When the War Was Over

If that was a week in Sihanoukville, then I guess I’ve had it!  Today I start the journey home in time for work on Monday afternoon. Partly to have some down time and partly to avoid the seediness and desperation in the tourist areas, we chose to stay near the private beach of our basic but lovely accommodation for much of this week.  The experience of sleeping in a charming wooden, thatched hut to the sound of the ocean’s steady thunder was amazing.  I started writing this post around sunset, sitting under the huge umbrella shade of a frangipani tree on the beach as waves crashed and rolled towards me, on an incoming tide.  A man dressed in khaki uniform with a badge and walkie-talkie appeared under the tree, stood over me with a toothless grin staring for an uncomfortably long time, then produced a smartphone which he pointed in my direction and photographed me!

I had hoped at 4pm that my laundry would be ready for collection but the cranky local laundress scornfully informed me, without checking, that I had to come back at 5pm as per her scrawl on the ticket from a few hours earlier.  So I sat down at a bar, ordered a wine and watched the world go by some more.  The seedy, depressing world of Sihanoukville.  Testosterone oozing western men hang around in groups together, or with young (often young enough to be their daughters or granddaughters) Cambodian women.  Children wander the streets selling bracelets and sunglasses, trying to charm the westerners into paying them some attention.  Women walk along with trays of food balanced on their heads.  Every evening a young man parks his sidecar moto, then walks up and down the street knocking a stick against a plank of wood to announce that his takeaway noodle soup has arrived.  Tuk tuk drivers laze in the back of their vehicles keeping a keen eye open for any tourist who dares to wander in their general direction.  Restaurants and bars do a roaring trade to mostly young backpackers, and the wealthy westerners mingle confidently among the struggling locals.  Advertisements on the back of tuk tuks range from the Sihanoukville special of mildly veiled sleaze, to nationally-implemented Child Safe messages.

It was good to see Sihanoukville but despite it’s natural beauty I am not particularly enamoured as I am with other parts of Cambodia.  This feeling is exaggerated by the depressed hotelier who wants to talk to me at every opportunity, to either point out the wealth he’s observing (“the party boat is coming in from the island now”, as he gazes sadly out to sea) or, more likely, tell me about his hardships.  A divorce, two children, an elderly father, a dependent sister, tiny salary, no opportunities, unhappy with the boss, need for a telephone, would I like to visit his home in the countryside this afternoon?  I feel as though I am being head hunted as a potential benefactor and regardless of how genuine the need may be, I can’t bring myself to do it.  I thank him but I have other things to do today, perhaps another time?  The injustice is not lost on me.

Our beautiful private beach space

Our beautiful private beach space

A gorgeous photograph ruined by humidity before a rainstorm!

A gorgeous photograph ruined by humidity before a rainstorm!

Some of my holiday time has been spent reading and yesterday I started When the War Was Over by Elizabeth Becker.  I am not very far in but it’s going to be an informative 519 pages.  The book is best known for introducing the world to a young Cambodian woman, Hout Bophana.  In her years of research the author spent time at Tuol Sleng, a Phnom Penh high school converted by Khmer Rouge into a prison and torture chambers known as Security Prison 21 (S21).  The biggest of many schools converted in this way during the Khmer Rouge regime, close to 20,000 people lost their lives here during staged confessions about alleged misdemeanours.  The victims were buried in mass graves on the grounds.  Upon liberation (such as it was) in 1979, only seven survivors were found.  Tuol Sleng is now Cambodia’s Genocide Museum.  At least one of the survivors now sells books outside the museum, alongside beggars with missing limbs, burned faces and various other shocking deformities, in his continued struggle to exist in what appears to be a life of infinite suffering.

The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous written records on all of their prisoners and in 1981 Becker, ploughing through these records at Tuol Sleng for her book, found the file of Hout Bophana, murdered at the age of 25.  Becker converted the file, filled with love letters written to her also-tortured-to-death husband, into a biographical account of this young woman’s experience.  A Khmer language film based on the story was produced in 1994 Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy by Rithy Panh.  As an aside, this year Panh’s latest film The Missing Picture was nominated at the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.  Bophana won a number of international awards in the 1990s and the Bophana Audio-Visual Resource Center in Phnom Penh, where Khmer films, photographs and sound records are collected, screened and preserved, garnered it’s name from her legacy.

Despite dying without knowing the fame her letters would oneday gain, Becker reports that Bophana “promised her husband she would stay with him to the end and then return to Cambodia as a ghost and ”win total revenge.”  She has more than fulfilled that promise.”  (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/28/books/review/28BECKERL.html?pagewanted=all)  I consider this as evidence of the fact that life is full of unimaginable and unpredictable twists and turns, which should never be far from any of our minds.  In suffering, the knowledge of this fact gives us hope while in prosperity, it keeps us grounded.  Without it we are all at risk – of hopelessness at one end of the spectrum and of grotesque arrogance at the other.  As I cycle alongside my translator discussing the differences between our third world and first world existences, a daily occurrence in my current work routine, abstract thoughts of the impossible twists and turns in life are ever-present.  These thoughts are what give me hope for his country and simultaneously keep me reflective about my own comforts.

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