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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



Thalika joins the Krom Akphiwat Phum team. He moves to live closer to Battambang town and invites me to a meal with his family.

Small dwellings are packed narrowly together in this poorer neighbourhood. Thalika’s quadriplegic brother, Thy, is lying on a bamboo bench unable to sit upright or to talk. His eyes are alert. He remembers me and makes grumphing sounds of welcome from deep in his throat.

I remember the day in Site 2 when Thalika first had news that his soldier brother had been brought in from the jungle critically ill. We thought he had been injured, but found that he had been paralysed by a rare virus. There is no cure.

Thalika’s wife Ha is gently attentive to Thy, feeding him with a spoon, bathing him, washing his clothes. She tells me that Lud has designed a chair for him so that he can be propped upright; a carpenter in town is making it. This might resolve problems with pressure sores.

There are three little boys now. They play happily on the mat, catching their father’s attention, watching his every move. Ha is preparing food over a charcoal fire near the doorway; this small house has no upstairs. The family has invited Thalika’s friend from the next house to eat with us. He speaks English, as does Thalika. Ha speaks only Khmer. The two men chat with me as we wait for the rice to be ready. I try to switch to Khmer and to draw Ha into the conversation but she is shy and Thalika’s friend is fascinated by my Australian English. His teachers did not have this accent.

I watch Ha’s dignity, her calm handling of all of the tasks: Thalika’s brother, the food, the children, the hospitality. I judge that she may be a little older than Thalika and very likely a village woman. She is dressed in a faded sarong and an unadorned tee-shirt, her straight hair pulled back from her face. Thalika depends on her for the care his brother will always need.

We sit on the floor-mat and share the meal. Ha and the little boys eat with us though Ha is constantly looking to ensure that her husband, the children and the guests have all that they need. There is rice which we flavour with food from one of the three serving dishes: fried vegetables, small rice-field fish grilled over charcoal, chicken broth. It is eleven thirty in the morning; this is the first and main meal of the day.

Before the meal is over the neighbour’s small daughter is brought into our circle to say ‘Hello’ to me in English. Ha’s sober face breaks into a smile. I look around the gathering and understand that normally Ha is the lone woman in this male household of Thalika, Thy and the three young sons. The little girl is special to her.

The Krom team has an evening celebration in the salla. They are just finishing assembling a book of stories from the villages. It has large black-and-white photographs and simple Khmer script. It is written to help the people of the villages to be proud of their achievements. Everybody on the team has helped to gather the stories, and everybody is excited.

The tiled floor is cleared of mats. There is a table of drinks in the corner: Fanta, Sprite and Angkor Beer. Popular Cambodian music is turned to the loudest volume and we are dancing. I look around for Thalika. He is still in the computer booth putting finishing touches to the book before sending it to the printer. ‘C’mon,’ I say.

The dancing is half classical Khmer, half Western. Each dancer moves alone to the music. Thalika joins the crowded floor and finds his rhythm. His feet shift position slightly, keeping time with the music while not leaving the tiled floor. His hands bend backwards in classical pose moving with the music to shape images in the air. We watch amazed then Touern, irrepressible, makes exuberant dance movements around him. When the music finishes we clap and Thalika goes back to the computer.

This is some of the best classical dancing I have seen. Did he learn it from his Uncle Soeun? Surely not in Site 2. Who were his parents? What was their story?

A message comes for Thalika while the team is having the annual retreat at Kompong Som. The little daughter of his neighbor has died. It is a sad loss; this little girl is like family to him. Nee sits with him and listens. Though Thalika feels great sadness he decides to stay until the end of the retreat. When he is back home in Battambang he will give money for the thirty-day ceremony for the child.

Almost a month after the child has died Ha is arrested for her murder and is imprisoned in the Battambang goal. Nobody has an explanation that we know of. Now there is anguish in Thalika’s household as well as in the house next door. The children are crying for their mother. Thalika’s brother is distraught, Thy cannot talk about what he is suffering or tell about anything he may have seen. Thalika must now feed and clothe and care for Thy; his children also need his care. His close friend in the next door house blames Thalika and does not invite him to the thirty-day ceremonies. Thalika listens to the mourning music and grieves alone.

Battambang gaol is a dark and crowded place. When Thalika visits his wife he brings her food but cannot ease her misery and bewilderment. Some prisoners here have waited ten years without trial. Possibly because Thalika is connected to the expat community Ha has her trial after only six months. She is judged to be innocent of any crime but fears showing her face in Battambang, and disappears into Phnom Penh.

Thy is still distressed and cannot settle. Thalika is doing all he can for his brother and his children but within a year Thy dies. Eventually the sons go to live close to their mother in Phnom Penh. Thalika is alone.

He spends more and more time in his villages talking into the night with the leaders he is mentoring.

In the few years following the tragedy of the arrest of his wife and the death of his brother, Thalika adds decades to his age. Even when I meet him amidst the comradery at Krom his face is always sad. I try to see him alone whenever I am in Battambang.

It is Khmer New Year, the great annual celebration when families come together. Thalika and I arrange to meet for a meal. He wants to take me to a restaurant but those that are not closed for the holiday are packed with revellers. We cannot find traditional New Year delicacies for our meal but sit together with a simple meal and a glass of beer. It is easier to talk of the future than of the past.

Thalika’s sons are musical. They would like to make music their career. Thalika laughs at last, insisting that before they depend on dubious opportunities to form a band to make a living they should be educated and ready for a ‘real job’.

He is guiding his children’s future while living alone. He sees them when he can and they are close to their mother. His friend, the bereaved father, has never reconciled with him.

One late afternoon Nee and I are sitting on the bench beneath my house, talking. He has spent most of the week in the distant village of Tanak. The people there suffered greatly during Khmer Rouge times and, though their village is now notionally controlled by the government during the day, they are attacked at night by Khmer Rouge troops who come down from the hills demanding food and raping women. ‘I understand life there,’ he says. ‘I know what it is like.’

We talk about the INGOs in Battambang. Nee now has friends among the expats and from time to time is invited to meet their representatives who travel to Cambodia from overseas headquarters. He tells me that he often meets foreigners of good heart, who are committed to ‘bringing development’ to Cambodia. He wishes that they could enter into the day and night lives and struggles of ordinary village people, to notice what is happening. There are things that they need to know. He is thinking that if he could write down his own story it might be a way to help them to enter into the hearts of his people. He thinks that we might perhaps work on this together in the evenings or during weekends when there is a chance. Could I help him?

I take time to decide, then I agree.

Nee is remembering all the details of his life. I am glad to listen and to check that I am hearing his story correctly. Whether or not the words we write will ever be published it seems a good thing for Nee to be able to talk about these things.

We set up a routine of times to meet. He starts with a story his mother told him. Late in her first pregnancy her husband was called into the army. To be a teacher was to be in government service and all in government service could be called by King Sihanouk to military service. Though her husband’s battalion was stationed not far from their home he was not permitted to come back, not even for the birth of his first child. The older women who supported her during labour said that this little baby named Nee was beautiful; if she wanted him to live she should keep a sharp knife by his pillow to frighten away the spirit of any mother of an earlier incarnation. He could be snatched back. The monks also warned her of her responsibility to watch the baby until his father came home. She followed their suggestion exactly. She wrapped him in a tattered old piece of saffron-coloured monks’ cloth so unattractive that nobody would want to snatch him. She placed a knife beside his pillow.

Nee tells of his joy as a small boy in a rice field riding on the back of a buffalo. He tells of the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran through his village and into South Vietnam. The tall bamboos sheltered the convoys of armaments that could move carefully along at night without danger of being seen from the air. Any small boy, even though forbidden to be out after dark, could find a way to watch all of this.

Then came the terror of the village becoming frontline, of shells falling as young and old crouched together terrified, of joining with the hordes of Svey Reing families who left everything behind and fled to Phnom Penh for safety.

It seemed that nothing could be harder than struggling for survival on the edge of this city choked with families fleeing the fighting. Then something worse happened. The Khmer Rouge entered the city and sent the family walking back along the road. There was no longer safety for anyone anywhere. His father was killed. The way his father was killed is the hardest thing to talk about.

The vision he now has of bringing healing has grown from all these things that happened before. If life is ever to be lived freely Cambodians will need to gather what is left and build from that. There has to be a Khmer way.

I listen as he speaks, type on the laptop linked to the truck battery, show him what is written, then revise it. We revise until the typed words are precisely what Nee wants to say and can be put between covers and produced in Phnom Penh as a small book.

We choose a name for it: ‘Towards Restoring Life’. It spreads in ever-widening circles. There are words that ring true in other places where communities are trying to recover after violence. It is translated into one language after another: Thai, Bahasa Indonesia, French, Spanish, the Karen language and Japanese. We are shown the French, Japanese and Spanish versions before they are published and trust that they are accurate. The copies made in countries where people are struggling as Cambodia is struggling give us the greatest satisfaction. These translations happen spontaneously without any discussion with us. We are glad of whatever way this book might be of use.

There are four editions in English, the last published in Melbourne by OSB. We calculate that there are five thousand copies in English.

Some Cambodian teachers use a Khmer version with their students; it is used for a class in Siem Reap and taken back to Choeuteal village where the story began.

Counterfeit copies of ‘Towards Restoring Life’ are sold in restaurants and on the streets in Phnom Penh. Nee says, ‘No problem. We want them to read it and think about it. We didn’t write these things down to earn money.’

I return to my house in Wat Kundung, climb the steps, turn to take a last look at the starlit sky above the jackfruit tree, unlock the door, light my kerosene lamp and bolt the door behind me.

Nee is becoming the thinker and leader that he is capable of being. What is happening is useful for others who have suffered; this is what Nee hopes. What will happen to him?

Can friends like the irrepressible Ka understand? Monee will struggle. His mother and family will probably not think it at all important. Monee’s family will think it irrelevant; a distraction from the responsibility to lift the family out of poverty. Too much will be expected of him; more than he can give.

He will be lonely.

As it happens, Nee, through a series of unexpected events, is invited to La Trobe University in Australia, to study. He is enrolled at Masters level; once he begins to submit what he is writing he is offered a place at Doctorate level and awarded a scholarship.

His wife and three children join him in Melbourne. He studies day and night, often sleeping on the floor of his university office. He also works for SBS Khmer Language radio in the early mornings in order to support the family and send money back to Cambodia.

The doctorate is complete in three and a half years.

Three days after his graduation ceremony he is back in Cambodia, continuing to work, think, and sleep in the villages, listening to the people. Little has changed, yet everything has.

Yeay cannot reconcile the fact that Nee and the family could have stayed in Australia, that he has limited everyone’s chances of a good life by coming back to Cambodia. Why?

It seems to him that he could do no other.

The thesis is about rebuilding communities broken by war. The problem is that the violence is not over. Communities are still shattering.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy