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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

14

BACK TO CAMBODIA

There will be protest, there will be hardship, there will be continuing war. There will be joyous family reunions. Some among these thousands will achieve what is hoped; they will have the means to rebuild their lives and to feed their family every day when the 400 days of rice ration comes to a close. Some – many – will be trapped in their poverty, memories, or real and present danger. Or sometimes in all of these things.

From the early days of the return I am criss-crossing Cambodia on behalf of the Australian Overseas Service Bureau (later to be renamed Australian Volunteers International), documenting what is happening, suggesting ways in which Australian volunteers might help.

Phaly and Soeun travel through Battambang to Phnom Penh. By agreement with the UNHCR they are accompanying a group of widows and orphans from KPDR back into Cambodia. I meet them there.

Phaly’s widowed mother has a block of land at the end of a dirt road out near Pochentong Airport. Soeun is confident that he can use the repatriation allowance to begin building something there for the orphans, something permanent for these children and for others inside Cambodia who will have the same need. Young Thero, they tell me, is doing well in his work with UNTAC (the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia). They are keen to reach Phnom Penh and to be reunited with family.

Soeun remembers Battambang as he knew it when he was young. He has treasured memories of the river being ‘khieu’, an intense blue colour. There are popular songs about the bridge and the river, for when Battambang was a thriving university town it symbolised romance. Some still call the river Stung Khieu rather than the official name Stung Sangkae. I watch Soeun letting go of memories as he stands on the bridge looking down. The river water is murky brown. Up-river from Battambang town the Khmer Rouge gouge the riverbed, trading gems to Thai businesses in order to buy weapons.

The restaurant Stung Khieu, with its balconies leaning over the river, the only building on the riverside in the commercial part of town, was once the pride of Battambang. Now, though it still serves some meals, it is a seedy brothel.

There is nothing to keep Soeun and Phaly in Battambang. They look towards Phnom Penh as their future. These friends were already successful adults when forced out of Phnom Penh. I have no doubt at all about their future success in whatever they choose.

While Soeun builds the shelter for the orphans, he plants trees that one day will give shade, and will make a garden. Phaly will find support for a substantial orphanage. Though I will usually be in Battambang rather than in Phnom Penh I will hear news of them from time to time. They will buy more land to expand the orphanage. They will establish a reputation. Phaly will be honoured with international humanitarian awards.

In just a few years my copy of the popular Cambodia Daily will have Thero listed as Business Manager.

Nee, Monee, Monee’s mother Yeay (meaning ‘grandmother’) and the children wait in the camp until late in the repatriation. Yeay has a married daughter in Sisaphon; her house will be their first destination.

It is the rainy season.

News of their arrival in Sisaphon travels down the line to Battambang. I am staying there in Kevin Malone’s house on the north bank of the river; it is a tiny, friendly place, a house he has rented while working in this town. Because Kevin worked on the border and is well remembered, his house is already offering hospitality to Cambodian people who have returned but not found a place where they can live.

Kevin and I decide that as soon as we both have a free day we will travel north to welcome the Meas family; Kevin has a motorbike and is well practised at finding border friends as they arrive. We know that Yeay’s daughter lives somewhere close to the river bank on the south edge of Sisaphon town.

The rain is relentless as we set out. When we stop at a small Sisaphon shop close to the river to ask about the Meas family we are sloshing in mud. The river is still rising. We find Yeay and Monee; the women greet me with relief and embarrassment. The shrinking space where they live is crowded with people; houses closest to the river are becoming submerged. In makeshift shelters wet clothing hangs everywhere. It is sordid. These women managed to keep everything clean in the challenges of camp life; keeping clean in this smelly mud where there is no sanitation or water supply is more than they can manage.

The few established houses here are now overcrowded and surrounded by relatives, acquaintances and total strangers squatting all around them in plastic, cardboard and thatch shelters. The neighbourhood is monochrome grey-white and black: mud and brooding skies with sheets of rain. Srey Leak and Raksmey are miserable. They huddle on a plank under a thatched roof. Nee is not with them. He is doing all he can to arrange for sanitation and clean water, anxious about the danger of an outbreak of disease.

There is no joy here. Yeay is glad to see her Sisaphon daughter but doesn’t want to stay. Kevin, always hospitable, is offering shelter in his Battambang house.

I meet Nee. He is tired, worried, grubby and longing for the chance to travel south to see his mother. His dark spirit is contagious; it tugs me down towards despondency. Nee tells me the story of the family’s arrival.

On their day of departure from the camp the fleet of returnee buses followed behind a heavy truck bringing Australian demountable buildings to Battambang. These are office buildings for the Australian peace keepers. The load was wide and heavy. The road, not too stable at its best, was churned to deep, soft mud in the stretches where the surface broke. On the Thai side of Sisaphon their bus bogged and could not be budged. The returnees and their children waded through mud and rain, dragging their belongings with them. Now they are again under the edge of someone else’s house.

We leave them, unsure of what they will do next.

After a few weeks Nee, Monee, Srey Leak, Raksmey and Yeay respond to Kevin’s invitation and join us in Battambang. This gives Nee the opportunity to travel south to Svey Reing, pulled by his longing to be with his mother and sisters and brother after all these years. He returns to Battambang burdened and depressed.

His mother seems frail, different from the way he thought of her during the years of separation. His brother and sisters and new brothers-in-law are poorer than he imagined they would be. He wants to help them: not only out of obligation as eldest son but mostly because he has missed them and feels again his love for them. Counting Monee’s family as well as his own there are at least seventeen relatives who hope for his help. His mother-in-law, Yeay, insists that his responsibility is to his wife and children.

In the close sharing of life in Kevin’s little house by the river I begin to understand Yeay.

Raksmey and Yeay sleep on a mat close to me. The little boy has nightmares; Yeay thinks he is dreaming of the fire. Each time he murmurs in distress she folds her arm around him and comforts him. She would give her life for these children.

I recall the memorable rainy afternoon in the camp when I first spent time with Yeay.

Nee, whom I was teaching to drive, bogged the Ute in Site 2 mud and tried to free it using his distant memories of hauling ox carts from soggy ground. The wheels spun and I, as I stood close by, dripped from head to toe with mud.

Yeay was watching. Muttering reprimands at Nee she led me inside, produced a bucket of water and a cloth to sponge off the mud, put all my muddy clothes into the bucket and gave me a dry set of her own clothes. When I sat beside her dressed in her sarong and best white top embroidered with butterflies she was at ease with me, a woman of her own age, an equal.

There was a photo of Yeay’s husband, a handsome young man in the uniform worn by officers in Prince Sihanouk’s army before the coup of Lon Nol. I was told his story.

He was based in Battambang when the Khmer Rouge occupied the town. The family lived on the south side of the Stung Sangkae. When a message came that a bus would bring Sihanouk’s former senior military officers to meet the Prince in Phnom Penh, Sihanouk’s men dressed carefully in their best uniforms and prepared for the journey. They were driven to Phnom Ta P’dai, a mountain about an hour from Battambang, and were herded from the bus into a carefully prepared trap and shot dead.

Beneath the pile of bodies was one officer, wounded but not dead. He dragged himself back to Battambang where his family hid him for a time until the Khmer Rouge soldiers found him, pulled him from under a bed, and killed him in front of his wife and children. This officer was someone Yeay knew very, very well. She feared for her children.

Yeay understood that in those dangerous times the south side of the river was thick with Khmer Rouge informers; the north side was a little safer. With her baby boy, Sina, her little girl, Monee, and the rest of her young children, Yeah managed to cross the river in the dusk and shelter in the water-weeds, keeping the children quiet until it was safe to climb out, determined to do all she could to safeguard their lives. In a striking feat of courage she reached the border camp: a step towards safety.

I wonder what it is like for her to be back here in Battambang on the north side of the river once more. I understand her fierce protectiveness. She fought for the survival of her children; she will never give up on this.

Nee knows that he must find work to earn as much money as possible. His mother-in-law hopes that he will take advantage of every opportunity to earn enough to set up a household for her daughter, her son Sina, her two grandchildren and herself. Nee is constantly thinking of the poverty in Svey Reing.

More returnees are settling in Battambang than in any other Province. International Non-Government Organisations committed to assisting in resettlement plan to set up offices here. There was only one INGO when I first came to Battambang; now there are now four. Kevin is recommending Nee to all of them. Nee has a CV detailing his courses and responsibilities in the camp. He speaks English. His skills are needed.

Within a few weeks Nee agrees to develop a program for one INGO, to teach for another and to evaluate for another. None of the work on offer is an exact fit with what he believes is needed for the returnees; he is working to earn money for those he must support. He pushes himself to work as many hours as are offered.

Monee wants to see the family properly housed. At Kevin’s house there are mats on the floor for bedding and mosquito nets tied up in every possible direction. In the middle of the night we nudge between other sleepers to reach the single latrine. Monee needs to make a home for her family and Nee’s earnings can make this possible.

They walk in the early morning, Nee and Monee together, searching for a block of land for sale. It needs to be close to the town and close to a major road for the sake of security. Further up a side street, even fifty metres further up, would make it more vulnerable to attack by Khmer Rouge. A block is found. Monee strikes a good bargain for it.

The building becomes Monee’s project. For the first time she is taking a lead. She holds the family purse, as is the tradition for a wife in a family such as hers. She orders the building materials and oversees the work. Nee provides the money.

During gaps in his arrangements with the big INGOs Nee travels on the roof of the train to Phnom Penh, hoping to link with the university. He still longs to be a healer for his people, and there is more that he needs to learn. He finds no welcome at the university but he keeps trying. From time to time he is able to bring bags of rice to his family further south in Svey Reing.

I am beginning to feel at home in the old, dilapidated Battambang town.

While the day is still cool I walk along Street One, which follows the river. In the gentle first light of morning as the mist rises from the water I see the town as it once was. Even though it is now grimy and battle-scarred, even though I have heard many dark stories of the bloodshed and torture of the recent past and the present time, earlier legends linger. Before the light is too strong the rising sun burnishes the fine old French and Cambodian buildings. I can see what it has been and what it still might be.

Once the light strengthens the present realities are all that there is to see. Beggars cry out for help. They jostle each other: amputees in army uniforms, skinny mothers with skinny babies, toothless old people, and blind people led on a stick or ringing a bell. A tin table with a few stools has been set up as a kerbside café close to the central market-place. The beggars stand behind the customers watching them eating, hoping that left-over food will be passed to them. It usually is; even the comparatively rich diners remember hunger.

On the tower of the market the clock is blank. I am told that when the Khmer Rouge took Battambang in Year Zero the clock stopped. It has not been re-started. It no longer has hands.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy