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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



As I ride on a motor-dup at the rural edge of town near a rice field flooded for the planting I hear my name called. It is Sok Thim. We both laugh with delight. We share news. ‘Imagine us meeting here. You always talked about growing rice. How are your wife and your children? What are you doing with all that knowledge about TB?’

Right now there is no particular place for Thim’s knowledge about TB, though he sees many cases untreated in the village where he is living.

We stand with our feet in water and remember Site 2. Thim tells me that Dr Anne Goldfeld is back at Harvard researching infectious diseases. Anne believes that the Site 2 work of establishing protocols for the treatment of TB in conditions of war is useful knowledge for other troubled parts of the world.

The refugee settlements strung along the border were all, during 1981, in the crossfire of a protracted battle. The Vietnamese troops had reached the Thai border. The camps on flat land offered no shelter from shelling; people huddled in a long, deep ditch that had been dug by the Thais to protect their border from invading tanks. The battle continued for weeks. The refugees lived in the ditch: the wounded, the sick, the hungry, the aged, the infants and children. The TB treatment continued, in the ditch, uninterrupted.

Thim worked with Bob Maat as these protocols were developed, then took Bob’s place, leading the TB team for all the camps along the border.

Anne has invited Thim to join her in preparing this material for publication.

While my motor-dup driver waits for me in the shade, we stand in the seedbed and we talk of Bob and of Anne.

Bob is still a friend to us both, and we share what we know of him now. With the charismatic Cambodian Buddhist monk, Maha Ghosenanda, he organised and walked the Dharmayatra, the nonviolent witness of monks and lay-people, Cambodians and foreigners. Theirs was a pilgrimage through the war zones from the Thai border to Phnom Penh, every step a prayer. CPR organised this vast nonviolent cavalcade. I joined with it for a short part of the way. I saw a soldier push through the crowds lining the road, kneel with his AK 47 and rocket launcher in the dust beside him, and ask a water blessing from Maha Ghosenanda.

Anne was among my first friends and colleagues at Site 2; she was director of the American Refugee Committee Hospital near the Centre for Healing. I was there while she supervised the Cambodian medics coping with patients carried into the hospital, smashed and bleeding. The image of the bloody torso of a patient being lowered to the bamboo bench of the hospital, into the hands the Cambodian medics gowned, masked and ready to receive what is still a living young man, stays with me. When I close my eyes I see it and remember horror and pain. Thim and I recall the relentless efforts Anne made as she started the ‘ban landmine campaign’ in those early days.

Thim shakes his head, putting the past behind, and teasingly invites me to plant while we talk. Catching his mood and his intention I laughingly agree. Thim is a farmer at heart. He knows the smell of the rice fields. The task is to transplant seedlings from the dazzling green seedbed to the flooded fields. He relishes this. I make my first awkward attempts to hold a bundle of wet seedlings in my left hand and, while standing in water, to bend down and plant one seedling at a time in the mud at my feet. This is the bliss of homecoming for Thim, a clumsily performed chore for me. Try as I might I have to keep stopping to stand upright and arch my aching back.

Thim is planting rapidly. ‘Had good practice in Khmer Rouge times,’ he says. His mind is still on the project he will be doing with Anne. He tells me that it is essential that TB medication is routinely and consistently administered, or stopped altogether lest new strains of drug-resistant TB develop. Bob and the Cambodian medics whom he trained developed a protocol to continue the treatment in a war zone. Daily observed therapy – DOTS – they called it.

We part at sunset. Thim has found a small place to settle his wife and sons. There is no talk of his parents and I do not ask. I must return to Battambang town but we promise to meet again.

It is on Street One that Ky Ka, who worked in the camp with a social-service project for people disabled by landmines or war injuries, skids to a stop on his motorbike and hails me. He is back in Battambang without having accepted UN assistance. This is his town and Battambang Province is his province. He welcomes me to it with gusto.

Ka is travelling to distant villages to see how those who have returned with serious disabilities, those without limbs or without sight, are managing. I am learning whatever I can for the sake of the Australian volunteers.

He urges me, ‘You can come with me. You will meet more people if you go with me. There’s room on the bike. Look.’ He pats the small rectangle of padded cushion behind his seat. ‘We will meet …’ Ka’s attention shifts.

An ox cart loaded with wooden beams is moving along Street One. The rough-cut timber could be a house frame. Sure enough a man, a woman and their small children are perched on top of the load. Their belongings are gripped beside them, packed in striped bags. ‘Option B,’ we both say.

Ka does what I will see him do time and again. He waves for the cart to stop. ‘Where are you hoping to settle? What camp did you come from? How are you managing? Do you need any help?’ It is a welcome like the welcome he has offered me.

I see Ka waiting the next morning at the corner where we agreed to meet: a sturdily built young man, not very tall. His dark hair is straight and cut close to his head; it stands up in bristles. He constantly wears a broad grin, baggy jeans slipping on his hips and a tee-shirt. He smokes a cigarette whenever he is still and sometimes while he rides his motorbike.

Ka instructs me and settles me on the back of the bike. We will not worry about such customs as a woman riding side-saddle, or a woman not touching a man in public. Remote villages are on rough roads; in Ka’s judgement safety comes before following tradition. ‘Sit on the bike this way … right foot on the small pedal on the right side, left foot on the small pedal on the left side … be careful of the exhaust pipe, it is hot … hold on to me.’

Tracks linking the more distant villages are narrow. When farmers by the trackside greet Ka in a pleased-to-see-you-again tone his return greetings leave them laughing.

Phnom Ta P’dai is about ninety minutes by motorbike from Battambang town. While Ta P’dai is mostly remembered as the mountain where the Khmer Rouge executed the busload of army officers, the foot of the mountain is a close settlement of local village people and their returnee relatives.

There is an old man who squats on his heels in a Cambodian gesture of waiting. He is wearing a faded krama tied around his waist. It reaches to his knees. His bony chest, shoulders and back are bare; he is wrinkled and tanned tough as leather from years of working in the sun. He is at ease. Ka and I squat beside him in the doorway of his bamboo-and-blue-plastic shelter.

Ka’s total attention is directed to conversation with this toothless elder who nods towards the flurry of activity inside the hut. His daughter is attending to the household: calming a baby, securing a sarong, lifting and lowering buckets from a shoulder pole. She has been a refugee in Site 2. Now she has a husband and three children.

The young woman presses her palms together and bows before squatting beside us. She knows that living here, so close to landmines, is against the advice of UNHCR. ‘Where else would I go?’ she asks. ‘Our land is here.’ She points upwards to a place high on the forbidden mountainside.

Ka and I detour to Ka’s family home. This is a substantial house. The rounded poles that support it have a smooth, shining patina, coming from a time when such great tree trunks were crafted to support houses that would last. The house holds the story of a long-established family. Generation after generation has leaned against those sturdy poles, rubbed them after rain and tied hammocks and mosquito nets to them.

At the top of the ladder is a spacious interior. Many friends and relatives whom I must now meet find shelter here. Ka’s wife and young children are living with him in this house where the family has lived for so long. Ka introduces me to his sisters. ‘This one has the name of a flower. She is shy to speak. Just smile at her. This one works at the drinks shop down in the town.’

When I meet Ka’s mother I know that her formal welcome is on behalf of all. The responsibility she has taken since the execution of her husband and his brothers is unlikely to be handed over easily to a son returning from the border. She will be carefully assessing the daughter-in-law, Ka’s wife, whom she did not choose.

Lok, Ka’s younger brother, was with him at the border. They are the only members of the Ky family who were in Site 2. It is an easy return. Here among his relatives, Ka sits cross-legged on the polished wooden floor, as is custom. He flicks the ash of his cigarette on to the ground behind him, his conversation a stream of playful repartee.

Ka’s father was an important man in Battambang, as was each father’s father in the generations before. I imagine them as formal gentlemen, though I cannot begin to imagine Ka as one.

The Ky family name is still influential. Ka introduces me to the Assistant Governor of the Province. He is a powerful man, scornful of the fact that the returnees will be issued a rice ration from the UN for 400 days. ‘Nobody starves to death in Cambodia,’ he says, looking at me reproachfully. ‘These are the people who have taken the wrong path.’

The UN presence is strengthening and UNTAC peacekeepers, Australian soldiers among them, have come to live and work in Battambang. Ka takes me to the army compound. A soldier driving out, as we ride in, lowers his car window and shouts ‘Ow yu goin? OK luv?’

‘No probs,’ I say.

Ka lurches to a halt. ‘I didn’t know you spoke a third language.’ He likes the sound of it. I resolve to give him a book of Australian slang; it will appeal to his larrikin streak.

Ka takes me to a village twelve or thirteen kilometres off the main highway, Highway Five. You can see that it is a less favoured position because the houses along the dirt track have become more and more makeshift, the children more ragged, parasite-bloated bellies and rust-coloured hair of kwashiorkor more common. There is malnutrition. ‘Go to the people, listen to the people,’ says Ka in a tone that makes fun of his own earnestness. I’m thinking that he needn’t try to disguise it. He is soft as marshmallow.

We stop at random: Ka knows nobody here. We squat on our heels in the doorway of a low shelter, joining the family gathered there in a circle of conversation. Pigs are tied up close by; the pig smell is overpowering. Since pigs eat food that people might otherwise eat, and since people here are malnourished, raising pigs is a tempting gamble but an imprudent investment. Raising a piglet to maturity so that it is ready for sale could lift this family beyond barely subsisting. The profit could set up a small business, but the odds are against this happening.

I am here to listen, not to judge. I look at ‘the people’: old uncles, younger uncles, older aunts. There is a cluster of children gathered to see what is happening. The eldest, a girl of about eight years old, holds a toddler firmly on her hip.

An uncle is saying that treatment for a sick pig is as expensive and remote as treatment for a sick child. If treatment could be found it would drive a family deep into debt. He shakes his head and clicks his tongue, ‘Tchk, tchk, tchk.’ A child in a neighbouring hut has just this week died of untreated dengue fever. He compares this to the time before the Khmer Rouge, a time when poor people could often hope to have their sickness treated. ‘There should be something we can do about this,’ he says.

Som Ol has his uncle’s pig on a lead and is taking it for a walk. Six years old, he strides out like a man. The uncle nods, ‘Perhaps the barang lady would like to take one Cambodian boy back to her country.’ The swagger drops away from Som Ol. His lip trembles then he turns his head away from me.

‘No, no’ I say. ‘Som Ol belongs here.’

The aunt calls from her hammock, ‘Take Bora, he eats more rice.’ Ka joins in the teasing; there is a circle of laughter now.

As she swings in her hammock the aunt begins to tell a story. She is good at it. Her face is mobile and her eyes flash. Someone was careless in tying the pigs up. Two strayed towards the minefield unnoticed until they were just inside the edge of it. ‘Of course each man, woman and child knows the danger of the minefields’ she says. The children nod on cue. They watch her, wide-eyed, as the hammock swings to emphasise the importance of this story. ‘Nobody, absolutely nobody can go into the minefield to bring back those piglets.’ The children again nod as she pauses. The aunt flings out her arms and claps her hands loudly twice. ‘Bang. Bang.’ The children have been waiting for this climax.

Next comes the lesson. A grown man or woman may slowly bleed to death, or be rescued then taken away for amputations. The children have heard these messages many times. They watch my face. There is a minefield on the other side of their fence. Pigs die quickly if they step on a landmine. So do children.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy