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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

32

PEOU AND THALIKA

When the music of the Krom party has finished and the mat rolled back into place, when darkness is coming and the women of the team should leave for home before nightfall, when we have tidied away the scraps of an impromptu meal, Thalika stays back to talk to me.

For more than a decade I have watched Thalika’s loneliness. He continued to work but the man who had amazed us with his dancing, who had charmed the Australian TV crews, who had enough compassion to protect a quadriplegic brother and a young family, seemed to have disappeared. Now I enquire about Peou.

I knew Peou for a long time. She married young, as Thalika did. She had children who had grown up and made their way in the world, as Thalika’s did. When I was first told of her love for Thalika and his love for her I was glad of their happiness. They studied similar courses at university; both have experienced village life and understand it. They shared the same passion for giving dignity back to simple people, whose suffering they could comprehend. Peou works with women who have suffered violence; she is as vivacious as Thalika is reserved.

Now while there is the chance to talk with Thalika alone I ask about Peou’s health. Not long ago I arrived at their house to find Peou ill; she was diagnosed as having throat cancer and needing chemotherapy. It was not available in Cambodia. Thalika was preparing to take her to Vietnam for treatment. Worry etched one more layer of lines on Thalika’s face.

The next time I came they were not in Battambang. Now Thalika urges me to come to stay with them.

I wait at the river edge of Street One for Thalika to come on his motorbike to take me to his home.

The ‘new’ house of Thalika and Peou is at the end of a row of simple houses in a Battambang back street. Peou has lived in something far more elaborate; Thalika has earned a steady salary and has skills that should enable a comfortable life. But the cancer treatment was very expensive.

Peou is waiting at the doorway as we take off our helmets and our shoes before stooping to enter the cooler interior. She hugs me and says ‘I’m so happy.’ We sit together on the mat and Peou pours soft drinks while we talk of some part-time study that Thalika is doing at a local university.

I look around in this ground-level room. Bedding is stacked at the edge of the mat where we sit. The side wall is set for cooking and dishwashing. There are books. Though I know that Thalika’s dignity can mask a great deal of worry I begin to feel reassured. They are not talking of cancer.

After we have finished our drinks Thalika disappears to a house across the road. Peou and I are tidying away the glasses when he returns with a baby girl in his arms. ‘She’s so beautiful,’ I say. At last Thalika smiles. ‘She’s ours.’ The little girl is called Amara. ‘It means Queen of Heaven,’ says Peou who became pregnant soon after her last chemotherapy treatment.

Amara is walking at 11 months old, tiny enough to walk under a table, steady on her feet. She will not take her eyes away from Thalika and should he move towards his motorbike she drops to her knees and crawls after him. Her crawling is faster than her walking. Her father dotes on her and she doesn’t want him out of her sight.

This evening and every evening Peou and Thalika spread a broad sleeping mat across the downstairs room of their house, set up a giant sleeping net and settle on cushions under the net as Amara quietens into sleep. They say, and I believe, that though they have few possessions they are completely happy.

I sleep in the attic room upstairs.

In dappled sunshine at the doorway of their house we share breakfast of Cambodian bread and coffee. Amara is playing with some soft toys, showing them to each of us, arranging them along a bench.

Thalika and I look at the way his story is written. He remembers the sadness of so many years and he talks of the happiness now. We remember stories of Krom Akphiwat Phum. Though a new generation may need to take Krom forward in a different manner suited for a new time, Thalika hopes that the new way would continue to be based on staying close to the people of the village, listening to them, earning their trust through nights and days spent there, supporting the natural leaders from among the people and always including the poorest. We talk about the university-educated young woman who has joined the team. Thalika and other veterans of the work at Krom keep talking about the best ways of passing on their experience while there is still time. They are thinking of pairing to take a half salary each so that a young person could be employed on a full salary.

‘What is it that has kept the spirit of Krom strong?’

Peou joins the conversation. She tells me of her work in the Banteay Srei safe house for women who dare to take their husband to court for violence.

‘Sometimes I wonder whether the spirit of Banteay Srei is strong because of what you have learned through your own suffering.’ I am thinking out loud, not intending to pry.

There is silence; even Amara is alert to it. Then Peou tells of the time her hands were tied behind her back as she watched her brother tortured with his hands behind his back and his face in the dust. She did not see him again. She has never stopped working for women who suffer.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy