital and saw scenes of panic. The injured of the neighbourhood were being brought to the hospital by their families. Other families were taking shelter in the hospital grounds where the electric light from the hospital generator gave a feeling of safety. Soeun helped to organise the ambulances. There were approximately twenty wounded, eight critically so. Two children were dead, another died in the hospital.

As we talk an Australian television crew arrives in the camp, smelling news. They had heard in Ta Phraya that an Australian could be found here this morning. Now they have the unexpected opportunity of a much bigger story. Thalika looks into the camera and tells what he saw. I hear the cameraman from Sydney say, ‘This is talent.’ He nods to me, ‘Thanks luv.’

Bora has a worry. He comes to MHTH to talk it over with Nee, as he often does. Nee is just over thirty; Bora, the impulsive one, is not yet twenty. I have watched Bora acting like a seventeen-year-old, holding a piece of broken mirror while he combs his hair into style and turns up his collar to a jaunty angle. When he accepts responsibilities too heavy for his age Nee is like an elder brother for him. This afternoon the worry is about a prisoner in the Site 2 lockup. Nee draws me into the conversation; MHTH is caring for this prisoner’s depressed wife and young children.

In his role on the UNBRO Protection Team, Bora has learned that there are plans to move the prisoner to a gaol in another border camp. ‘Prisoners sent there are lynched.’

Bora has some reason to dislike the prisoner but he cannot stand by and see this injustice done. His handsome young face collapses into furrows as I have seen it do before. I see the two talking together, Nee the responsible father of a family, Bora passionate and reckless. Nee is warning that the commanders planning the transfer are powerful. Though he is not brushing aside the concern he is urging caution. There is no rule of law to prevent this extradition. ‘Jum merl sun,’ says Nee. Wait and see for a while.

In the dark hours of the night Bora beats on Nee’s door. No time to wait. The authorities of the other camp have arrived and are packing the belongings of the prisoner. The wife and two children will be next to be hassled.

Tolla, who is on duty, understands this crisis. Without hesitation the three rush together to the prison, alerting the Cambodians at the UNBRO office as they pass by. ‘He is surely guilty of a crime,’ they say, ‘but it is not a crime that deserves capital punishment.’ They are ridiculed and called ‘dogs of the barang’, a wounding insult. They stand their ground. A Thai camp officer with everything to lose and nothing to gain takes his place beside them. They know that they are risking their lives, they presume the prisoner may already have been taken away. They do not budge.

Without them knowing it the decision is delayed until morning. In the early morning it is reversed.

When I come into the camp for the start of work there is a message for me to go to them. They are still standing watch at the prison, believing that their effort has been in vain. ‘The first time I stood up for another Cambodian,’ says Nee with quite a degree of exaggeration, ‘they ridiculed me. I failed.’

But they had not failed.

Jo Blanco, a Jesuit fresh from the Philippines People Power movement, speaks at a meeting in the camp later that same day. ‘When people allow oppression to continue they are already destroyed in the process. There has to be a way found where people are liberators of themselves, a way that is absolutely respectful of human dignity. Violent ways are not bringing peace. But non-violent ways of resisting will demand a great price.’

Tolla, Bora and Nee understand what he is saying.

After the meeting we stand talking in groups. Jo overhears Nee saying that he was patronised and treated like a small child when he tried to stand up for the rights of another Cambodian. Jo joins our group. ‘So I share this day with you. Of course you paid the price. You will always pay the price. But for many years now you have suffered with no result. This time your suffering has meaning.’

I am listening, believing that what is said is true. I am swamped with foreboding.

These young men are well aware of the cost of standing against injustice. They are willing to take risks. I cherish them and I am afraid. The direction they are taking is full of risk.

It is rainy season again. The clouds have not yet massed, the midday heat is searing. As we shelter in some sparse shade on the MHTH block Nee and I are reflecting on all that is happening in the Centre. He begins to talk about his own life.

‘I was a frog in the bottom of a deep well. The frog could only see darkness.’

‘Yes, I remember that time.’

‘After a long, long time the frog saw a little bit of light at the top.’

‘I know.’

‘Then the frog began to turn into a bird. It could fly.’

We sit together, knowing that this is so. ‘You are flying now?’ I ask.

‘My wings are still wet,’ he says. ‘Blow on them.’

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy