Sunday, November 05, 2006

Holiday in Cambodia

I haven't really felt able to write about the experience of travelling with my mother to Cambodia because something so multi-faceted needs to time to digest.

It's also incredibly difficult to write about the trip in any meaningful way so I won't try. A few things:

When the Dead Kennedys wrote the song with the title of this post, it was a genuinely appalling prospect to visit Cambodia; and although Year Zero was in 1979, it's only 10 years ago that the resultant civil war finally ended.

Clearly there is a huge amount of poverty, but also, jarringly, conspicuous signs of wealth: along the narrow, crowded streets, amongst the mopeds, and bicycles, and tuktuks, occasionally an oversized 4x4 with blacked-out windows would make its brutish way, and once I saw one of those concrete symbols of arrogance, a Hummer. The city was undoubtedly not designed for large vehicles of any kind and on our way back to the airport our driver took a shortcut which led us straight to the heart of a traffic snarl of unimaginable intractability, at a standstill like a blood clot spreading out from the city centre.

Our visit had two purposes: I wanted to visit Sok Sabay, the orphanage in Phnom Penh where the little girl that we sponsor lives; and opportunistically, I'd arranged to go and visit the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia to see if my company could provide any services to the tribunal trying the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge (slogan: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss").

We stayed in the Foreign Correspondents' Club, overlooking the Tonle Sap, the wide, muddy river leading from Asia's largest freshwater lake to the Mekong. The river is the focus of the entire city, and along its banks are beggars, people selling hot food from mobile stalls (eggs, insects, pears), and kids selling travel guides from boxes slung round their necks. We saw an elephant, festooned with a red banner, walking along the street. When we sat outside a cafe eating lunch, squads of pocket sized kids crept up behind the protective row of pot plants with their hands out for money, but they seemed happy enough when we took some of them to a food stall and bought them prickly handfuls of lychee-like fruit, or a couple of waffles.

The orphanage houses 69 kids and we waded through calf-deep water in the flooded street to join them for lunch. They're housed in two multi-storey buildings, the upper floors packed with beds, and there are computers and blackboards and books, and the kids are happy and healthy. It is a very pragmatic, cheerful place. The kids were incredibly affectionate: one little mite leapt out of nowhere into my arms for a hug. The little girl we sponsor was quite shy at first but we took her out for ice cream and she seemed to relax a bit and put her hand in mine as we walked by the river. We bought her a little box from the Russian Market; when she was picked up to be taken home on the back of a motorbike, she turned and waved and waved until she was out of sight.

The Extraordinary Chamber has taken shape a few miles out of Phnom Penh, in an old army base. The tribunal itself will sit in a converted army concert hall, on a vast wooden stage, with tiered rows of blue seats holding the audience, watching the witnesses and defendants in the spotlight. I asked the Cambodian administrator who was showing me around how the Cambodian people felt about the tribunal given that it is costing US$20m a year (a snip of the US$90m reportedly being incurred by the ICTY). He said simply "People want justice".

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