Sunday, January 26, 2014

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  This short speech contrasts Cambodia and Rwanda, based on an earlier blog.  I read it to a small event near my home village in the Pennines, for the 2014 commemorations.

This country is beautiful – deep red earth and vibrant green fields.  The people too are wonderful -
hard-working peasant farmers, still deeply religious; my greetings in French largely met with friendly incomprehension. And yet when I tell you the name of this country, you will probably think first of bad things:  the terrible genocide, and the resulting poverty.

Next year it will be 40 years since the genocide in Cambodia.  It was in 1975 when the notorious Khmer Rouge swept to power and unleashed the terrible Killing Fields.  Pol Pot’s 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of terror, which led to the death of over 2 million Cambodians.

I have recently returned from two years volunteering in Cambodia, as a health management advisor for Voluntary Service Overseas. 

For that whole time I never stopped asking ‘why’ – and never really got a satisfactory answer:  the corrupt legacy of colonial rule; failure by the international community, fixated on the cold war being fought out in neighbouring Vietnam; a culture of fatalism; radicalised, misguided leaders creating a system where everyone could be an enemy of the people - take your pick.

Although nearly 40 years ago, Cambodia has far from dealt with its past.  Most of the people remain poor.  The education and health systems still lag way behind neighbouring countries.

There has been little reconciliation:  People hardly talk of the genocide - but the effects have not gone away.  It’s no surprise that researchers have diagnosed the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in many who survived the Killing Fields.  What is much more surprising, and deeply disturbing, is that they have also found all the symptoms in the new generation of Cambodians.  The effects of the genocide have not been dealt with, but passed on to the next generation to suffer.

There has been little political improvement:  Hun Sen is a de facto dictator, 29 years in power, and has presided over the systematic corruption of the country.  Everything is for sale in Cambodia – land, people, power.  Just a few months ago Hun Sen stole yet another election, and is in the process of suppressing opposition protests.

There has been little justice following the genocide:  the UN-backed trials have cost over $173m so far; and they have held completed the trial of just 1 person.  Perhaps this is hardly surprising, as Hun Sen himself used to be part of the Khmer Rouge regime.

There is a glimmer of hope.  There have at least been 40 years of relative peace following the genocide.  Tourists now flock to Angkor Wat to wonder at the jungle temples.  Phnom Penh is now a thriving capital - a few have even become wealthy on the back of land deals, cars, mobile phones – the so-called ‘Khmer Riche’.  Whilst Hun Sen shows no sign of loosening his grip, a new generation of opposition is growing.  And the new generation is challenging and curious to learn about and from their country’s turbulent history.  Perhaps there is some hope?

This country is beautiful – deep red earth and vibrant green fields.  The people too are wonderful – hard-working peasant farmers, still deeply religious; my greetings in French largely met with friendly incomprehension.  And yet when I tell you the name of this country, you will probably think first of bad things:  the terrible genocide, and the resulting poverty.

This year it is also 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda.  It was as recently as 1994 when up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered - all in just 100 days.

I also volunteered for around 6 months in Rwanda, as a hospital management advisor.

Again, I spend that whole time asking ‘why’ – and again never really got a satisfactory answer:  the corrupt legacy of colonial rule; radicalised, misguided political leaders, and an absence of condemnation by most church leaders; failure of the international community, with a weak UN mandate and US terrified by setbacks in Somalia - again, take your pick…
  And yet Rwanda has made great strides in dealing with its past.

There has been a great deal of justice.  It seemed slow at first, and with most of the country’s judges killed and a backlog of 130,000 suspects.  It was estimated it would take 200 years to try everyone in prison, let alone those still at large.  But in Rwanda they found a solution:  whilst the high-level genocidaires were tried at the UN courts in Arusia, Tanzania, Rwanda adapted its traditional community ‘Gacaca’ courts to deliver a kind of truth & reconciliation system.  It was imperfect, but between 1996 and 2000 they tried an estimated 1m people.  By the time I was there in 2009, the trials were all over, and prisoners were well into their sentences: I saw large numbers:  the modest hospital where I worked had a whole ward set aside for them; orange pajamas if awaiting trial; pink if convicted of murder (or if they’d run out of orange ones).  Although imperfect, there was some justice, and some closure - the country was moving on.

And I think this allowed for a significant amount of reconciliation:  whilst I’m sure there are still issues bubbing below the surface, people do talk of the genocide.  You can’t miss it in Rwanda:  every small town has a bright purple genocide memorial, prominently located on the main road.  And the country has no less than 3 months every year of mourning, from April to July.

There has been some political improvement:  Paul Kigame, the president, is a strong leader, but at least he was part of the solution, the liberating force (in contrast to Hun Sen who was part of the problem, the Khmer Rouge).  Some describe him as a benevolent dictator; many question his activities on and over the border with Congo.  But he is smart, measured, and has a positive vision to transform Rwanda into a middle income country by 2020 – no mean feat for a landlocked country, consisting almost entirely of peasant famers, and with little or no natural resources - let alone one so recently ravised by genocide.  And yet the people I met there were thirsty to learn and develop - I think they might just get there.

For Rwanda, I am much more positive:  I really think that the issue of genocide has been and is being addressed, lessons have been learned, and that there is hope for the future.

So to conclude:
Two beautiful countries, two lands of deep red earth and vibrant green fields.
Two wonderful peoples - neither of whom would speak French with me.

One with quite a distant genocide, but which I think it has never really dealt with;
and surprisingly, the other, poorer one with a much more recent genocide, but where great strides have been taken and where there is real hope for the future.
Thank you for thinking of them both, for highlighting their troubles and successes, and for trying to ensure such things never happen again.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A new life?

Between us, Katja and I volunteered for over 4 years in Cambodia.  We wanted to do something, however modest, to help people less fortunate than ourselves to have new, better lives.

Fine words, but not always easy in practice! 

In my remote village of Thmar Puok, the director asked me to help breathe new life into his hospital, which had gently drifted since it was cobbled together in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge nearly 30 years ago.  

I offered to help them to improve the care they offered to patients by using a quality improvement system in their ward or department.  Happily, the tool we used was not imposed by well-meaning outsiders, but was developed by Cambodians themselves and agreed by their own Ministry of Health.  And it wasn’t me doing the assessing – rather, I helped ward chiefs to score their own area against a detailed list of good practice. 

Another benefit of this approach is that - unusually for hospitals - we could actually measure improvements.  We agreed the present situation for equipment, documentation, hygiene, and patients’ views of their care.  These scores could be compared over time, or at one point between wards (healthy competition!).  Where scores were high we gave praise, and where not we focused on improving things - a manager’s dream!

It wasn’t perfect:  some of the scoring was strange, like getting hygiene points simply for toilets being unlocked, or for having a ward free of motorbikes.  And some staff ‘played the system’ - from giving their ward a rare clean just before the inspectors arrived, to making up documentation such as vital signs and medical notes in retrospect (it’s called fraud where I come from).

But if staff were playing, so were we - it was a ‘percentage game’, with at least some of the improvements made in advance of the assessment continuing afterwards.  Some things just dropped back to their original level - even basics like turning up for work, wearing uniform and washing hands.  Yet my heart leaps when I still hear doctors explaining diagnoses and proposed treatments.  And many of the issues which affect patients most - hygiene, nutrition, medication, finances - continue to be discussed in wonderful staff-led carer education sessions, which continue every Tuesday morning.

I would have preferred that staff enhanced care through a sense of empathy or professional pride.  But if in fact they made things better because they liked to get points, look good or avoid getting into trouble – well, so be it.  The fact is, things still improved for patients.

Appropriately for our planned renaissance, the best progress was in obstetrics. The midwives were the most receptive of all staff, and this year they agreed to be assessed against tougher (‘level 2’) standards.  They did really well – despite having a shabby old ward they kept it clean, maintained decent records, and gave a good quality of care to mothers and their newborn babies.

This was particularly pleasing as maternal health is (in theory at least) the key focus for all VSO health volunteers in Cambodia.  And it is richly symbolic:  if the whole aim was to give new hope and new life to the poorest people in a poor country, what better way than helping to bring babies into the world with more chance of a better life than their mum?

So, after two years, our thoughts also turned towards new lives, this time our own.  Katja returned first to the UK, to continue the theme of re-birth by starting two years further training to be a midwife herself.  The main reason she gives for taking on this tough extra study is not just that she loves babies, but also that she feels this is the best way she can help poor people in the future.  Now you can see why I admire her so much!

And for me too a new life was beckoning:  the prospect of discovering Oxford, possibly changing job or even career.  Importantly, I also hoped I would have a novel perspective on things – a better work-life balance, a calmer outlook, a clearer focus on what is important.  And, of course, I would be setting up home with the new love of my life - a wonderful, totally unexpected bonus of volunteering!

And so to my punchline.  At this point I had planned to make a happy announcement – of one more new life. 

Around a month before she returned to start studying, Katja and I found that she was pregnant.  We were so happy and excited – this really did mean that a new life would await us back in the UK. 

I couldn’t believe it:  “I’m going to be a daddy!” I chanted.  The thrill of the return home was enhanced by debating when and how to make the announcement, where to live, what marque of superbuggy to covet.  Most difficult of all was names.  Oliver was firmly at number one in the UK baby charts: what good taste parents have.  And these days there is also the issue of the surname, which presented a unique challenge for us – would we really risk condemning our offspring to a life of ridicule by imposing the easily mispronounced ‘Horsch-Shipp’?

But it wasn’t to be.  Sadly, after three months Katja rang me distraught to say she’d had a heavy bleed.  After dashing to the emergency obsterics unit and a further scan it was confirmed she had suffered a miscarriage. 

As suddenly as it had started, our dream was over.  Of course I rushed home, and am writing this in the day unit at Oxford’s John Radcliffe hospital, waiting for Katja to return from her operation, a coldly clinical ‘evacuation of retained products of conception’.  The physical evidence will soon be gone, and all that will remain are our dreams of what might have been.

It would always have taken us time for us to adjust to our return in the UK.  Now, with this wretched, unexpected twist, it may take even longer.  But I honestly feel that if we can survive two years in the most rural corners of a developing country, then we will have the strength to recover and move on. 

Just as we tried to give help and hope of a better future to others in Cambodia, I believe that we too will enjoy and embrace our new life.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Road

Just before I came to Cambodia my friend and football teammate Jules gave me a book called The Road.  It’s about the struggle for survival in a barren, post-apocolyptic wasteland.  It was a nice thought, but I decided to wait until I returned from rural, post-conflict Cambodia before reading it!

But perhaps that was a mistake:  the thing I talk about, whinge about, dream about more than anything else here is my goddammed godforsaken road.

The 50km route from the provincial town of Sisophon to my village is officially National Road 59 - the equivalent of an ‘A’ road in the UK.

But as you leave town the tarmac abruptly becomes a derisory dirt track. A large, faded sign mockingly pronounces that a new highway has been funded by the Asia Development Bank, work to start in 2006 and finish 2008.

In fact, the running joke here is that the new road will be completed “in just two years”.  A rolling two years, that is, from whenever you ask the question.  It was two years when I arrived here, two years ago, and if it’s even started in two years time I’ll be happy.

So what’s the big deal?

Well, clearly the main reason to improve the road is for my personal comfort!  This is particularly the case since the surface got so bad that even the once-a-day bus service stopped last year, apparently as the vehicles could no longer cope with the journey.  What about me?

There are other, even more convincing arguments.  Watching poor local people struggling through the waterlogged clay it’s clear a new surface would deeply improve their lives.  Everyone works the land, even those with other jobs.  If they are lucky enough to have excess rice then they need to transport it to market.  Equally, a decent road would open up their villages to new goods and services which have never made it up the terrible old one.  Watching children struggle through the mud or market women cover their faces from the dust makes me feel wretched for what they haven’t got.

Our focus here is on maternal health, and if an expectant mother is diagnosed with a condition such as pre-eclampsia (basically pregnancy-induced high blood pressure) then it’s vital this is recognized and treated quickly.  Here, this can mean helping to prevent seizure, such as by giving magnesium sulphate injections and avoiding stimulation.  But the only cure is to have the baby.  As this is likely to be by caesarian, mothers need to be transferred to a larger hospital for this major operation.  And how to get there (still avoiding stimulation of course)?  The only way is in the back of our ancient ambulance, feeling every bump and rut in the hellish 50km route.  It must be an agony for a poor woman in such a condition - another compelling reason for the road to be improved.

Sadly, some of those who are meant to be helping the poor also seem to be a little shy of the present travel conditions.  Whereas nearby Siem Reap is heaving with well-meaning charities, very few indeed can be persuaded to help the real poor people in my area.  Is it coincidence that they work where there are already great new roads which join the fancy hotels to the amazing temples?  I understand why of course - the most important thing for any NGO is to ensure their shiny white four-by-fours don’t get muddy.

So much for the poor then.  But surely the rich dollar-earning tourists have more influence? 

You see, my road is also a key link for anyone wanting to visit the pre-Angkorian temples at Banteay Chhmar.  The site is being restored by the UN Heritage Fund, and there are impressive plans for a ‘’community-based’’ approach to tourism there (no hotels, but rather staying with local people and getting an insight into how they live, eat and even travel – courtesy of an ox-cart ride!). 

But for now, few tourists brave a 100+ kilometre round trip on bone bashing boulders when the alternative is the smooth, straight tarmac direct to Angkor.  Surely the tourist income will help persuade the authorities to build a new road?

There is one other factor:  the N59 runs parallel to the Thai border, from the south up towards the area of disputed temples.  With a new government taking power in Thailand it is hoped that the will be no more fighting – but the military’s desire for a good transport link for troops and equipment must make it of some strategic importance.

So why then does this road – my road – remain the only unpaved national road in the whole country?

Money is bound to be an issue – over 50kms of road doesn’t come cheap, and funding is scarce in the present economic climate.  Apparently the original plan was bankrolled by Thailand, who pulled the plug when the recent fighting broke out.

But I have another theory. The people up here are close-knit, independent and proud.  The government in Phnom Penh closely oversees roadbuilding, knowing the political value of being seen to bring new infrastructure to a region (Prime Minister Hun Sen is said to insist on personally opening every new bridge and highway in the country).  So it’s simple – there’ll be a new road just as soon as the unruly folk of my area start voting the right way!

There’s an upside to all this:  a new road would certainly help development, but it would cause problems too.  Evidence suggests that better roads actually lead to worse traffic problems – more people will drive cars and lorries, they will go even faster, and they will maim and kill even more people.  They will also cause more noise and pollution whilst contributing nothing to the communities they zoom past.

So as I slither along the mud track to my village backwater I know in my head that a new road will on balance be good for the people here.  But in my heart I’m very glad that, at least for my time here, I will enjoy the peace and safety of a car-free existence. 

A peace I will enjoy on my balcony, watching people walk or cycle by, and reading a good book – anything other than The Road!

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Noble Art?

The evening of June 8th 1985 is clear in my mind for two reasons.

As we gathered excitedly round my granny’s telly, Barry McGuigan finally got his shot at a world title against Panama’s Eusebio Pedroza. It was so exhilarating that even my mild-mannered dad and brother were on their feet yelling ‘hit him, hit him, hit him!’.

But I also remember my mother’s entrance: carrying a tray of cocoa (it must have been one of those summers), she was clearly shocked by the atavistic blood-lust of her menfolk. “What a horrid sport!” was her typically polite criticism. She was right, but we told her to shut up anyway – it was just too exciting.

Twenty six years later, and I finally got round to watching another boxing match (in fact two in a matter of weeks). I'll remember these too, but I will also have the same mix of emotions about both of them.

At the most recent, we again huddled round the tv, but this time the drink was beer, the company soldiers, and grandparent’s house was Ta Mok’s.

Sounds like another cosy evening? Well, not if you’re from this country: Ta Mok’s name still strikes fear into the hearts of ordinary Cambodians. Widely known simply as ‘The Butcher’, he was possibly the most brutal of all Khmer Rouge leaders. He orchestrated appalling massacres in the southern zone from 1973, and led horrific ‘purges’ from 1975-1979.

His stronghold was the small northern town of Anlong Veng. I spent a week working at the (former military) hospital there, and had the dubious pleasure to visit his old home. Overlooking a lake, reflecting the Dangrek mountains, the setting could be beautiful – if it wasn’t that hundreds of slave labourers died cutting the trees and damming the river just to give him the lovely view.

The army commander who had taken up residence gently insisted we stay to watch some ‘pradal serey’ - khmer boxing. So we crowded round the battered old telly - it fact it could almost have been my granny’s old set from a quarter of a century earlier!

As for the boxing itself, I was struck by the shifting movements, and the use of elbows as well as feet: that’s got to hurt! And this particular bout was between two women - nice to see equality extends to the right to maul each other for public entertainment.

But I came away with very mixed feelings. It’s hard to relax in a mass murderer's lounge. Watching a boxing match in the home of a notorious killer is certainly one of the most unique memories I will take back with me from Cambodia.

My other recent experience of boxing, in the infamous Thai seaside resort of Pattaya, was also a memorable but ambiguous experience.
Having fulfilled the aim of our visit (Katja’s crazy bungee jump!), we celebrated with a night on the notorious Walking Street. In between the sleazy bars we found a ring, with two young boxers about to put on a show which we hoped wouldn’t stray below the belt.

This was the first time I’ve seen boxing in the flesh, and it was alarmingly vivid - they pounded each other with frightening power. It was impressive and repulsive in equal measure, and (probably like the clients of the neighbouring girly bars), I felt both excited and a little ashamed to be there.

Part of me is undeniably drawn to boxing. Whilst I’m not quite sure how Mohammad Ali could liken it to the pursuit of a beautiful women, I can almost see why it has been described as ‘the science of sweet bruising’. I can certainly understand how writer James Lawton concludes that “in its atavistic rages, its often beautiful skill and the implicit courage of the protagonists, boxing takes men and women into areas that are untouched in other areas of legal spectacle”.

As a cinephile, boxing combines the brutality of
Raging Bull, the passion of On The Waterfront, and the simple excitement of Rocky. As a health worker I note it is great for fitness (though not for brain injuries). And as a social activist I believe it offers a positive outlet for kids who would otherwise be punching dolphins or grannies.

I even had a go myself recently – no sparring of course, but I put on gloves and had a good go at my mate Pete’s punchbag. Throwing a punch is deceptively hard: there’s a whole art in placing the feet, positioning the legs, rotating the hips. It's almost like golf, in that it's much more about technique, balance and concentration than power. And landing a good blow gave the same exquisite feeling as hitting the sweet spot when striking a football or shuttlecock.

But the main attraction for me is simple. It is that boxing is the most basic of all sports - having a scrap.

Having said all this, another part of me - the larger, more rational part - really abhors boxing. The health arguments are compelling. And socially, there’s something not quite right about a couple of poor lads knocking lumps off each other for the amusement of sneering cigar-smoking bankers at the ringside.

In fact it doesn’t really need much debate: let’s face it, boxing is unpleasant, uncivilized and unsafe.

I guess it will eventually be banned - but not for a long time here in Cambodia. For one, nothing much gets stopped here, however bad it is. But also, it’s a national obsession, and it would take a brave fighter indeed to knock it on its head.

Perhaps the reason why it continues also reflects my mixed feelings about the whole thing. As Lawton concludes: “You can stop many things, for many reasons. But not included among them is a man's instinct to fight - and that equally compelling urge to watch”.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Free the bears!

“How we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other”.

So Ghandi got there before me, but I've always
believed that how we care for fellow creatures is a good indication of how civilized we are (or are not) as a society.

On this measure, Cambodia had a head start through its buddhist heritage, with a sense of respect for other living creatures.

But these days, few Cambodians fear being reincarnated as a dung beetle, and when they hear me insisting on just veggies with my rice they often quiz me. My view - that it is cruel and unnecessary to kill animals to eat them - is met with uncomprehending stares: “But cow intestine taste so good!”. I learned to say “You know, like monk?”, and somehow it makes sense. (It’s a bit like when I go for an evening stroll and friends press me to hop on the back of their moto to get there quicker – explaining that I like to walk confirms me as a crazy barrang, but somehow “You know, for sport?” does the trick).

My sense is that Cambodians have become much more practical in their relationships with animals, with compassion (squeemishness if you like) now repressed from a young age. Basically, if a beast is useful to them in some way it will not be mistreated – not because cruelty is wrong, just because it makes sense in order to continue the benefit.

Thus water buffalo are well tended given their usefulness for plowing rice fields and pulling carts – but only as long as they work or reproduce. Pigs are well fed as they grow and breed, but are imprisoned and later killed (or transported in a tiny bamboo cage for someone else to do the dirty work). Dogs are tolerated as they help deter unwanted visitors (both real and imagined), but they live outside, scavenge food, menace visiting white men, and are routinely beaten.

The same goes for wild animals – they are valued only in as much as they provide a material benefit. Once the national animal, the kouprey (grey ox) was killed for meat. It is now extinct. Elephants were only useful if tamed, and again are now rare. The main hope for survival of dolphins in the Mekong is if locals can make money from them through tourism.

Cambodia still has a richly abundant animal life, and is home to 14 globally endangered species, including the Asiatic black (moon) bear, Malaysian (sun) bear, Asian elephant, Indochinese tiger and the Pileated gibbon.

Take the bears: these impressive creatures are threatened because until recently their value has been seen here only as a commodity to sell for public entertainment or private pets, for meat (paw stew anyone?), or - even harder to stomach - for farmers to cage them, insert metal catheters into their gall bladders, and sell their bile as dubious ‘medicine’.

Thankfully there is now a sanctuary for bears (along with elephants, snakes, parrots, minor birds and decidedly scary tigers) at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, 40km south of Phnom Penh. As a leaving present for Katja we both volunteered to be ‘bear keepers’ for a day. What a fantastic experience!

We made up the feed (green beans, biscuits and jam mashed up in a bamboo pole and stuffed with morning glory leaves), and got to hide them in the enclosures to give the bears a stimulating search for food. A real effort has been made to create an interesting environment in the enclosures, not only with forest and plants, but even pools and hammocks!

We then got right up close to the mix of sun and moon bears, learning their different ages and personalities. They’re beautiful and look so cuddly - though I wouldn’t get too near as they have serious claws! We were fortunate to see a baby, which was of course adorable - but we also loved the dark black adults with the distinctive ‘v’ marking, and an older, more orangey female. Thanks to the sanctuary, these wonderful creatures will be safe from cruel practices, and a release programme begins soon in Cambodia’s western Cardomom mountains, working carefully with the local communities.

I thought it was great, and there were plenty of Cambodian visitors enjoying it too. But I couldn’t help thinking that the reasons I cherish the bears - for their beauty, but also what I see as the intrinsic importance of preserving the country’s natural fauna - may not be shared by many others here. Rather, I think they are valued more because of pressure from foreign aid organizations, or as western visitors like us pay good money to see them. Put bluntly, they are only in the sanctuary as they are worth more there than for pets, meat or bile.

Returning to Ghandi’s point, I feel the moral relativism about animals is now also applied to people here. I often feel colleagues at my hospital care for other humans no better or worse than other animals. If they treat them well it is because it is better for themselves to do so. Is it going too far to suggest that that nurses tend patients because they are told to, and because they risk reprimand if they don’t, but not through compassion to relieve the suffering of fellow beings?

So I think the bear sanctuary has an importance beyond preserving wildlife, giving really important hope for this country: if future generations see animals now being treated with compassion, just maybe it will encourage them to care for each other in the same way too.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Preah Vihear is our temple!

Temples I have now seen many, but never before have I been led through the ruins with an armed guard. Holding my hand.

Preah Vihear is undoubtedly an important and impressive historical monument. Unusually for low-lying Cambodia, this temple is imposingly perched high on the Damrack mountains which form the border between present day Cambodia and Thailand.

The elevated setting makes access tricky: from the Cambodia side there is not yet a proper road, with diggers and cement mixers still busily building a route up the steep slope. In stark contrast, the wealthier (or more organized?) Thais had long ago built a tarmac access road. But to no avail: as the battered blue and white sign at the entrance proclaims "Preah Vihear is our temple". The Thai road stops abruptly just short of the hill, and visiters can go no further - the border has now been closed to Thais.

Our taxi only took us the foot of the mountain on the Cambodian side, where we transferred to a motorbike, who skillfully maneuvered us up the increasingly steep and treacherous slope. We had to get off and walk at one point, but overall it was an impressive effort!

The mountain is so high it was shrouded in mist – another rare experience for lowland Cambodia. This added a mysterious, atmospheric feel, as it swirled around the ancient Hindu ruins. It also meant that the temple unfolded gradually, each of the five sections progressively taking shape as we climbed.

I call them ruins, though it at least seemed little damaged from the Khmer Rouge period – or indeed little restored since. However, the soldiers took me by the hand (literally) and pointed out new bullet holes and smashed sections of ancient friezes, clear evidence of the conflict earlier this year. It was really saddening to see this happening to a UNESCO world heritage site even now, in 2011.

It was similarly depressing – if hardly surprising – to see the clumsy nationalist rhetoric on signs around the temple: “I have pride to be born as Khmer”. What nonsense! You can’t be proud (or ashamed) over something over which you had no control. It like saying you’re proud to possess opposable thumbs or have an inward-pointing tummy button.

A truer description of what it was really like came from speaking to an old soldier. He showed me where, just a few weeks earlier, he had sheltered from missiles. No bravado here: “I was really scared” was all he said.

None of this could take away from the beauty of the place though. We admired the intricate (and highly phallic) carvings, enjoyed banging our chests with the soldiers in the ‘’echo chamber”, and amused ourselves by haggling over how much we should pay for our ‘tour’.

Fortunately the only fighting now seems to be among the semi-wild dogs who lurk around the shabby military tents and bunkers. And the news from Thailand is positive: with a new prime minister elected, it is hoped people can get back to admiring this temple for its charm and history.

To brighten our mood further, as we started our decent the cloud cover lifted, revealing a fantastic panorama of dark green forest and lowland rice fields across both Cambodia and Thailand below.

As we stood admiring the landscape, I realized there was another view right in front of me, one which summed up my mixed feelings about the whole visit: leaning against the ancient wall was a peace offering of quietly smoking incense sticks; next to them was propped a rifle. Let's hope the incense wins out.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree

I was shocked – horrified – baffled – on my arrival at the hospital this morning. Unbelievably, we seemed to have been attacked by vandals. It was not a pretty sight.

Fires still smoldered around the flagpole, and the shop under the tamarind tree, the social centre of the hospital, had not only been destroyed, but virtually all evidence of its existence removed.

Touring the wards there was more damage: one of our alcohol dispensers at the entrance to obstetrics had disappeared, blue dye had been smeared around the lab, and the bins outside paediatrics had been upturned and the contents strewn everywhere.

Worse still was the scene in the new xray room, only open a few weeks as part of our state of the art surgery unit. Someone had taken to the walls with black paint, daubing every surface possible, including the shiny new sink and once-sparkling white tiles.

It was a scene of devastation, and my heart sank.

Perhaps worst of all, the staff appeared to have been scared away by the attack, with no more than half a dozen to be found in the entire hospital. What a disaster!

This crime spree was all the more shocking as I don’t consider Cambodia to have much of a problem with vandalism, or any other criminal activity.

Although, of course, there has been one almighty crime here, which dwarfs even hospital vandalism: the Khmer Rouge regime committed unspeakable atrocities during their reign of terror from 1975-1979, and it is only this year that the first person was held criminally responsible for their part in it (that was Comrade Duch, who led the infamous S21 prison and torture centre). Four more senior leaders are just beginning their defence in front of the snappily-titled 'Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea'.

As it happens, I had just finished reading the latest of Shamini Flint’s southeast Asia-based crime novels, and this one is set in Cambodia, against these trials.

Flint’s tale takes this backdrop to showcase her likeable detective, the portly, white-sneaker wearing, chain-smoking, curry and beer loving Inspector Singh. There are some telling descriptions of Cambodia, and a plot which skips along nicely despite the dark background. Singh struggles to understand or work with his Cambodia counterpart, Colonel Menhay – a difficult relationship which echoes many of the joys and frustrations I have felt in working in this beautiful, beguiling country.

Thinking of such frustrations reminided me of the crime spree at my hospital - it was time to start some detective work of my own.

After gently interrogating a couple of nurses it appeared that the staff weren’t scared of a ferocious felon as much as taking a ‘well-earned break’’ whilst the Director was at a training day.

In the absence of the normal handyman, a random bloke from the pharmacy had decided to try his hand with the petrol strimmer, burning his mini-mountains of clippings and plastic bags, and starting various grass fires around the flagpole. He had also, he explained proudly, seen off the wild dogs who had been upsetting the bins.

The blue stains also turned out to be staff-inflicted - apparently something to do with malaria testing (my Khmer language didn’t get me any further than that),

Then the man who used to run the shop appeared, looking decidedly unhappy. It transpired he had been made to leave, but by the hospital rather than any vicious vandal. It seemed this was ‘because of the new surgery ward’ – I think as he used the previous building to store his goods and to sleep in when his shop flooded.

My fears of a crazy criminal were fading, but there was still a scene of devastation in the new xray room. Bang on cue the radiographer appeared – not in fury or despair, but rather with an unexpected grin on his face. “You like new paint room Mr Oly?” he beamed. “Need black, no light for develop film”.

My jaw dropped – he had done that to his own room! In fact, they’d all done it: perhaps there weren’t even any crimes to speak of, nor any destructive delinquent (or at least, only the staff themselves).

Though there was still one unresolved issue - what happened to the santizer in obstetrics? On interrogation the midwives shrugged and tutted a lot, wringing their unwashed hands, but there were no witnesses, no clues.

So the absent alcohol gel remains a mystery. Perhaps we will be needing the services of Inspector Singh here after all…