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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



In the Meas household Monee is calling Srey Leak and Raksmey to come inside. It is time to stop playing in the street. Darkness will come quickly and the gates must be locked. She calls the dogs too and they come at the sound of her voice. Monee is good with animals.

The day is folding away. At the other end of the street the sun drops in a blaze of vermilion as the noise of children’s shouts and laughter, the soundtrack of the day, switches off. The dogs bark protest inside the high fence, then they too settle into quietness.

On the veranda at the top of the stairs I sit on a mat with Nee and Ka; this is the best position to catch any evening breeze that might follow after the heat. At our end of the street a full moon slips up almost unnoticed from behind the coconut palms by the river.

We have spent the day in villages: Ka and I together, Nee for his work with an INGO. These two men were acquaintances in Site 2; here they are developing a friendship. They are drinking beer, adding chunks of ice bought from a peddler who sells from a basket filled with wet sawdust.

Ka is smoking and flicking the ash between the veranda rails. He has learned some Australian slang, ‘She’ll be right mate’, and tries it out with a heavy Cambodian accent. He talks about the young village leader in Doung Kuot who is clearing landmines by hand for neighbourhood women who have no husband to take this risk for them. I’m adding the part about the village leader’s wife; she is pregnant with her third child and is both proud of her husband and afraid for him.

The heat gives way to a faint hint of coolness. The fragrance of steamed rice with the pungent smell of fried ginger and fish drifts to the upstairs veranda. There is laughter from the kitchen at the foot of the stairs. Monee has gathered a circle around her as she cooks. She is telling a story about the market, mimicking the characters she met there this morning, entertaining her mother and the children as she piles rice on their plates.

Ka and I are joking together. Nee wants to catch our attention. I’m noticing that these days he has little time for small talk even over a beer. He reaches to a bag on the floor behind him then settles with biro in hand and a notebook balanced on his knee. ‘Look,’ he says. ‘A village is like a basket.’ He doodles a sketch across a double page of the book as he talks. ‘The basket has been broken and the pieces scattered. The pieces are still there but not everyone can see them.’ Ka and I are listening now. ‘There has to be a Khmer way of bringing the pieces together,’ says Nee.

Ka has been to a community development course in the Philippines. ‘Go to the people. Stay with the people. Listen to them. Let them hear each other. Let them plan together what to do. Make sure they know enough and have enough resources to succeed. When it is finished they will say “We did it ourselves”.’ He laughs at his summary and adds, ‘Comrade.’

Nee talks to Ka about MHTH: the experiences, the training courses, what he has learned.

‘No use thinking of one person at a time now. The pieces needed for restoring life are there in the village. Go to the people, be with the people,’ says Ka.

They talk now as if everything is possible. There is no mention of the booming of shells each night, of trucks crammed with the soldiers heading along the road to Palin to do battle with the Khmer Rouge each day, or of the tank always stationed in the centre of town outside Wat Kandal. There is no mention of the humiliation they both experience as ‘people who took the wrong path’.

I help Monee to carry the food she has prepared up the stairs to the mat on the veranda: steamed rice in a silvered container, serving dishes of soup, vegetables and fried fish. We eat it with the silent respect that it deserves.

There are sounds of laughter, faint at first but coming closer, from revellers somewhere along the riverside. Long ago, before the troubles, it was the custom on the night of the full moon for young people to be permitted to walk and sing in the street. I watch Ka and Nee; their chance to be care-free on the full moon night was interrupted by the years of forced labour for the Khmer Rouge. Now they click half-full beer glasses together light-heartedly as if eating and drinking in friendship is a familiar experience. ‘Mian so!n dtei! piap,’ says Ka. We have freedom. Yes. At this moment they taste freedom.

We look at the villages in a different way: ‘The broken basket with the pieces still there,’ we say. Something new can be woven.

There are leaders out there. They could re-weave the basket. Not the same as before but, if trust is restored, who knows what it could become. Ka and Nee spend a night of talking, and another, and another. ‘Khmer way,’ I hear. Night after night I sit with them as they plan. ‘Khmer way.’

I watch these two young men together. Their personalities are completely different but in one thing they are the same. Each has deep respect for all life, especially where life is vulnerable; they are always attentive to this. Though I know that both are sceptical about Buddhist practices it seems to me that their hearts are shaped by Buddhism.

I go to a village with Nee. Whichever person he is listening to has his total attention, no matter what else is happening. Every encounter teaches him. ‘You have survived. Tell me how you survive.’ He tilts towards the person to gather the answer: it is not the way he acts, it is the way he is.

Ka and Nee are thinking about a team.

Two more men are mentioned, Ean and Reth; they could be keen to join in. They’re not from Site 2. Ka knows another who was never at the border: Yeth is a vet from the local Department of Agriculture. Ka’s sister, Lum Aung, was never at the border either. She would be willing to join if a team was forming.

When I first meet Lum Aung I have the impression of a rather sedate Cambodian woman dressed in an outmoded style that would be better worn by someone older. Lum Aung is probably in her late thirties. When she begins to talk I sense her strength. She talks with passion about women who are poor, women who have been deserted by their husbands and who are neglected by the administration at every level. Who will treat them with dignity?

Lum Aung is sure that it will not be difficult to find good people to form a team; she suggests Bunthan and Sean Lay, who have worked steadily inside Cambodia with the Women’s Association. They could be interested.

It is time to put a detailed proposal on paper. I question, listen and write what I hear. It is shared and reshaped, week by week.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy