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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



We have arranged to meet in Street 278, Sok Thim and I, in mid-February before we each leave Phnom Penh. It is a convenient location for us both. Thim travels to Svey Reing and I to Battambang. There is a quiet café where we will not meet anyone we know, we can talk without interruption about the stories of Thim’s life that I have printed at Officeworks, bound together, and given back to him.

Thim has arrived first. He is tapping at his iPad, cool in a fresh short-sleeved shirt with collar unbuttoned. He is bent over the screen, nodding, reaching for the coffee cup without interrupting his reading.

The sunlight flickers through the wall of tall green plants that shields this tiled veranda from the sight of life on the street outside. The cane bucket chairs are padded with cushions: silk-covered, colour-coordinated, all shades of green. I stand in the doorway looking around. A huge terracotta pot sits before me on the tiled floor. It is a pond where tiny fish swim and flowers float. The fragrance of jasmine mingles with the smell of coffee. There is soft music playing: it is jazz.

Twenty years ago I knew this district well. Then the street was a street of simple houses with the benches of vendors clustered at this corner.

Thim hears my greeting and looks up with a smile that has not changed: mischievous. He has taken his two young sons to a school close by. There is a car with the CHC logo parked outside the café. The driver is waiting to take Thim to distant places. He calls the waiter so that I can order, then points to the screen of his iPad to read ‘his part’ of what I have written. He is serious now.

‘I’m not sorry for the life I went through,’ he says. ‘Somebody who has stepped in the mud can rise up.’ He gestures to himself. ‘If these things had not happened to me I wouldn’t be me.’

Here in this place, where waiters dressed in black trousers and shirts and forest-green starched aprons speak English, where ceiling fans whir, where the emphasis is on catering for foreigners, we talk about suffering and rising from it.

Thim has recently returned from Ethiopia. The Global Health Committee aspect of the work demands his attention, the Ethiopia partnership is expanding. CHC works with the Department of Health and with two hospitals. He sighs as he tells me that setting up the programs and ensuring that the details are in place exhausts him, even though he is proud of the cures already happening there. I know that after the pressure of these things today’s chance to work with village patients will be like a well-earned holiday for Thim.

‘Do you remember when I asked you about your vision for the Global Health Committee?’ I ask. We laugh together. We recall it exactly: ‘Go to where suffering is greatest, to treat diseases most difficult to treat.’

As we share a plate of cut mango and pineapple we remember the evening when Thim looked across to Cambodia and talked of the way that the spirit of his people had become very low. For a short time he is silent and still: then he begins to talk about spirit being the centre of everything. ‘It is like the central shoot of the banana plant. All the leaves and all the fruit depend on it.’

With this thought between us, Thim starts on a story he has never before told me.

There was shelling close to Site 2 and the KPNLF force was planning a counter-attack. The patients receiving treatment for TB carried written permission to be exempt from military service. This did not deter the military commanders. The patients were rounded up and loaded into army trucks. Thim argued that this was a broken promise, a breach of contract, not acceptable. He began to drag the patients back out of the truck. The commander pulled a gun and held it to his head. ‘Fine’, Thim said, ‘kill me if you want to.’

Thim’s smile has vanished now; he leans forward on the table. ‘To free yourself you have to control your fear and believe in what you are doing. Otherwise you are stuck in a pool fighting with yourself.’

A waiter comes and offers us the menu again. ‘Later,’ Thim waves him away. There is silence, then: ‘When I was UNBRO Advisor for TB in all the border camps I had to travel to Bangkok to report on this work at a UN meeting. As I walked through the gate of the camp the Thai guards called out “Dog of the barang”. During the meeting in Bangkok I wanted very much to say, “I am Cambodian. We know you don’t respect us. We have no country, no government. But we still have our dignity.”’

There was of course no chance for him to say this.

‘Dignity, dignity,’ he says. He is looking at me intently. ‘The rice distribution in the camp was without dignity. I must take my two small boys to sit in a row under the hot sun.’

He pushes further back into his store of memories. In the mobile youth team in Pol Pot time members of the group disappeared one by one or two at a time to be taken away and killed by the Khmer Rouge. Thim recalls that his belief about dignity and freedom was already strong, even though he was young. ‘Don’t tie me up. Don’t count my head. Kill me when I run but don’t tie my hands.’

‘This is about spirit,’ he says. ‘It is about the dignity and freedom of a person.’

He calls for more coffee and I join him in this. At our table in a quiet corner I am jotting in a notebook. Thim encourages me to write down what he is saying, and we part resolving that when we meet again I will give him a print-out of what I have written. Thim wants his story recorded for his two youngest sons. They are fine, thoughtful boys; one day they will need to be told these things.

We step away from this strange oasis. Thim will set out to see his patients, I will prepare for tomorrow’s journey to Battambang. Outside our green bunker the road is congested with expensive cars and motorbikes. I smell petrol and the dust of building sites.

Thim waits for me again in the leafy restaurant; he takes the pages I have typed from our earlier meeting, nodding and smiling at what he reads. ‘Life is designed,’ he says.

His life is busy day after day. The General Department of Prisons in Cambodia has requested the Cambodian Health Committee to take over and expand the TB and Drug Resistant TB program in two large Phnom Penh prisons, with around three-and-a-half-thousand inmates. The prevalence of TB in the prisons is seven times the rate found in the general population. As well, the Global Health Committee partners, the Ethiopian Department of Health, now have responsibility for almost seven hundred Ethiopian patients with drug-resistant TB in that country.

We muse together over the spread of this work. In Cambodia there have been thirty-eight thousand patients in the community care treatment that had its small beginning on the Thai/Cambodia border.

Thim talks of the stress of managing a large staff. The day can start peacefully and before mid-morning be plagued with challenges he could never have imagined. He needs to keep reminding himself that all of this stress comes from doing whatever he can to control unnecessary suffering. ‘Love in action,’ he says and nods to himself.

He looks back to the stories I have written. He would like to add other things I have not heard before. I laughingly agree; this could go on forever.

Thim tells me that when he was three or four years old his parents, who had quarrelled with each other for years, divorced. Since his mother was a relative of the head monk of a pagoda in Battambang she placed her little boy there to be educated by the monks. ‘Threw me there into the Wat,’ says Thim. He laughs at this then becomes reflective again. ‘It helped to shape my heart.’

The monks supported him in the whole of his education for more than ten years. As well as normal school subjects he learned Sanskrit and Pali. The monks were strict; he needed them to set a high standard. The Buddhist spirit surrounded him and certain beliefs stayed with him. ‘Move in the direction you believe. Never be hopeless. There is a door where you don’t expect it.’

Right now as he looks back he sees all of this as fortunate. ‘In every phase there is wisdom.’ He leans back in his chair and chuckles, then talks through laughter. When he was sixteen he went to Phnom Penh, met his parents, and brought them together. Though each had been through ‘marriages’ since they separated they agreed to marry each other once more. He gained a place at the University of Phnom Penh to begin studying medicine and so it was that when the Khmer Rouge came into Phnom Penh he went in one direction and his parents in another.

We are both laughing. It is the first time I have ever heard the story of the emptying of Phnom told as black humour. In 1979 when Thim found that his parents had gained a place as refugees and had gone to settle in France without him, he decided to start again, with a clean sheet. ‘A comrade alone in the world.’ He laughs at his young self. Right after he made that decision his parents traced him and wrote to him in the camp. But he was then in trouble with the Cambodian factional authorities of KPNLF. ‘Big trouble.’ He laughs again.

His parents settled well in France. They tried to bring him there. He is talking and laughing at the same time. As far as the French authorities knew this man and woman had no son. A door closed.

‘I’m not sorry for the life I went through,’ he says again. A door closes. A door opens.

Thim expects that his life will become simpler one day. He is in his late fifties now and asking himself, ‘What do I do with the last part of my life?’ But he has an answer. When the time comes this is what he will do: care for the family, be free to choose how to live day by day, end the time of heavy responsibility, still use medical knowledge to care for people, teach at universities, get away from the city to a farm.

‘To live small things deeply. A door closes, a door opens.’ This is what he tells me.

He leaves me to wonder whether I have done just what he hoped I would do. I have noted down a tale as a legacy for his sons.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy