This week I lost my housemate and friend to Bangladesh, where she will work with the Rohingya refugees escaping indescribable violence in Rakhine State across the border in Myanmar. We spoke a lot about them and about Cambodia before she left. It always looped back to ourselves, our appreciation for our extreme luck of birth and our drive to make the most of our good fortune. I’ll miss the thought provoking conversations.
For now I live alone. Right now I am typing a blog overlooking the skyline of Phnom Penh from my balcony. Five floors above the streets where people are doing whatever they can to simply survive, it is a “bubble” up here. Outside people are searching for ways to have enough food for the day while I live in protected luxury, with the comforts that have always constituted my charmed life.
As a first year student nurse in England the first essay I ever wrote was 5,000 words on Inequalities of Health. I still have that essay somewhere, with it’s featured photograph from The Independent newspaper in 1991, of a homeless man lying in a sleeping bag in the snow in a London park. The wealth-poor divide is highly visible in Phnom Penh, as it is in any location where travelers from the Rich World live alongside locals who never have the opportunity to leave the small patch of territory where they toil day after groundhog day.
Last week The Eyes came to Phnom Penh so that 7yo could have her surgical appointment with visiting overseas ophthalmologists via SEE International . Her behaviour suggests more than just eye problems. So do some of her facial features. She is odd looking and oddly behaved, does not learn well at school, has no friends in school, and generally a highly unfortunate little girl. A child like this in Australia would be known to various specialist support services. In Cambodia she lives in a little village in the dust with a blind widowed mother and widowed grandmother whose most recent distress came from the theft of their chickens. I received a call from Dan about a month ago, the chickens have been stolen and they needed them to sell at market and now they have no food to eat. As well as sorting out some food for the month we put our heads together with the village builder and organised a new chicken coop. I’m always entertained by these unlikely agricultural interventions I find myself engaged in!
The day that Boat Baby was born we were taking supplies to The Eyes, who live in the same village but across the vast corn field which was under water on that visit. These peoples’ only experience of water is shown in this photograph of Little Sister greeting me as our wooden boat arrived in the brown slush of the Mekong Delta outside their house. Last week those little girls had their first and only taste of water as I grew up knowing water. Oneday at the hospital we were sharing lunch together with noone to translate so I was forced to practice my Khmer. I picked up a chunk of ice and announced it’s Khmer name. They smiled and agreed, before asking me it’s English name. “Ice”. “Eye”. “Ice”. “Eye”. S never comes at the end of words here, so I agreed they had it right, laughing privately at The Eyes repeating the word Eye to me!
Three out of five members of The Eyes family have vision problems which were not addressed due to their inability to access health care, until I met them three years ago. It has possibly cost me in the vicinity of US$500 to engage them with SEE International over the past three years. We have lived through three operations, four sets of glasses, a number of trips to Phnom Penh for pre- and post-operative appointments, severe travel sickness on buses and mini vans leading to tuk tuk rides of >5 hours each way and all kinds of other issues. The eye surgery is offered free of charge but villagers with no income have no way of affording the transport, accommodation and other associated costs such as post-operative medications.
This is only one family of the millions worldwide who cannot and therefore do not access necessary health care. Their story includes grandad Joe, who I wrote about many times, a probable victim of Polio whose death a year ago this month was likely due to Post-Polio Syndrome. All he could tell me when I asked, was “during Pol Pot I got a fever and then I couldn’t walk properly”. For years he survived without the wheelchair he needed, which I was able to organise almost immediately thanks to my financial ability to bring him to town and engage him with the relevant organisation. Their story also includes the girls’ father who drowned in the Mekong, with no clear story of what happened. As a friend of mine said at the time “it could be murder, but she is a blind woman and very poor, so she has no power to talk to the police”. It could also have been suicide. We will never know although people seem to think it was not an accident. He and his motorbike were dragged out of the Mekong three years ago.
I always assumed a genetic cause for The Eyes vision problems. Last month when I visited Boat Baby I learned that his mother also has vision problems. Could this be mere coincidence? Reading up on Agent Orange, I have learned that 173,000 acres in Kampong Cham were sprayed with Agent Orange between April 18 and May 2, 1969. The spraying took place at night with evidence that it was carried out by the CIA. Villagers allege in fact, that similar spraying continued frequently into the 1970s. There are no official records of most of these sprayings which defoliated vast areas, intending to expose enemy troops to the bombers flying above. I am unable to find a map showing exactly where the spraying occurred. The area was also heavily bombed and many of my friends and colleagues here have vivid memories of bombs exploding on their villages and homes, killing family members and leading to the digging of rudimentary underground bunkers covered with layers of bamboo.
Vietnam War veterans in New Zealand, Australia and America have long held strong opinions that exposure to Agent Orange has caused high rates of developmental, immunological and neurological problems in their children and now, their grandchildren. Governments have been reluctant to accept the argument, but compensation is provided in various ways to children born to Vietnam War veterans with certain disabilities.
The issue can be summed up briefly with these two statements:
The US military denies any link between the defoliants and the illnesses and deformities found in Vietnamese children who have become the world’s most recognizable symbol of the effects of Agent Orange. Among scientists the debate over the (alleged) adverse effects of Agent Orange remain a contentious issue.
Cambodia Daily March 2004
Kampong Cham, Cambodia | The proportion of babies born with disabilities in eastern Cambodia is more than 50 times higher than in other parts of the country, according to local doctors….While the reason for the higher rate has not officially been confirmed, it is generally believed to result from the use of Agent Orange, a dioxin-containing defoliant, by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War….The scale of the damage wrought by use of the chemical in Cambodia is still unclear as there has been little research into the victims. Local doctors have called for an official survey on the effects.
Star News article 2008