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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



In Ta Phraya we cluster around a radio listening for all the news we can hear.

In October 1991, in Paris, the four Cambodian factions ratify Agreements with the United Nations. This news has been awaited for a long time. Until the first election can be held in Cambodia, the United Nations will share responsibility with a group of twelve Cambodian faction leaders: six from inside the country and six from the coalition of resistance forces from the border, FUNCINPEC, KPNLF and the Khmer Rouge. This governing body will be known as the Cambodian Supreme National Council, the SNC.

The Accords are signed. Each party to the signing chooses those who will represent it on the SNC. Word spreads through the camp.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has silkscreen banners made so that even those who cannot read will be able to imagine what is to happen. Men and women stand in front of the banners. They point to this and that. The images are large and brightly coloured; people debate the meaning of each detail.

There is a bus. Painted on the side of the bus is a logo with the initials ‘UN’ and the symbol of two hands forming a sheltering roof above a human figure. A wreath of leaves is painted around this symbol. On top of the bus are piled many striped plastic bags, the tough kind with two handles and a zip for closure. This is luggage. In front of the vehicle is a small signpost with ‘Cambodia’ lettered in Khmer. At the front door of the bus is a man with a clipboard. He is obviously checking the names of people who stand in a long queue waiting to climb onboard. There are women, men and children of all ages. There are two people without legs: one on crutches, one in a wheelchair. The queue is orderly; controlled by men with the UNHCR logo on their shirts. Behind the bus you can distinguish a truck with the same UNHCR logo painted on the door and the bonnet. It is laden with more striped bags and a bicycle. There is a poster in Khmer and English: ‘WHEN THERE IS PEACE IN CAMBODIA THE UN WILL HELP YOU TO RETURN TO YOUR COUNTRY SAFELY AND WITH DIGNITY.’

My friends talk about every detail of this message. Can they dare to believe this? Can they dare not to?

News from inside Cambodia is ominous.

In November, one month after the signing, Son Sann, a member of the SNC representing KPNLF, and Khieu Samphan, representing the Khmer Rouge, fly into Phnom Penh to congratulate Norodom Sihanouk, who has returned to Cambodia from China. The refugees in Site 2 know Mr Son Sann well. He controls this camp.

Powerful people in the camp already have a video of the television coverage of what happened.

As soon as Son Sann and Khieu Samphan reach the Phnom Penh villa that is prepared for them, hundreds of men and women, some armed with hatchets, surround it. The TV footage shows the mob tearing down the fence and swarming into the house with police and soldiers making only half-hearted attempts to hold them back. Eyewitnesses stand gawking at Khieu Samphan lying by a metal cupboard with blood streaming from his head. Though many police and soldiers are present only a few make an attempt to fend off attackers. The mob shouts ‘Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill him. Kill him.’ They string a wire noose from a ceiling fan. A veteran international photographer, his hand shaking against his microphone, says, ‘I thought he was going to be torn apart. They were crazy in there.’

Eventually the bloodied Khieu Samphan and Sonn Sann are escorted to the airport. It is reported that they have been under siege for five hours, part of that time locked in a cupboard. They leave Phnom Penh on the same day that they arrived.

On the streets of Site 2 people talk and worry. ‘Khieu Samphan is an old man.’

‘An old man treated like that with blood running down his face. Tchk. Tchk. Tchk.’

What will happen when scores of thousands pour into Cambodia from a KPNLF camp?

For years there have been dreams of what the move back to Cambodia would be like. People would dance and sing, it was thought. There would be peace. There would be land to share.

When the time comes it happens like this: there is no popular celebration, the camps simply close. Whether or not it is safe for families to return there will be no refuge in Thailand. One of the Agreements signed in Paris set out the terms of repatriation: everybody will be back in Cambodia for the election in 1993. In workplaces, at crossroads, in the never-ending queues for rice or water, wherever people gather in Site 2, I hear the talk.

‘Our village is a battlefield. There is no place to go home to.’

‘We have no relatives alive. We no longer have a house; we have heard squatters have taken over. We cannot imagine where we will go.’

‘We left our village because it was dangerous for us there. The danger has not changed.’

‘I have always been a farmer but how can I live and feed my family if I have no land?’

In the streets and neighbourhoods of Site 2, families watch as registration is organised. They expect that there will be a ballot for the first departures. Some hope to return as quickly as possible, trusting UNHCR to settle them in a safe place far away from the KPNLF. Some are afraid for their lives and wonder how to resist return. Some are willing enough to go but have no idea where they can find welcome or how they can survive. Many are convinced that there is no possibility of peace. They will settle as close to the Thai border as they are able: refuge in Thailand will be needed again.

Everybody has a choice to make. At first UNHCR offers two hectares of land for each family: Option A. When it is realised that there will not be enough land available they offer Option B: instead of two hectares of land the family could have timber cut and ready for the frame of a small house. The family would be responsible for the roof and the walls and inside partitions if they wanted these. They would be given this house kit at a reception centre in Cambodia and would transport it to wherever they chose. Many wonder where they could erect a house frame. For some there might be the possibility that the UNHCR could have an area of land where people from the camps could erect their house frame. The many widows with small children shrug their shoulders. This Option B has countless challenges, so option C is offered: there could be $50 for each adult and $25 for each child. The family could work out the housing and the ‘income generation’ for themselves.

Eventually there is an Option D: instead of any other benefit there could be a kit of ‘tools of trade’ – carpentry tools, perhaps, or a sewing machine. If this is taken there will remain the problem of housing and the need for money to start a small business.

I stand among the crowd wondering what I would choose.

Everybody will be entitled to a rice ration for 400 days. If they settle near enough to a UN rice distribution centre they will not starve during the first year back in their country. Everybody will be eligible for transport by bus back to a reception centre in the north, or to near Phnom Penh or in the south of their country.

‘Rolls Royce ride back to nothing,’ somebody mutters.

Conversation among our friends is about decisions.

Some students from the advanced class at MHTH gather for Saturday morning tutorials. They meet in a relatively quiet place at the edge of the camp away from the usual teaching spaces. They are equal in skill and experience and keen to share insights. I enjoy these Saturday mornings. This is far from rote learning. Now there is lively chatter about ways to respond to the choices that will shape their futures.

Thalika, Thavy, Nee, Ty and Soeun know that the suffering of others mirrors their own. It is worth shaping a unit of teaching around what is keeping them awake at night.

The topic is about choices, the decisions that everyone must make. They all remember suffering endured as a result of choices made in the past.

‘When those young Khmer Rouge soldiers pointed the guns and ordered us out of Phnom Penh I went immediately. Immediately. I never saw my father again.’

‘When I reached here I could have pretended to be Vietnamese. I speak the language. After that I would have a chance to get to Panat Nikhom and be safe but would at the same time risk being sent off into Vietnam.’

‘We decided which guide to pay to take us through the minefields. We decided. And he was not a good guide. Our little girls died.’

‘I hated coming to the camp. I missed everyone. But if I didn’t come here I would have been in the army. Since I did come here I have suffered a lot but I have learned a lot.’

Thalika has made a string of decisions, with no parents to guide him. He avoided army conscription by ensuring that his English language skills and clerical skills were useful in the camp. There was nothing he could do to prevent his brother being conscripted. He heard news that his brother was paralysed, probably paraplegic, in a military base far from Site 2. He gathered information and enlisted help from foreign workers so that his brother could be brought to Site 2. He married a wife who could care for his brother as well as the young children of the family.

The Saturday class starts to see a pattern in the decisions. Sometimes there is no choice. You are simply forced or obliged to act.

The choices they regret most are those they made with not enough facts. Everybody agrees with this. Ty puts words on what they all realise. You can live with a forced choice between things that are all dangerous, things that are all bad, if you know enough facts in advance.

Soeun and Nee know what to do. They will campaign to have refugees represented in the planning meetings for the repatriation and will work to ensure that the facts are shared and understood.

As the UN is securing a road from Aranyaprathet through Poipet to Battambang, then to Phnom Penh, Ty will go by taxi back to his village, leaving his family in the camp until he knows what the choices would mean.

Thalika has heavy family responsibilities now. But he will do his best to use his skills in English, in counselling and in computers to win some job needed for the repatriation.

The repatriation planning meetings in Bangkok are held in the elegant venue of a club in the city. They are attended by UN officials, Thai government representatives, Thai Army officers and International NGOs. By the good efforts of Father Bunlert, Nee and Soeun are permitted to attend, provided they don’t speak. We are seated at tables with starched white tablecloths while waiters bring jugs of iced water.

The three of us sit together listening while plans are set in place. At the morning tea break Soeun and Nee eat cake, drink coffee and give me their advice.

‘Tell them that those bus rides will be the first ride in a motor vehicle that most of these people have ever had. They should make preparations for travel sickness.’

‘Village leaders and commune leaders will say they have land for returnees but how will the returnees keep the land after the UN has gone?’

‘We have patients who are psychotic. They will be on medication all the way to the reception centre. How will their families manage after that?’

‘Tell them that our teams are ready to help with vulnerable people during the repatriation. Our own families would be willing to wait until last.’

‘Where will the land be? What about landmines?’

Gradually the two men realise that UNHCR is making forced choices too. Prince Sihanouk says publicly the words that need saying. ‘We don’t have peace, just a piece of paper.’

The problem is that within nine months, three-hundred-and-sixty-thousand people need to be moved back to Cambodia, at the rate of ten thousand a week, to be in-country and registered in time for the 1993 elections. Sixteen thousand of those to be moved will be amputees and, as well, there will be pregnant women, the seriously ill, the frail elderly and the newborn. Despite the signing of peace, battles are still being fought between Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge.

Soeun, Nee and I talk about these things during the long drive back to the camp from the meetings in Bangkok. Inside the fence of Site 2 we notice a sight we have often seen. A young mother sits on a bamboo bed, holding her newborn child in one hand and tenderly pours a dipper of cool water over the baby and through the slats in the bed. We turn to each other. ‘They will be going too.’

Ty returns from his taxi journey. He has travelled south to his village near Oudong in Cambodia, crammed in a small car with eight other passengers, stopping at checkpoints to pay bribes on the way. It was a risky ride. He needs to tell us the details.

‘It was sixteen hours. We were bumping and moving from one side of the road to the other. When the car bumps into a rut your head or your shoulder or your arm hits the roof or the window of the car. We all had bruises. The day was getting dark and as we went along some things looked familiar but I was not sure whether this was the place to get out and walk to my village. I knew the others were beginning to be impatient with me so I got out. I asked the first people I met. Was I right? Was my village close? They told me yes it was close, I should walk in the direction of the Wat on top of the hill.

‘I came to the edge of the village and I was amazed. I was astounded. People called my name, they remembered me, they stood in a circle around me. I looked at the faces, they were all older than me, they would have watched me from when I was a small child until I grew up and had to run off to the border. They remembered me better than I remembered them.

‘A couple of them ran to tell my mother but I had so many tears that I did not notice this. All the way in the taxi I had been telling myself to control my heart but now tears were streaming down my face. I didn’t see my mother coming. I just felt her arms around me. She held me for a long time. When I stood back so that I could see her face she fell to the ground weeping.’

As soon as the official repatriation begins Ty and his family move out of Site 2 back to his mother’s village near Oudong.

The two Centres for Healing are busy. People who can normally live fairly calmly in this tough place are stressed because of the decisions they face. Adding to the stress, ‘bandit’ attacks happen constantly now. Stories of the problems of those who have returned without waiting for the official evacuation filter back into the camp. Rumours flourish.

The UNHCR calls for international non-government agencies to tender for various tasks to assist the resettlement. Nee and Phaly discuss what they might do to ensure the safe return of the patients in their care. They type a submission; nobody invites them to submit it but they do. They are not part of an international NGO. They receive no response.

A Canadian agency wins the UNHCR tender for social services for vulnerable returnees. There are limits on their scope to employ a refugee but Thalika decides to apply. He tells me that he has submitted his CV listing his experience and the courses he has taken in Site 2. He has been interviewed.

Thalika’s wife has a newborn son, whose life has come at a time of fragile hope. The family is overjoyed when the application succeeds. They will leave the camp ahead of the departure of the first buses. Thalika feels confident. He will need to be if he is to protect his wife, this baby, his other son, his wife’s three children of her first marriage and his quadriplegic brother. They face an unknown future somewhere in Battambang Province.

Phaly’s son Thero succeeds in finding work with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Phnom Penh. Their operation needs young Cambodians who speak English and who have computer skills.

For the rest of our friends there is no way of imagining how to make a fresh start back in their country.

The morning set for the official beginning of departures is clear of cloud and blazing with heat. Journalists from around the world flock to Site 2 to record the event. After total silence during the Khmer Rouge era and limited reports of recent sufferings, journalists and camera crews jostle for position. The departure is ideal for film.

I am edgy with resentment at this intense media coverage. I watch it through a lens of petulance. Why now? Why this filming of apparent jubilation while for decades the suffering of the people was scarcely recorded? Whatever they film and write now can never capture the complexity of what is happening.

Young female classical dancers, who will not be on these first buses to return, are dressed in traditional costume, bejewelled, powdered and painted. With a mat for the stage and the sun for stage-lighting they perform the slow and elegant movements of the dance. Musicians play the traditional stringed instruments and percussion. Dignitaries from the United Nations, Thai officials, and representatives of international bodies involved in the planning for this day, watch and listen from a shaded vantage point.

The refugees whose names were drawn from the ballot stand in the queue exactly as depicted on the silk-screen banners. They stand in the blazing sun with their babes in arms, their small children and their meagre belongings. Tens of thousands of other Site 2 residents crowd at vantage points and listen.

There are long speeches in English. Very few of the Cambodians understand English. Eventually the buses depart, swirling dust in their wake. The traditional musicians manage to play funeral music. The UN officials and the journalists don’t recognise the meaning of what they hear.

Violent incidents with squads of armed bandits, who are almost certainly former soldiers, become more and more common in the camp. Foreigners are evacuated as the bandits approach.

Those who have not departed in the first weeks of repatriation are suffering more intensely now.

In May fire sweeps through the bamboo and thatch huts leaving six thousand people homeless and the MHTH buildings destroyed. Nee is in Thailand, I am in Cambodia. The shelter of Nee’s family is burned. ‘Run Raksmey, run,’ his grandmother calls, holding her arms out to him, and he runs to her through a tunnel of flames. The fire rages unchecked for four hours while bullets, grenades and other live ammunition hidden in huts and administration centres explode without pause. Teenagers are found torching the bamboo and thatch; they confess that masked men paid them to do this.

Nee returns. The MHTH team gathers around him again. In just three days they rebuild the centre.

In June there is a mass demonstration. As soon as the violence turns against foreigners Thai authorities surround Site 2 from the outside, the barang are evacuated and barred from re-entering, the refugees are left to fend for themselves with no delivery of food, water or medical supplies. The Centres for Healing continue caring for vulnerable people trapped inside the camp while Nee maintains radio contact with aid workers in Ta Phraya.

Site 2 is coming to an end like a candle flame spluttering and drowning in hot wax.

I return from my work in Cambodia. People whom I know are still waiting for their turn. Among this small group of refugees, many are certain that repatriation will mean death. Some prepare for death with Buddhist or Christian rituals. And some say, ‘We will burn the buses when they come to take us.’

After Site 2 is completely empty I hear that Thailand bills the United Nations for back rent of this barren piece of land. The thatch and the bamboo rot away. A few years later all that can be found to mark the place is the cement floor of the UNBRO office.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy