”She survived” Rith says, gently putting the coffee cup down on its saucer. ”She survived because he let her go. She hid herself there, right next to the killing fields. Next to a dam surrounded by lots of meandering morning glory. A few days later she made her way past the dam to another camp where no one recognised her and no one knew where she came from. They welcomed her – the survivor. This was just before the Vietnamese Invasion.”
Rith gazes through the glass doors of the café while he talks. He sees a long line of city jeeps with a few Toyota Camrys among them – behind the cars the bustling traffic in Boulevard Sihanouk.
“She survived? And she could tell you what had happened?”
Instead of looking at Rith I put down my eating utensils next to the plate and consult my notes.
“Yes. I’ll tell you everything she told me – except her name.”
He lowers his voice and throws a fervent glance all around.
“You asked me and I say it is true. You want to know if there were rapes and sexual violence under the rule of the Khmer Rouge? Of course there were. That is how every oppressive regime operates – more or less. In all wars there is rape. But …”
“It is not well-documented. A woman has talked to me though; she has born witness. They took men and women out to the killing fields in separate groups, at different times, to have them killed. She is the only survivor from one of these occasions. She says that she was part of a woman’s group of twenty-five and all were raped – the one after the other – before they were shot. The commander of the camp who raped her let her go afterwards. He had looked her in the eyes – his face was open and empathetic, she said, and had revealed that he felt sorry for her. That he wanted to have her pardoned, so he whispered to her to leave, to crawl off into the high grass in amongst the bushes – on all fours. And she did what he told her to do. Without anyone noticing. She hid a way off past the killing fields at the dam with the meandering morning glory that she ate to survive before she dared leave her hide-out and walk on towards the camp where they welcomed her.”
I make a note of everything Rith has told me – every word. When I put down my pen I notice that the pages are damp with sweat and the ink is smudged. But the words remain; the letters look like lost little bodies, blue curls on white paper, like dark veins under skin.
“So she guessed that this was the usual procedure; they took the men and women to the killing fields separately so that they could rape the women before killing them. This was their custom, their little pastime and privilege – reserved for those higher up in the hierarchy whose job it was to kill – a dirty job – and since the women were going to be killed anyway… But no one talks about it. No one would admit to it. And the women never said anything because they were all shot – all but this one who managed to survive and bear witness.”
Rith’s words cut me deeply and linger somewhere between my diaphragm and my genitals; they cramp in me and create a nausea that refuses to let go of its grip.
I carry the heavy words in my notebook. All the stories; not only Rith’s story but all the stories of those I have been listening to. I thank him.
“Excuse me for whispering” he says. “But in Cambodja there is a lot of whispering. About this that and the other. One needs to be quiet about things – remember that. Don’t think that you are safe just because you’re a barang. You never can tell who is listening or who might be offended by what you are saying.”
Rith rises and gives me a quick hug. Then he takes his sling bag, goes out through the doors of the café, and is gone.
These stories – about what has been and about things happening still all around us – I carry with me. My hand tightens around my pen: the woman speaking in Rith’s voice is truly speaking words of liberation. But then they first need to be transported overseas or out of the country.
Si Nath sits across from me on the porch in a big round wicker chair.
“They are planning the construction of high rises. Forty-two stories high. They will be called The Golden Towers 42. Over there near Lucky Market at the Sihanouk-Moneyvong crossing. A crazy project; who would want to live there? Where would they park? There is simply no space. No space there for that …”
My reply is something I have heard from a friend.
“It’s drug money laundering, drug money laundering. No one is building housing for people – people have housing already – in Dey Krahorm there have been people living since the Vietnamese Invasion, and now even if they are entitled and have their deeds they are forcefully being moved.”
“They were given the land in 1979 by the Ministry of Culture so that artists and musicians would have somewhere to live. If they managed to build their own houses out of whatever they could find they would be given the land – I suppose real estate at the time in Pnom Penh wasn’t worth a penny after all that had happened…”
Si Nath pours more iced tea from the jade green teapot. I let my hand ruffle the foliage of the bougainvillea tumbling over the porch wall. A deep red dragonfly settles on the back of my hand and stays a few seconds. On the other side of the alley beyond the forest-like shrubbery of bougainvillea and its cascades of flowers in white, pink, purple, and orange, I see the golden spire of the pagoda pointing upwards towards the heavens. It is the hour of the evening meditations. Bells toll, slowly at first but soon quicker and more compellingly. Faint traces of incense waft onto the porch. In the monks’ chanting nasal song I only recognize the name of the pagoda: Wat Svay Pope.
“Will you be at the film premiere on Wednesday?” Si Nath wants to know. “At noon at Psar Damkor. The blue circular cultural centre. The Minister of Culture will be there. I would like you to cut the ribbon.”
"Cut the ribbon?"
“It’s a great honour,” she explains further. “My latest film is called And the River Flows On. It’s about trafficking; it’s meant to warn young rural girls. Some NGOs are planning to use it.”
“I’d be happy to of course.”
“There is one thing though. Do you remember that last picture in the book of poems we translated—the one on its way to the press—we have to delete that picture.”
“The one with me lying in your hammock pretending to sleep. Several officials at the Ministry have reacted to that picture. ‘She looks dead’ they say.”
“But Si Nath, we can’t remove it now. It’s too late; I have already handed over the final draft – you checked it remember? – it is due to be printed on Monday, and I am going to be there to oversee the whole process.”
“No way. The picture has to go. It might be regarded as offensive. If you can’t stop the process then we will have to cut it out of every single copy. Book by book!”
The books lie in packets of brown paper on the delicately woodworked hardwood sofa. While I watch, Si Nath opens the first packet. She pages through a copy to the last page in search of the picture of her in the hammock.
“But didn’t I tell you to… I asked you to…”
“Yes you did. But I didn’t want to do it.”
“You didn’t want to? Give me a pair of scissors please.”
I am puzzled: I was the one who cut the ribbon at the premiere of her film; I was the one who was monitored by the Minister of Culture and filmed by those men in power; I cut the ribbon because the film is about trafficking, which is important and because… and now Si Nath wants a pair of scissors.
“Si Nath. Where books are burned they will one day also burn people.”
Her face is taught and, without looking up, she walks with determined steps towards the kitchen. She returns clutching a pair of scissors against her midriff; her right hand has them in a hard grip.
She sits down cross-legged on the French colonial style tiles on the porch and cuts out the last page from one book after the other.
At the book release at the French Cultural Centre the books lie in piles on one side of the counter where the buffet is also served. I have not told anyone about the mutilation of the book – sooner or later someone is bound to notice.
I have kept repeating to Si Nath that: “It is our book – not theirs; it is not the Government’s book. It is ours, and if we don’t do what we like or say things we want to say, there will never be any change.”
And Si Nath has answered: “I carried my grandmother over the river in Kompong Cham; I carried her to the hut of wattles in the camp where we were allowed to live and work—she was so light that I could carry her on outstretched arms. She died soon after from malnutrition. My oldest brother was shot in the neck in Kompong Chhnang when he attempted to flee.”
Rith is also at the party. Under the clear moonlit sky, in the throng of people we raise our glasses to one another in a toast. At this latitude the half moon looks like a smiling white mouth against the dark sky.
I show Rith the remains of the cut away page. He looks wordlessly at me as if in agreement and then says:
“She survived because she hid herself in the dam and because there was morning glory to eat. She survived because she never disclosed where she came from or what happened to her when she finally reached the camp.”
There is food, drinks, noodles, rice and dumplings, and morning glory.
She survived. But don’t think you are safe just because you are a barang.
Where they burn books…the stubby remains of the cut away pages speak for themselves.
She survived, she was mum about what had happened….But you… you mustn’t think that… a passing word; an accident; they know your address; they are keeping an eye on you; one day you may be called in for interrogation…
The nights even in central Phnom Penh are black. The electrical wires hang in ribbons between the lampposts. The moon smiles its silent smile. I am driving my motorbike home on the gravel roads; Si Nath on the back seat with her arms around my waist; only street children and rats are out this late at night; the auto-rickshaw drivers lie all cramped up and asleep in their vehicles; the only dams around are the water-filled pot holes in the road – and there is no morning glory.