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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



My hope is to challenge and encourage Cambodians, to walk beside or behind them, never to take the lead when they are ready to do this for themselves. Friendships will endure, but by the later nineties there is no call for me to stay side by side with Cambodian colleagues whose own leadership is now strong. Responsibilities that I left behind to come to Cambodia claim a share of my life once more. Australian concerns gradually take their place, side by side with Cambodian ones.

Nevertheless, once or twice or even three times a year, when I am invited and am free to do something helpful, I return to Cambodia: publish a book, design a piece of research, coach leaders, guide an annual retreat, participate in planning, oversee an evaluation, strengthen connections with international organisations. There is a sense of continuity and a different style of involvement. If Krom needs support to meet a new challenge and to learn from it I can usually be there. Requests also come from other local and international NGOs.

I am in Battambang in 1999 when Nick Dunlop, while out in a village with a mine-clearing group, realises that he is looking into the face of the man who was in charge of the notorious Toul Sleng prison. Nick is a 32-year-old journalist-photographer who knows recent Cambodian history, carries many images in his mind and, in his pocket, the image of Duch, who has not been seen since the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh. Many presume that Duch is dead.

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, is wearing an American Refugee Committee tee-shirt when Nick realises that he is shaking the hand of the Toul Sleng torturer. Duch has become a Christian and worked with international NGOs under an assumed name; he would never have expected that the young foreigner whose hand is in his, would know his face.

When Duch is afterwards confronted by Nick and Nate Tayer, a journalist from The Far Eastern Economic Review, he confesses. Duch accepts responsibility for the torture and execution of thousands of inmates in Toul Sleng, possibly seventeen thousand, expresses ‘heartfelt sorrow’ for his crimes, and vows to co-operate fully with the Tribunal.

People say that when Duch was led as a prisoner back to the scenes of his crimes he said, ‘I ask you for forgiveness. I know that you cannot forgive me, but ask you to leave me the hope that you might.’

The progress of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is slow. The concept of an Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia is agreed. Each accused is to have a Cambodian and an international defence lawyer. The co-prosecutors for each case are also balanced: one Cambodian and one international. The responsibility of judges is likewise shared.

Those to be charged will be senior leaders and members of the Khmer Rouge, regarded as most responsible for the crimes committed between 1975 and 1979. Among the people in the villages there remains the memory and sometimes the presence of village people known to be torturers. They will never be confronted with their crimes.

Theary, who travels out to villages for work in women’s health, is drawn into this dilemma. A Cambodian woman who comes to her asking for help was a little girl at the time of the terror. She believes that a man who tortured her family members to death is still in the village she fled many years ago. She watched this official commit his atrocities. Though she is afraid to return to the place where her loved ones were killed she wants this man, whose name she recalls, to be confronted with his crime. ‘I’m frightened to go myself,’ she says to Theary. ‘You go to that village for your work. Will you confront him for me?’

A Dutch camera team films the encounter. They win a high award for the documentary that they produce but my attention is on Theary’s experience, not their artistry. Theary dares to sit with the accused man and challenge him directly. He is defensive and belligerent at first but she manages to gain his trust. Slowly she realises that this man, Mr Karoby, was and still is illiterate, that he was threatened from further up the line of the tight Khmer Rouge chain of command, that he knows he is hated. The camera keeps returning to his troubled face as he works to change his karma by assisting with funeral rites in the village, taking a leading role in the ceremonies. Guilt and sorrow are heavy.

The camera follows Theary as she reflects time and again with the woman who is seeking for resolution of past horrors, and with Mr Koraby, who carries the burden of guilt.

Theary is looking for understanding. Part of the truth, she says, is that none of us could know what we would do if forced to obey orders by a regime as punitive as the Khmer Rouge. In her mind she returns to the details of her own story. She was an adolescent in Khmer Rouge captivity towards the end of the Pol Pot time. Her captors gave her the responsibility of caring for the younger children. She is grateful that the regime was crushed by the Vietnamese army before she was put to the test … How would she have endured pressure to obey cruel orders?

After the film is completed and released Theary continues to see Mr Karoby, as she respectfully calls him. She treats him for his high blood pressure until the end of his life.

The gruesome details of torture and death are difficult to hear and see, but it is Theary’s own reflections that challenge me most.

Anne Goldfield and Sok Thim have founded an NGO to address the need for treatment of TB sufferers. They have experience and a strong body of knowledge from continuing research. Thim is Executive Director of the NGO that he and Anne founded. They call it the Cambodian Health Committee, CHC. In responding to TB, a disease of poverty, they are rightly alarmed by growing numbers of patients suffering from AIDS. The two are connected, as those with lowered immune systems are vulnerable to TB.

Sok Thim and Anne take me to a remote village close to the Vietnamese border. We stand in burning sunlight while Thim bends over a 60-year-old man whose skin is tight across his skeletal bones. Thim takes his stethoscope, listens intently, then through a gauze mask speaks to the patient.

Gathered close but not too close are family, neighbours, and a ‘masked up’ community assistant who supervises the patient’s daily medication. It is DOTS, daily observed therapy. This work is serious; very serious. The diagnosis is multiple-drug-resistant TB; it is highly contagious and difficult to treat. Thim leans down to the patient, relating to him as the most important person in the world. He congratulates him on his faithfulness to the medication and explains the improvement in his condition. The patient beams a toothless smile.

Thim shares a joke; family and neighbours within hearing laugh too. As he listens again with his stethoscope sweat runs from his forehead into his eyes … He was on the road for four hours before reaching this particular ‘bedside’.

I look around me, a fat sow and six or seven piglets lie together in the yard beside us. The patient’s bed is a bamboo bench and mosquito net outside a rough timber house, hens scratch close to the bed.

Sok Thim is calm, reassuring and professional. Well he might be; he qualified in Boston and has managed many cures in open-air ‘clinics’ such as this.

Dr Anne is leading her research team at Harvard while still involved in Cambodia and other places where the need for medical services is extreme. As CHC grows into an organisation reaching many thousands of patients and producing research outcomes with global significance, Anne and Thim invite me to spend some days with them as they adjust to the extra responsibilities and demands to restructure that come from this growth.

CHC specialised in TB treatment from the start. Gradually that led to involvement with the dual diagnosis of TB and HIV/AIDS and the treatment of multiple-drug resistant TB. CHC has developed TB wards in city hospitals and treatment is also taken to patients in remote communities.

I sit with Anne and Thim as they make decisions. ‘What do you most want to do? How can you manage this?’

They are both specialist physicians and Anne an internationally respected researcher. There is no ambiguity for either of them. They go to the places of greatest suffering and treat illness that would not otherwise be treated. Nobody should be left to suffer and die when a cure is possible.

On the other hand, leading a large organisation involves a constant burden of managing staff and finding funds. Thim accepts it with reluctance; his greatest satisfaction is to take a motorbike to a patient in some remote village and call upon all of his experience and knowledge to achieve a cure.

Anne has been to many countries where suffering is intense and knows that the experience of CHC can be used in impoverished countries beyond Cambodia. She will do whatever it takes.

There is an invitation to set up a program in Ethiopia. While I ask ‘How can you manage this?’ they are already planning. They can and they will succeed. ‘Failure is not an option.’ People are suffering from lethal but curable infectious disease. CHC in Ethiopia will be called the Global Health Committee.

In a villa on a backstreet in Phnom Penh small children are climbing on play equipment, shouting, giggling, taking risks as children do. Anne and Thim have brought me to this part of the CHC program.

There is clean sand to cover the dusty ground and to cushion a fall. Older boys and girls sit in the shade of trees or along the edge of the veranda. Some are still arriving for the day. They come on motorbikes in the way that families with enough money would want their children to travel. The motor-dup drivers are paid weekly by CHC. Everything here gives the impression of normality. There is food being cooked in the kitchen.

A team of professional Cambodian medics, teachers, counsellors and social workers is based in this friendly place, the Maddox Chivers Children’s Centre of the Cambodian Health Committee. They provide all that is possible for three hundred AIDS-infected and affected children and their families. My task here is to bring this group of professionals into conversation, each appreciating the contribution of the others and setting case plans with a family focus.

Before the work of the day begins I squat down at the level of the children and begin to talk to them. They gather around. One little boy snuggles in to me and fastens his arms around my waist. He will not let go.

During my time of working at the Maddox Centre he follows me around like a shadow.

New members have joined the Krom Akphiwat Phum team; some of the original team are still there. The leadership is now consistently six women and six men. The central co-ordinating group of three is still elected by all twelve when the time comes for leadership to rotate. The work has extended to many villages in districts across the province. The direction is still shaped by listening to the people of the village and building on their strengths, responding to their hopes. The variety of projects people in the villages choose to undertake still surprises me: agriculture of all kinds, adult literacy, schools for children, music groups, drama groups, roads, bridges, the raising of small and large animals, support groups for the poor in the village and for those suffering domestic violence, health care, consciousness raising about justice, human rights, rule of law, protests about false imprisonment and land grabbing. The Krom team tells me, ‘All the people in the villages want survival and a better life for their families, while we support the projects they choose we want to strengthen trust, co-operation and good leadership. This is the way lasting change will happen.’

I travel out on the motorbikes to villages we knew in the beginning, tasting the joy of seeing the way that leadership has developed and that life has become better. I stay nights in villages of long-time friends and know that the struggles with poverty and oppression are still a challenge.

I am invited to return to Spean. The people have a co-operative agriculture program that they would like me to see. We sit in an open pavilion under the shade of a tin roof listening to an animated discussion of new ways of planting a seedbed, setting straight lines, measuring distances. The wooden floor is an uncomfortable place to sit for a long discussion though from here I can see that some fine timber houses have replaced ‘straw houses’ of a decade or so ago. Monks are chanting under a wooden house nearby. A young woman at the top of the stairs has food to bring down to them. She pauses to slip a sarong over her bright orange shorts then demurely descends the ladder.

I feel a finger tapping my shoulder, and turn; it is a young man with a handful of flowers from the fields. He mouths some words for welcome in Khmer and holds the flowers towards me. On cue the former village leader arrives. He has a new role now as master of ceremonies at weddings, and he seems to think that this, or his earlier role as village leader, entitles him to interrupt the agricultural meeting. He is wearing a patterned silk jacket which must surely be what he wears for weddings. He thanks me for coming back to Spean then launches proudly into the story of the day he rescued me when I fell from the wet log. We both have some grey hairs now.

While the Black Saturday bushfires are still raging in the Victorian countryside, I am walking along Pin Oak Crescent in Flemington. There is a smoke haze over Melbourne. I am tense as I listen to 24-hour radio warnings of new flare-ups of fires. I have friends and family living in various trouble-spots in the bush and wish I could be sure that they have left for safety rather than opting to stay to fight the fire.

My mobile phone rings. ‘Yeay this is Raksmey.’ This is the first time he has ever phoned me. I stand still in the smoky dusk listening to the worry in Raksmey’s voice.

‘Raksmey where are you?’

‘Phnom Penh. I think my father is dying.’

‘What is it?’

‘He is badly injured. He is unconscious.’

‘Where is he?’

‘In the hospital. He made me drive him around until we could find a doctor he could trust. I think he will die.’

‘Who is with him? Are you alone with him in the hospital?’


I try to hear the facts as well as the anxiety. It seems that Nee has had emergency surgery; unconscious may mean not yet out of anaesthetic.

‘Smey my phone is charged and turned on. Text me when you need to talk and I will phone you back. Your father chose the doctor he could trust?’

‘Yes. He was conscious then.’

‘We should trust that doctor too.’

We stay in contact, Smey and I, this week and the next, and the next. Nee is recovering from surgery, his leg is smashed behind the knee-cap, the doctor he so carefully chose has inserted a metal rod. Nee’s colleagues gathered around his hospital bed are convinced that the accident has been made to happen because of his work for oppressed peoples, and that it was actually an attack. Stories swirl.

Nee and the family say that it was just an accident.

Smey has grown into a thoughtful young man. In 2012 he drives me to Battambang and asks me about Site 2. If knowing the story will help Smey I will of course look back at what I wrote at the time of the camp and write for him.

Nee has a house in Phnom Penh, Proan Pra. He urges me to stay with him and his sons whenever I am in the city. Reaksa and Raksmey welcome this; their father is often out in villages for days or even weeks.

Yeay is alone now in the house we all once shared in Battambang. She has encouraged and helped Monee and Srey Leak to find security in the USA. Srey Leak met Siem in Battambang when he was holidaying in Cambodia. He has persuaded Srey Leak to stay in Minnesota. Monee lives with them.

While in the USA for a meeting I travel to Minnesota. Through mutual friends Siem hears that I am there and arranges to meet me in St Paul and drive me to Rochester, several hours away across the state. He wants to surprise Srey Leak by having me there in the car when she finishes her evening shift at work. On the way Siem and I talk. He was born in the UNHCR refugee camp on Cambodia’s border and his rice-farmer parents arrived in the USA with their young children almost without trying to be there. Siem has a master’s degree in engineering.

Srey Leak is as delighted as Siem hoped she would be. So is Monee. I stay with them all there in Rochester: Srey Leak, Monee and Siem. In Walmart Srey Leak and I phone Nee. Monee remembers that I loved the way she prepared fried rice and she cooks it exactly as before.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy