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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia is assuming its role in Battambang according to the Peace Accords. White four-wheel drives with the blue UN emblem painted on the side are commonplace in Battambang now. They pass each other along Street One and Street Three. They head across the bridges, some travelling north, some travelling south. Each vehicle also has the blue UN flag fluttering from a pole. In the blur of a monsoonal downpour they look like medieval knights jousting. A large house not far from the river is set up as the UNTAC office.

Peacekeepers in their blue berets, some with a small Australian flag sewn to the sleeve of their shirt, are shopping in the market, travelling across the countryside.

On the wall of the UNTAC office is a map of the province with areas shaded in blue, areas shaded in green and areas shaded in red. They represent residential areas, rice fields and minefields. Chillingly the red areas – the mine fields – overlap with the others.

Out in the villages the routines of daily life go on unchanged. Even in the town there are things happening that ‘the UN’ is not yet noticing.

Nee and I are heading back from a village to Battambang town; I am on the back of his motorbike. At this time of morning the road is busy. It narrows to the width of the Old Battambang Bridge. Cyclos, bikes, motorbikes and cars jostle into the compressed space.

‘Hold on,’ he says. At the edge of the bridge Nee’s hands tighten on the handle bars, his muscles tense, he weaves and swerves, not pausing in his pace. I shift my weight as the bike tilts. In this tangle of movement nobody is stopping or even slowing. I concentrate on keeping my knees within the width of the bike and my feet above the burn of the exhaust. We fill our lungs with exhaust fumes and dust. Every driver who has a motor horn presses on it as though the sound will carve a pathway through the chaos.

At the edge of my attention is one patch of stillness. Close to the railing of the bridge an elderly man is standing, hands pressed together, bent from the waist in a gesture of deep politeness, a sa-tor. An affluent, middle-aged woman leans from her car. Nee has noticed too. He swerves closer to the car then seizes the opportunity of a break in the traffic to reach the end of the bridge.

‘See that?’ he says. ‘Stay here under the bridge … be careful … wait for me.’ His purple shirt is patched with sweat now.

I don’t like being dropped off without explanation, and move to where I can look up at what is happening on the bridge. Spectators are standing around the stationary car. Nee is pushing through the crowd, gesturing with his hands until he reaches the centre of the knot of onlookers where he disappears from my sight. Then the car moves on and he comes back for me.

‘What was that about?’

‘Didn’t you see the gun?’


‘The woman was holding the gun at that old man’s head. He was pleading with her not to shoot.’

There was no sound of a shot before the car moved on. I don’t ask how the threat was resolved.

Noticing is important: looking and listening.

My own daily life rubs against the lives of my Cambodian neighbours. Everywhere I see crutches, rough-hewn prostheses and wheelchairs. A bicycle passes and I notice that the rider has only one leg. I often see women and men with so little of the stumps of legs left that it is impossible to fit prostheses.

A young man I greet each day has literally no stumps at all. He sits on a skateboard and pushes himself along with his hands on the ground as someone his age in Australia would push through the water while sitting on a surfboard. He is both athletic and enthusiastic. He propels himself between bikes and tools, learning the trade of motorbike repair and working to build up a small business. Everywhere there is courage. Often there is humour.

A woman in the sewing section of the market offers to mend a small rip that she notices in the skirt I am wearing. I move closer to her sewing machine so that she can position the damaged fabric under the needle, clip it down, and stitch it. She laughs infectiously as she threatens to charge me ‘two dol-lars’ for a minute of work and companionship, but will only accept two hundred Cambodian riel, the equivalent of a few cents.

As I sit side by side with Nee waiting near the market a three-legged cat nuzzles against us. This pathetic creature must have endured all kinds of infections after losing a limb in the midst of squalor. It has survived. I look at Nee and think of his survival, and the survival of the double amputee on the skateboard, and the survival of the laughter of the woman in the market. I blink away tears that have been threatening for a long time. I turn my head so that Nee doesn’t notice. I’m not ready to talk about this.

By the end of ’92 Nee and Ka have refined their vision. It is written down. We have sent it through Phnom Penh to the Overseas Service Bureau in Melbourne. I’m invited to discuss it in Australia: there may be some funds available for supporting village communities to recover from the tragedies of these years. Australian volunteers might be involved.

I believe in the pattern of what could be done. It is as Ka and Nee envisaged. A small team of Cambodians could work together with village people. They would listen to the hopes of the women and the men, understand the tensions of the ongoing conflict, try to build trust and to nurture leadership.

The Overseas Service Bureau is a flexible Australian NGO. Though set up to recruit, prepare, place and support volunteers it is willing in this case to partner a project that may win Australian oversees aid funding. The workers at OSB know how to frame the application to match the criteria. Eventually a project is put forward as ‘discovering, fostering and helping to create activities which bring unity and reconciliation’. It sounds grand but it will boil down to actions that are simple and grounded. I am glad of that.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy