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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



There is a narrow cement and brick house, an unusual Chinese-style house, built flat on the ground. Ka and Nee have recommended renting it as a base for the new team to meet. The men and women have gathered one by one. Now we are together. It is the beginning of the election year.

Moira O’Leary and Mal Simmons, two Australian volunteers, have come to offer training and support. Soon we understand that they are offering to share the whole of their daily lives.

We sit in a circle on the floor in this rented space. There are decisions to be made. We don’t know each other well yet but certain things must be arranged immediately and there is money from Australia, a small budget to be spent wisely. The men and women sitting on a floor mat in a circle understand the practical preparations needed.

First, motorbikes. They agree to purchase five, then eventually a further five motorbikes so that each person on the team will be able to travel to the villages. Ka says, ‘Look. They are not expensive bikes. They are ordinary, not much power. The bandits will des-pise them.’ He emphasises the word ‘despise’; he would quite like to be driving a much more powerful bike but it fits neither the budget nor the vision.

Someone says, ‘We will need to hear each other’s story.’ Two voices together say, ‘Why?’ I look at the faces around the circle. Five women and five men. They are of the generation that was just reaching young adulthood when the Khmer Rouge seized power in ’75. This is what they have in common. During the civil war that followed the Khmer Rouge time they were on different sides, either by choice or by circumstances. They will not sit on this mat and talk about it, at least not now. ‘Okay’, I think. ‘Let it be.’ People in every village have this same tension. So do people in many families. We will stay with the practical choices that must be made.

They choose a radio transmitter linked to the UNTAC network. Each person on the team will be responsible for a two-way hand-held radio. It is sensible precaution to tune to regular security warnings and to warn one another of danger.

They decide that it is safer for their group to be known by a foreign name. They choose to use the name of OSB for the Australian Overseas Service Bureau. The call sign for their ‘office’ becomes Oscar Bravo Base. For individual identification on the two-way field radios it is Oscar Bravo One or Two or Three: a number to match the number on the motorbike.

While we are talking, while we are eating, even while we are sleeping we can hear the announcements. ‘Attention all stations there will be a controlled explosion in Bay Dum Run district at fifteen hours. Repeat there will be a controlled explosion in Bay Dum Run district at fifteen hours. Over.’

When the bikes are out in the villages there is always someone rostered to stay at the base in case one of the team calls on the radio for help or needs to be warned of danger.

On an unusually hot February day at the Meas family home I am the first in the household to awaken, at 5 in the morning. I hear the sounds of sleep: the breathing, the turning, the mutter of words, the sighs coming from under the army-green sleeping nets crammed along the veranda. Last night was stifling and we all moved our nets outside to find more air: Yeay with the two children under the net with her, Monee’s brother Sina just reaching adulthood and with a net to himself, Monee and Nee sharing a larger net. I am furthest from the ladder, the most protected, with a net and mat of my own.

I adjust a sarong and tee-shirt and feel my way in bare feet across the veranda boards, stooping beneath the ropes that support the nets. At the foot of the steps I slip my feet into sandals, pat the dogs, squeeze through the gate and latch it again. I’m heading around the corner to Wat Sampeu; the head monk with his community of novices is always glad to welcome me and lead me to a quiet place on an upstairs balcony. He is happy to be able to say to his novices ‘See, even the barang prays early in the morning.’ When all is said and done, these first quiet hours are the best thing that I can do in preparation for the coming day.

My attentiveness moves from seeking God, whose silence is complete, to thoughts of the day ahead.

The first eight villages we will work with have been chosen: the criteria is that they are very poor indeed, that no NGO is working with them, that they are willing to work together as returnees and locals and as members of different factions to solve common problems. They are already hoping that someone from our team will come today with news.

The last star is fading. Behind the coconut palms a fine line of vibrant pink expands upwards from the horizon. The chanting of the monks in a Wat a few hundred meters to the north is joined by the sound of chanting on cassette tape from our Wat; our novices are slow-starters. I see a candle lit for morning in a bamboo shack across the road from where I sit. Roosters crow. The family with the candle tunes a radio to the news in Khmer. In Siem Reap Khmer Rouge attackers have managed to hold the town for a few days.

Today is the day that the Dharmayatra of Maha Ghosenanda and Bob Maat will set out from Siem Reap to walk the dangerous Highway Six to Phnom Penh, every step a prayer. Their walk always begins by dawn; surely they are already walking. Every step a prayer.

In March Khmer Rouge attacks become so frequent that for a time we postpone visits to villages. It is too dangerous to move far from the town. Nee warns me that it is not safe to leave the house before sunrise, and I follow his advice.

There is a regular briefing at the UNTAC compound. Australian peacekeepers have responsibility for communicating warnings of potential attacks. I accept that it is my responsibility to attend meetings. Ka and Nee clown about this.

‘Here she comes fresh from the briefing. Roll the cameras. Get her into focus.’ They pass an imaginary hand-held microphone and somebody zooms with an imaginary camera. The recently founded Battambang TV channel operates with one hand-held microphone passed from interviewer to interviewee. Our crew have the technique copied exactly.

‘Tell us where the UNTAC say the Khmer Rouge are. Spean? Really! And where are they expected to attack next? Really.’ Everyone is hooting with laughter and applauding. Battles are certainly being fought. Most of these locals know precisely where and why. They warn me of danger when they know of danger. I follow their warnings unreservedly.

Cambodians and foreigners all agree about the serious risk on election day. The Khmer Rouge has threatened to shell the polling booths. The organisation has pulled away from the Accords they signed in Paris. Most of their troops have refused to disarm. They will not be part of the election. They will carry out their threat.

For a week in March the UN sponsors a National Women’s Summit to prepare women leaders for the election to be held in May. The five women from the team travel by ‘taxi’ down the risky road to Phnom Penh to attend.

At the end of the week they return exhausted and enthused: Sean Lay, Bunthan, Lum Aung, Sokaty and Chenda. We are gathered in the ‘office’ waiting to greet them. They each pour a few dippers of water over face, head, arms and feet to rinse off dust and sweat; they eat the fruit we have prepared for them. More than anything else they need to tell us what they have learned.

‘In the new Cambodia women will be important.’

‘Women form sixty-three per-cent of the population; women plus dependent children form seventy-five percent.’

‘We will participate at all levels of policy including drafting the new Constitutions of Cambodia.’ They represent the three factions vying for election: two of them support CPP, two support BLDP and one, Lum Aung, supports FUNCINPEC.

The next day FUNCINPEC calls an afternoon election rally in the Battambang stadium and, galvanised as she is by the conversations she has shared, Lum Aung stands up in the crowd and makes a spontaneous speech about women and their role as peacemakers. She is amazed at the words coming from her mouth. So are those who listen.

As the rally ends Lum Aung is passed a message that what she has just done puts her life in danger. There would certainly be spies in the crowd. She is a marked woman. She should not go to her home but should find somewhere to hide. Her elation evaporates; replaced by fear. Who can help her to hide? It should be somebody on the team who is definitely not FUNCINPEC. Nee? Yes, Nee is not FUNCINPEC and he has the keys of the team’s house. The cement wall and bars on the glassless windows mean that this house is a reasonably secure refuge.

The entire team is ready to protect Lum Aung although only her brother shares her support of FUNCINPEC. The team members urge her to sleep in the shelter of the ‘office’ until the elections are over. Women on the team offer to take turns to stay with her to keep her company and ensure that she is never alone. We will keep the two-way radio on through the night and the men will be ‘on call’ should we need to summon them to the office.

Each night two or three women are with Lum Aung in this strong house. Most nights I stay with them. We confide hopes and fears but are never too earnest. We paint fingernails and toenails, cream our faces and hands and give each other traditional massage. Cambodian traditional massage is not gentle and as the elder I am the recipient of most of it. I sleep deeply on a straw mat on the tiled floor.

From time to time there is a radio check from one of the men on the team.

‘Oscar Bravo Base this is Oscar Bravo Three … over.’

‘Oscar Bravo Three copy … over.’

‘Oscar Bravo Base what is your situation … over.’

‘Situation normal … Oscar Bravo Base over and out.’

All who dare to be politically active know that they risk their lives no matter which party they belong to. Fury against FUNCINPEC is particularly fierce, for this is the party of greatest threat to the power of Hun Sen’s CPP. During this election campaign 114 potential candidates and close supporters are killed in various parts of Cambodia. There are fifty-eight victims of politically motivated murder in Battambang Province. Lum Aung is not one of them.

Election day dawns with a clear blue sky: a perfect May morning. I sit in the early sunshine on the front steps of the Meas family house catching the frisson of excitement among the neighbours. People along the street are determined to vote but prudently take risks into account. If a polling booth is attacked, as is feared, one parent needs to survive; nobody wants children to be orphaned for the sake of democracy.

Nee and Monee are enrolled and are keen to vote but have planned for one to stay with the children while the other goes to the booth.

Voters have been queuing at the booths since first light. It is said that distant hills were dotted before dawn with the lights of those making their way towards the town. The process has been orderly. Neighbours return from the polling booths excited. They have voted, their fingers are marked with indelible ink.

The Australian TV crew who filmed Thalika after the bandit attack in Site 2, and again when his family first returned to Battambang Province, trace me from Melbourne to Battambang to arrange to film him on Election Day. Thalika is still working with the INGO that recruited him in the camp. He tells me that he is willing to be interviewed once more.

After the filming the Australians return to thank me. They are pleased with their footage. Thalika answered their questions with his usual clarity

‘Why did you go to the border?’

‘Because of the shelling.’

‘What problems do you have now?’

‘Shells are falling close to us.’ The Australian cameraman framed Thalika walking towards the polling booth after his interview. This shot clinched their story: a shell fell nearby.

While we wait for the counting of results we return to routine. Each morning two of us are rostered for some housekeeping chores before the work of the day begins. Lum Aung and I are mopping the floor when she says ‘I have a problem.’ We lean on our mops. ‘I have to make a decision and have only a very short time to make up my mind.’ She is asking me to listen. We prop our mops against the wall and sit together on the floor.

Prince Ranariddh, the leader of the royalist FUNCINPEC party, has contacted Lum Aung through the UNTAC communication channels. FUNCINPEC have won enough Battambang seats for a place in parliament to be offered to her. She has one day … today … to decide whether to accept.

The other four Cambodian women arrive ready for work. They sit close to Lum Aung on the tiled floor, talking softly in Khmer. ‘We are saying to Lum Aung that if she says “No” there will not be an offer to another woman.’

Lum Aung goes home to spend the morning with her family and to come back in the afternoon. We buy Fanta and Sprite from the market to prepare a small party. Lum Aung returns with a shoulder bag packed: folded sarongs, toothbrush, toothpaste, face cream.

Before nightfall an UNTAC helicopter collects Lum Aung to take her to Phnom Penh. She enters a capital taut with anxiety. Prince Ranariddh, a son of Norodom Sihanouk, has gained the majority of votes. FUNCINPEC gained 58 seats, the CPP 51 and BLDP 10. The Cambodian People’s Party of Hun Sen controls the army and refuses to concede defeat. A breakaway group of CPP candidates seizes control in six provinces. Their leaders, Prince Chakrapong and Sin Song, announce that they have seceded from the rest of the country. They are supported by military. Cambodia is once more in danger of widespread carnage.

We listen to the radio for every fragment of news, worried for the country and particularly for Lum Aung. Norodom Sihanouk takes the role of peacemaker. CPP, Hun Sen’s party, is in control of the army, the police and all institutions of the nation down to village level. Sihanouk suggests a coalition with ministries shared between CPP and FUNCINPEC. There would be two prime ministers.

Lum Aung accepts responsibility in a ministry. There are five women and 115 men in this Constituent Assembly. Their major task is to approve a Constitution for Cambodia, as was foreshadowed in the Peace Accords.

Whenever I am in Phnom Penh I spend time with Lum Aung. She still talks of her pity for women and children who are destitute in the villages, saying that since she has no husband or children she is free to give her whole energy to shaping decisions that will help them.

Her sheltered life in Battambang has not prepared her for the huge responsibilities of her new role. Most members of this government lack the education that they need for the task before them; they are learning as they work. Lum Aung is adamant that if she has something to say she will hold her hand up until she is heard.

As she finishes telling me these things she presses her lips together and nods. I never doubt her determination. ‘When I am angry, when I have an opinion and need to share it, I can speak faster.’

Monee is pregnant. She craves durian fruit. I abhor the smell of it but Monee is dear to me so I carry home durian from Phasar Nhat and do whatever else might express my care.

Now that we are together in Battambang I can admire Monee’s strength. Here in her own home she takes the lead. I watch her sitting in a circle of Cambodian friends and relatives telling stories. The tight knot of women and men around her are held in rapt attention; she uses her face and her body and her voice to mimic each character in her story. The shy, young wife has disappeared.

Her day always begins early. She wakes with the soft dawn light filtering through her mosquito net, walks quietly to the family shrine and lights the incense to honour the ancestors. It is a familiar and necessary ritual. At the side of the shrine are the fading black-and-white photos of her father and Nee’s father as well as a small coloured snapshot wedged between the wallboards of the house. This is the one keepsake of her wedding: there she is, kneeling beside Nee in the Site 2 ceremony. Both look absurdly stiff in hired clothing of bright silks.

Good smells waft from Monee’s ground floor kitchen under the living area of the house: onion, garlic, chilli, and constantly steaming white rice. I watch to learn her recipes. ‘How long should I cook this Monee?’

The answer is always the same. ‘Until it has the good smell.’ Everything is to be sniffed.

We are talking women’s talk. ‘Why do most Cambodian women I know not sit down with the family and eat after they have cooked the meal?’ She convinces me that it is more enjoyable for a woman to relax with her meal before or after the family, when there is nothing to do. ‘Nothing at all except to delight in the food.’ While everyone else is eating there is always rice to serve on to their plates and serving dishes of food to refill. I begin to understand when I share the laughter and gossip around the cooking and eating in the kitchen.

Monee sings popular Khmer songs with a sweet and powerful voice. When American pop music begins to be sold on cassette in Battambang, she sings in English

Wherever you go, whatever you do,

I will be right here waiting for you,

Whatever it takes,

Oh how my heart breaks,

I will be right here waiting for you.

I worry about this. She has had enough heartbreak. She tells me she means it; her husband is often out in the villages and she will wait. She begins to speak more and more English.

When her sleep is troubled with nightmares, as the sleep of those who have seen too much often is, Monee rides her bike to a particular Wat where there is a monk with a reputation as a healer. He gives her the ceremony of water cleansing so that she can put the terror of the night behind her and face the day.

Monee’s baby is born in the new maternity clinic on Street One in Battambang. She and her husband talk about this as a small luxury, a chance to experience something different. Monee stays in the clinic only long enough for us to gather around the bed and view the little boy. This child with dark curling hair, fragile fingers and pale skin is contented. He returns home with his mother so that Yeay can light the traditional fire, rub with traditional herbs and do all else that is needed. The baby remains placid. Though I live in his parents’ house in this year of 1993, he is three weeks old before I ever hear him cry. Life pleases him.

At first his parents think they might name him Somnahng, meaning ‘lucky’. They hold to hope because, after more than twenty years of wars and atrocities, he is born while the radio is playing the debate on the new Constitution of Cambodia. Only a month previously Norodom Sihanouk was re-enthroned as king. It seems that peace has arrived and that when this little one begins school most of the children in his class will be called Somnahng.

Before Monee and Nee are firm in their choice of the name the Khmer Rouge army closes in on Battambang once more. The civil war is not over. Somnahng is not the right name for this child. He is named ‘the one who takes care’: Reaksa. The name suits him from the beginning. ‘Be careful to roll the “R”.’ Reaksa.

A friend from Australia comes to visit. We take him to picnic at the ruins of an ancient temple near the river. He gives us a photo of the Meas family sitting among the rubble of rocks. Yeay is looking out, away from the group, frowning a little. The two small children are huddled against their father, the baby a newborn bundle in his arms. I look again and again at Monee. Her face is cupped in her hands; she seems pensive. I see this look often when she sits quietly with her memories.

The night is late. We hear movement downstairs in the darkness even though the dogs have not barked. ‘Shh,’ says Nee, and he moves quietly to the corner of the balcony, where it is possible to see an intruder below without being seen. He gestures to us with his hand behind his back. Caution. Sina moves to stand beside his brother-in-law. In his hand is a gun.

Nee turns his head towards the family and mouths ‘Get down low away from the windows.’ Yeay has her arms around the three children as they lie on the floor. Monee stays low but slithers flat across the floor boards and lights incense at the shrine of the elders. Sina fires one shot to the sky. This is enough. I imagine dark shadows slinking away.

When Nee is sure that the danger has passed we go downstairs. The dogs lie dead, poisoned. Monee is inconsolable. The bandits have taken a large, blue plastic water tub and my green Chinese pushbike with the brand name ‘Peasant’ in English. Nothing of great value was there to be stolen. Nee has been totally attentive to his responsibility to protect us all.

A week later, during the UNTAC drive to rid Cambodia of all weapons, Nee hands in the gun so that it will be crushed into scrap metal.

The Khmer Rouge force is advancing on Battambang town once more and has already shelled the bridge. I sit on the grass at ‘the field of kick-the-ball’ not far from the river, watching as Srey Leak and Raksmey play with their father. Raksmey has changed from a toddler to an independent little boy; he has his opinions and plays with his sister on his own terms now.

Nee is sitting on a patch of ground striped with the late-afternoon rays of the sun. Leak and Smey take turns to come up close behind their father’s back. He lifts them one by one in the air; they somersault, shrieking with delight, before Nee guides them carefully around and down until they stand on their feet facing him. They jostle for another turn. Nee knows that back at the house a pushcart is packed and ready. If the Khmer Rouge take Battambang in the next few days, as expected, he will be on the road again, this time with a young baby boy, two small children, a wife and a mother-in-law.

There is nothing I can do to change this and so try to share these moments of joy.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy