-Picture this – October 1979 – close to the Thai / Kampuchean border area. The heat is intense, the sun way too bright for the cheap sunglasses bought in haste and my sparkling white uniform cannot cope with the sweat cascading from pores I never knew I had!
The scene in front of me is as close to a nightmare as I ever want to get.
Thousands of displaced Khmer huddled in ragged groups, many quietly dying on a patch of rough ground the size St James’ Park in London. It became known as Sa Keao holding camp for displaced Khmer. In those early days this place was filled with death, illness and suffering. Having escaped across the border from the murderous 4 year regime of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge Party, surviving interrogation, torture and famine, there were tens of thousands strung out along the border area in other amps. The scale of human degradation was over whelming.
I was there as one of the 8 member Save the Children team sent from London and New Zealand to set up clinics and feeding centres for mothers and children. As the scale of the catastrophe became clearer, medical teams from many countries arrived with the skills required. The level logistical planning and co-ordination required was staggering.
The Thai Army quickly cleared ground for dirt roads and erected fencing; vast rolls of blue plastic were distributed, providing temporary shelter from the unrelenting sun that was further dehydrating people suffering from dysenteries; the omni present threat of cholera loomed. Convoys of trucks ferried water from a source 20 miles away- and life giving supplies donated from all over the world were trucked in from the airport. A semblance of order was established as a bamboo and thatch hospital and attendant clinics were built and completed within a 12 day period.
10 days later people were counted into this camp – it was then that we learned there were 42,000.
Slowly emerging from this human tragedy came the most extraordinary stories of survival.
This is where I met 14 year old Vichuta Ly. (I’ll call her Vic from here on.) An under nourished child whose bright, intelligent eyes belied her poor physical condition. With medical care, safe water and extra food rations she gained strength and became an invaluable member of the team.
I left the camp in December 1980, exhausted and needing a dose of home.
24 years later, I returned to Pnom Penh, to meet up with other Cambodians I had nursed in Sa Keao . Quite unexpectedly, I was re united with Vic.
Now a woman of 38, she told me her story over a lunch that I describe in my first book Always the Children.. In 1980, Vic and others were given asylum in Canada. She completed her education and gained a law degree in Montreal. She set up her own charity to provide free legal aid to women and children rescued from human traffickers and those suffering domestic abuse.
We reminisced about Sa Keao days – and she reminded me of things I had forgotten.
As a refugee camp moves on from being a medical emergency, it becomes a social dilemma. No child should be raised in such conditions, behind barbed wire, thinking this is the norm. With the volunteer help of British women living in Bangkok, we were able to set up playgroups and classes in an attempt to structure the days. The volunteers kept us supplied with colouring and exercise books, pens, pencils, paints etc. This helped with the developement of so many young children.
Vic reminded me of an English / French dictionary I had given her. Her words astounded and touched me deeply. “My father was Chief Justice of Cambodia in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over. As part of the government he was executed quickly, along with some of my brother and sisters. He always told us children to focus on our studies, to do well as this is what would give us a good life. For 4 years I lived like a wild animal in the rice paddies, trying to stay alive despite what was going on around me. When you handed that small, blue dictionary to me that day, I immediately took it as a clear sign from my father. It told me to get back to my studies, to get back to the business of living. I still have that dictionary and I know every word in it. It gave me back my life.”
I was deeply moved by her words. That was some lunch.
My first book was about to be launched. I hurriedly sent an e mail to Vic and Solina (more of her next month). Telling them that at last their story would be read by many, a party was to be held to launch the book, and how I wished they could be there.
I was being rushed through press and radio interviews, with scarcely time to draw breath.
3 days later, and quite unexpectedly, I received an e mail from Vic. “Do you know a railway station called St Pancras? We are arriving on Eurostar, arriving at 1pm from Paris. We would not miss this for the world.”
Incredulous and tearful, I could barely take it in. At St Pancras, clutching 2 copies of Always the Children, I wondered if I would recognise them – and they me.
As the first overwhelming wave of passengers appeared, I saw immediately at the back of the immense crowd a raised arm – and in the hand was clutched the blue dictionary.
Suffice to say there were tears – lots of tears.
Vichuta Ly formed her charity LSCW in 2002.
She provides free legal aid for repatriated men, women and children rescued from the human traffickers throughout S.E. Asia.
Vic protects those who have suffered rape, domestic violence, those exploited for servile marriage, black market organ removal, those trafficked for sexual and labour exploitation. Her energy, dedication and focus are exemplary.
This 14 year old child, who was barely 10 when her father and various family members were executed, has triumphed and lived a full and vitally important life. Truly an example to all of us who feel we cannot make a difference.
She is living proof that each and every one of can, and does, make a difference.
Her father would be so proud of her.
January 6th 2015
Vic stood in the Pnom Penh court, where the trials of senior Khmer Rouge officers are on – going, and gave witness testimony against the 2 men in the dock. (Please see short video of this on my web site.) Both have been imprisoned for the rest of their natural lives.