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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A helping hand in Cambodian slums

AnneMarie Tangney

In September last year I took a month off from my normal routine of playing doctor, mother and wife and went to live in the slums of Phnom Pehn, Cambodia. I stayed with a family in a slum situated in the southeast of the city. Of course, I paid for my keep so as not to be a financial burden to them.

The idea behind going to Cambodia was for me to get out of my comfort zone, to experience real poverty firsthand and see what impact a group called Task (a local Christian organisation, funded by charities such as TEAR Fund) was doing through their various aid projects.

My host family did not speak any English and so out of sheer necessity I managed to learn more Khmer language than I would ever have dreamed possible. I started by learning to count, name everyday foods, say please, thank you and basic greetings. Then I added some adjectives and more nouns to my vocabulary.

I was surprised my ageing brain was still elastic enough to cope with language acquisition at such speed and marvelled at the value of total immersion for learning a new language. By the end of the month, in fairly basic Khmer I was able to chat and joke with my host family, teach them some card games such as Last Card, which they loved, and felt I had a meaningful relationship with them.

It was an unforgettable month. Each day started with me rising at 5.30am to the sound of the neighbourhood getting into full swing of the morning routine, which consisted of television or pop music at full volume, people washing clothes in large metal bowls and breakfast preparation. The coolness of the early morning made it definitely the most pleasant time of the day, as generally after 8am the temperatures would start to climb to levels such that I would start perspiring from then until night time. I had no real way of knowing for sure but guessed the temperatures to be about 35 to 45°C between 8am and 8pm.

After breakfast, which was rice every day, I would usually get a motorbike ride into town. It was a challenge both haggling in Khmer with the motorbike driver as to what the fare for each ride would be and holding on for dear life as we negotiated some of the most incredibly dense and chaotic traffic I have ever seen.

After surviving the ride to the city, I would meet up with someone from the Task medical team. The medical team consisted of a doctor, a nurse, a medical student (a man putting himself through medical school on the weekends) and a midwife. I would tag along with one of them as they visited various aid projects. The three projects I most frequently attended were AIDS home care which involved regular supportive home visits to people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, a clinic for prostitutes and a women’s general clinic.

September was still the rainy season and the unbelievable rainfall along with non-existent drainage meant we were often wading through flooded alleyways of warm, blackish water to access many homes. Upon arriving at a patient’s home, I sometimes had a bit of difficulty getting up the thin wooden ladders to the rickety houses on stilts. I was sometimes worried I would break the flimsy floors made of split bamboo with my weight but luckily they seemed to be sturdy enough to cope, despite the fact I was roughly double the weight of an average Cambodian woman.

The most common medical problems I encountered when visiting people with HIV/AIDS in their homes were activated TB, dysentery, thrush and skin sepsis. A lot of emphasis went on encouraging patients to keep going with their TB treatment, to start or continue with their anti-retroviral therapy and sorting out everyday issues such as access to food and basic items such as cooking pots, blankets and mosquito nets. There was a real sense of satisfaction felt by myself and the Task team for their work. Without such work the majority of people they help would have no hope of access to medical care and basic items. It’s a pity there is so much work to be done among the very poor of Cambodia and a finite amount of time, money and man power to do it. Nevertheless, to be part of this was terribly satisfying indeed.

It was lovely getting back to my family in Dunedin and going back to my usual routine has not been as weird as I thought. I realise I tend to live in the present and try to make the most of the opportunities of the moment. Still I hope my month in Cambodia gets to have some impact on my present and future, but I am still trying to figure out how.

AnneMarie Tangney is a Dunedin GP

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Khmer Rouge defendant says guards taught to hate


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The former Khmer Rouge prison commander accused of overseeing the torture and execution of thousands of men, women and children said Tuesday that his underlings were taught class hatred that allowed them to kill their enemies.

Kaing Guek Eav, 66, spoke at Cambodia's U.N.-assisted genocide tribunal, which is trying him for crimes against humanity, war crimes, murder and torture related to the Khmer Rouge's 1970s "killing fields" regime.

Better known by his alias, Duch, he is the first senior Khmer Rouge figure to face trial and the only one to acknowledge responsibility for his actions. Four more are in custody and are scheduled to be tried sometime over the next year or two.

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died under the 1975-79 communist Khmer Rouge from forced labor, starvation, medical neglect and executions.

During that time, Duch commanded Phnom Penh's S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng, where as many as 16,000 people are believed to have been tortured before being sent off for execution.
But the court has first been hearing testimony concerning a jungle prison known as M13 that Duch ran during the 1970-75 civil war that brought the Khmer Rouge to power.

Witnesses have alleged that Duch personally took part in torture and executions — an accusation he denies. But on Tuesday, he explained how he compelled his guards to carry out such acts.

"We educated people to have a firm class stand and then we taught them to be strict about how they could interrogate the prisoners and also taught them how to smash people and to keep them from escaping," he said.

"Smash" was the common euphemism used by the Khmer Rouge for kill or execute.

Duch, who had been a schoolteacher before joining the Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement, explained that the communist theory of education was different from traditional Cambodian teachings. Buddhism opposed killing, he said, but communism justified such actions to aid the working class.

If people did not follow the Khmer Rouge's orders, he added, they feared they "would be beheaded."

The significance of the testimony appeared to be that even before they came to power, the Khmer Rouge encouraged a culture of deadly violence toward their enemies that disregarded conventional notions of justice and allowed decisions to kill people to be left in local hands.

Soon after they came to power, the group began executing its enemies from the former regime. Later, the cadre started using executions as almost ordinary punishment for anyone who disobeyed them. As the regime became paranoid, it began purges of its own followers throughout the country, leading to many massacres.

Earlier Tuesday, a guard who worked under Duch at M13 described him as someone whose life was devoted to his work, which he never took lightly.

Chan Khorn, 53, said Duch had a strict character and no one dared disobey him because they were scared of him.

"I myself was so afraid of him I could not even look him in the face," he said.

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Cambodian feast serves up tolerance

In an effort to give students an insightful look into Cambodian (Kampuchea) and Southern Cambodian (Khmer Krom) culture, nearly 120-strong gathered in the Rutgers Student Center Multipurpose Room Thursday evening for the first-ever Cambodian Food Festival.

Sponsored by the Rutgers Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Cultural Association, the club and festival were meant to raise awareness at the University of the cultural, social and political issues related to the Khmer and Khmer Krom peoples, said Daniel Yi, a club board member and a School Of Environmental And Biological Sciences sophomore.

“Although Cambodian food is often quite spicy, several of the dishes were toned down in piquancy to accommodate for all in attendance,” said Rutgers College junior Hien Tran, the club’s social outreach chair.

As one of the school’s newest organizations, the association has put on events of a smaller scale, such as movie nights. The club’s leaders worked all semester to ensure the success of this event, meant to mark the end of the club’s first year as well as to act as the commencement for a bright future.

“I just wanted the club to make a splash in the Rutgers community,” said Club President Sambo Thach. “Cambodian culture is so vast and diverse that I felt it was important [to] afford as many people as possible the chance to experience it.”

The festival featured a smorgasbord of nearly 10 traditional Cambodian dishes, including tilapia fried in chili sauce, fruit salad, chicken lollipops, fried rice, spicy prawns, spring rolls and Cambodian crepes, as well as bean cakes for dessert.

“The fruit salad is for the particularly adventuresome palate, since it includes copious ingredients not readily found in most Western cuisine, such as jack fruit and leches,” said Thach, a School of Engineering junior.

But food was not the only thing on the menu for the night. The event included a coconut dance by Tran and a performance by a Cambodian percussion ensemble. The Philadelphia-based ensemble included six drummers, a cymbalist and a gong player. Finally, students participated in a durian eating contest.

Many individuals in attendance were experiencing Cambodian culture for the first time, and other organizations such as the Vietnamese Student Association came out to show their support.
George Kotzias, one of the students new to Khmer culture, had nothing but good things to say about the club.

“As a member of other Asian cultural clubs, I found this to be a culturally and culinary enlightening experience,” said Kotzias, a Rutgers College senior. “The food was of a sweet-tangy nature that I found thoroughly delectable.”

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One in jail, one at large after Cambodian festival shootings

One man remained jailed Monday and another was sought by Dakota County sheriff's deputies after shots were fired at a Cambodian festival attended by about 2,000 people in Hampton on Saturday, the Sheriff's Office said. Nobody was hit.

The incident happened shortly after 3:30 p.m. in the parking lot of the Watt Munisotaram Temple, just off Hwy. 50, in the 2900 block of E. 220th Street. Several cars were struck, said Dave Bellows, chief deputy.

He said a 29-year-old man was arrested shortly after the incident, and deputies continued looking Monday for at least one other man. Authorities suspect that gang activity might be involved, Bellows said. The arrested man's name was not released Monday because of an ongoing investigation, and he had not been charged Monday afternoon.

Handguns used in the shooting were not recovered, Bellows said.

While most of the festival-goers were at the temple nearby, rather than in the parking lot, it was "very fortunate that no one was struck," Bellows said.

"We estimate that eight to 10 shots were fired between these two," he said.

The festival celebrated the Cambodian New Year. Such gatherings at the large temple, which opened in 2005, have been peaceful in the past, he said.

Anyone with information is encouraged to contact the Dakota County Sheriff's Office at 651-438-4720 or the TIPS line at 651-438-8477.

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