Friday, August 06, 2010

Carry on Kampuchea...

(Having previously dumped - sorry, pasted - despatches from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe on here, I somehow forgot a couple from Cambodia. Following the recent sentencing of Khmer Rouge guard "Duch", and because, well well, just because, here are a few thoughts from Cambodia, from last November)

THE PRETTY waitresses may appear eager to please, pouring cocktails and politely applauding Western tourists’ slurred karaoke crooning or drinking game exploits.
But Thailand’s superficially-glitzy nightlife is shot through with sexual slavery, abuse and violence - and, increasingly, lethal disease.
Thai capital Bangkok is shadowed by Poipet - the shabby, sleazy Cambodian frontier district racked by Aids after becoming a feeder town for Thailand’s sex trade.
And it is not just the exploited and trafficked local women at risk - Western tourists themselves are both to blame and in danger, as dark warnings from HIV-positive victims make clear.
Every morning at 7am, as soon as a tinny recording of the national anthem ends and a shrill whistle blows, the border opens for the day.

Thousands of people will take that as the cue to start pouring through these dusty, seedy streets either side of a faux-grand arch proclaiming ‘Kingdom Of Cambodia’.
Some of them are Western backpackers passing through, and a few more are Thais making the most of the nine new casinos operating here – enjoying a trip away from a country where gambling is forbidden.
But many others are poverty-stricken Cambodians heading into Thailand for the day to make a dollar or two hauling carts or working in the paddy fields.
Most will return home by the time the border shuts again at 8pm.
But there are those making their way to work in Thailand who may never come home again – or if they do, will only do so traumatised by their sex abuse ordeal and infected with HIV.
Tempted over by silver-tongued traffickers promising sought-after work – many of them women themselves – Cambodian victims will quickly find themselves enslaved in brothels and sordid bars instead.
You Ra is one of those victims, now one of the estimated 84,000 adults living with HIV in a country where death from the disease is more likely than in most nations.
Until recently the country had the fastest-rising HIV infection rate in the world, reaching 3.3 per cent, and though this figure has fallen to 0.8 per cent it is still the second worst in Asia.
Poipet’s infection rate is estimated to be at least ten times the national average.

These days You Ra, despite her frailty, drags a cart packed with cheap food and drink across into Thailand and back again each day.
But the 32-year-old was once one of those entrapped by the sex trade, enduring three years in a Thai bar – notionally as a waitress, but in fact as a prostitute forced to sleep with up to ten men each night.
Often these were drunken Western tourists, crudely demanding sex for up to 1,000 baht (£18) a time – and turning violent if their unsubtle advances were resisted.
You Ra herself never saw any of that money, which was paid directly to her employer - instead told she should count herself lucky to receive three bowls of rice each day.
‘The owner would say he paid a very expensive price for me, about 100,000 baht (£1,800), and I didn’t have the right to anything,’ she recalled.
She had been a widowed mother-of-three, unable to find a job, when first approached by a woman promising employment sewing trousers, across the border from Poipet.
You Ra was accompanied by her self-proclaimed saviour, plus five other women, as she was hustled across the border and travelled on through Thailand for 16 hours straight.
Eventually she was deposited in a large bar in the city of Chonburi, where the owner instantly ordered the women into shorter skirts and skimpier tops – and made it clear what their new duties would be.
In fact, he himself provided the most brutal of initiations by raping You Ra, something he would repeat regularly during her time there – beating her up if she ever tried to resist.
Breaking down in tears, she told Metro: ‘We didn’t want to go along with this, but the owner would beat us morning and night. We said we had to force ourselves to do whatever the customers wanted.
‘During the day we could rest and sleep, but at night we had to serve the men who came. I had to sleep with between five and ten people every night.
‘Many of them were Thai people, but some were Cambodians who had crossed the border for work, and others were from Myanmar.
‘There were also customers from the West, lighter-skinned men, who could behave very badly when they got drunk.
‘Some could be more gentle, but others would get very violent – especially if they felt they weren’t satisfied enough, and they would start to attack.’
Ferocious dogs posted around the building’s perimeters not only kept any troublesome customers from escaping if they refused to pay.
They also helped frustrate any hopes You Ra had of fleeing, leaving her feeling: ‘Every long day, I thought I would die there – I thought there was no way out, for the rest of my life.’
Surprise salvation came, however, when a nearby property set fire and she used the confusion to escape and run away.
But even once she had eventually made it home and remarried, more heartache awaited.
Signs of sickness and fever in her fifth son, 18-month-old Chai Chorvant, prompted her to take him to hospital for a blood test revealing he was HIV-positive.
You Ra was swiftly diagnosed with the disease as well, along with her new husband Chai Dam, 31 – all three now victims of some sordid encounter with one of those abusive clients.
She said: ‘I’m very angry that I don’t know how to do them harm or repay them for what they’ve done to me,’ she said.
‘Now I’m always warning women to be careful, no matter how desperate they may feel.
‘And Westerners should realise bars like that, HIV is there already – tourists should keep well away if they don’t want to be infected too.
‘Working in that bar was like being in Hell for me. Now HIV has made my life another Hell – I face a death sentence every day.’


HAN Sry had only been lying prone in Poipet’s spartan, solitary Aids healthcare unit for a day.
But already she – and her 12-year-old daughter, on 24-hour bedside vigil – feared death was on its way.
Already widowed by Aids, the 40-year-old was one of seven patients in the ill-equipped 15-bed unit at Poipet’s main health centre.
More often than not, according to senior doctors here, all 15 beds are occupied – forcing further arrivals to sleep on the hard concrete floors.
Speaking hoarsely to Metro through a translator, Han Sry said: ‘I was very weak when I was taken ill and was very happy to be brought here to hospital.
‘But I’m worried now – worried about the future for my children, my 17-year-old son and my 12-year-old daughter.
‘My husband is already dead. I’m scared of dying too, because I think about what the destiny will be for my children after I’m gone.’
Her daughter Srey Mao added: ‘I’m frightened. My mother has got HIV and I’m worried about her dying.
‘I’ve spent all the time with her since she came to the hospital.
‘I wish above all that she maybe could get better – but I’m not sure she ever will.’
The Aids patients, many now in the final stages of their life, are housed in a crumbling concrete block with peeling surfaces, no glass in the windows and only a couple of taps on the walls for sanitation.
The word ‘hospital’ is actually little more than a convenient label for Poipet 1 Healthcare Centre, where staff can perform no operations and crucial equipment is frequently denied them by government.
The nearest main hospital is two hours’ drive away in the city of Siem Reap.
The healthcare centre’s director Soun Sophal dutifully files reports pleading for extra staff, shower and toilet facilities for Aids patients, and a new ward segregating HIV and tuberculosis beds.
But so far he has received little help from the country’s ministry of health, winning only outright refusals – or no reply at all.
This is despite his 23 staff, at the 150-bed centre, diagnosing an average of 15 new HIV-positive cases every month.
He believes they have carried out 10,000 HIV tests since opening seven years ago.
Though firm figures are not available, his estimates suggest 1,260 positive results in that time – an infection rate of 12.6 per cent, well above the national average of 0.9 per cent.


KHEN Vein is still shaken by how her husband went off to fight as a child soldier for Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the barbaric army that would murder her two sisters.
Yet while she survived Cambodia’s ‘Killing Fields’ nightmare of the Seventies, the 21st century has provided a fatal legacy of her own.
And again her husband Chau-ut Thet can be implicated – not for the loss of those sisters, but the deadly disease now poisoning both his wife and his son.
Chau-ut, a child soldier at the not so tender age of 11, is now himself dead – killed by Aids aged just 44.
His adulterous affairs while looking for work in Cambodia’s major cities left not only him HIV-positive.
He also then passed on the infection to his wife Khen Vein when returning to their rural home village of Toulsalla, about 50km outside the capital Phnom Penh.
That sad inheritance is also borne by their nine-year-old son Thet Sokchan.

Many who lived through the Pol Pot era can be shy about recalling the four-year period in which 1.7million Cambodians died through torture, execution, disease and starvation.
But some are prepared to delve into those bleak memories, whether prompted by curious visitors – or the ongoing trial of notorious prison camp commander Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch.
Revelations at his genocide trial, now approaching its end, include descriptions of how inmates were routinely beaten, received electric shocks, had their toenails torn out and were waterboarded.
When the invading forces came to call on Khen Vein’s village, her sisters were among those taken hostage, bound and gagged and hustled away to be slaughtered elsewhere.
Khen Vein, now 50, recalled: ‘My two sisters were murdered by Pol Pot’s forces because they were too educated.
‘Some of the troops did start questioning me as well, but I did my best to seem as ignorant as possible – I pretended I hadn’t learnt anything at all, and they let me go.’
Her husband was 16 when they married – and already a veteran of several years’ Khmer Rouge training, deep in the Cambodian mountains.
But she admitted: ‘I didn’t understand very much at the time – I was just afraid.
‘My husband and I didn’t talk much about the killings that were going on – just more about his basic duties and the things he’d have to fix.
‘Life was so difficult. I couldn’t go to school – there was nothing to eat. We had to walk the longest distances just to find any scraps of food.
‘At least now I can get dressed in peace. I have food to eat. My children can go to school and enjoy their education.’
Yet Thet Sokchan’s school days have been blighted by taunts and snubs from fellow pupils, aware of his HIV status.
In villages such as Toulsalla and Roka, in the province of Kandal, charities such as Tearfund-aided World Relief put on drama, puppetry and music classes to educate all ages about health risks – and health myths too, to erode prejudice.
But Khen Vein told how neighbours would bar their children from playing anywhere near her home.
And Thet Sokchan himself said: ‘The kids there would curse my mother. I didn’t scold them back – I would only cry to myself instead.’
His philandering father died in hospital in September 2005, with Thet Sokchan recalling: ‘I remember my father holding me to his leg when he was very sick and had to go to the hospital. After that, he didn’t come back.’
At least the anti-retroviral drugs he takes without fail at 6am and 6pm each day have stabilised his condition.
Yet while an estimated 60 per cent of Cambodia’s 84,000 HIV patients now have access to ARV drugs, some corrupt medics are exploiting government provisions by introducing charges – especially in areas where aid agencies have stepped back.
Even fees of $1 or $2 can be prohibitive in some of the poorest regions.
Thet Sokchan not only receives his, however, but was also given an alarm clock by World Relief to remind him when to take them.
But Khen Vein feels sickly more often, losing all strength and regularly falling dizzy.
‘That makes me worry all the more about my children,’ she fretted.
‘There are three of the five I’m still very responsible for, especially the youngest.
‘If I die, who will take care of my child?’
‘I’m afraid about that too,’ Thet Sokchan quietly, solemnly added.