Sound asleep a few nights ago, a rhythmic knocking sound woke me just before 1am. It took me a while to register that this needed investigating and I eventually peeked through the bedroom blind. I would never have seen the dark shadow hunched over on my front porch had s/he not been making such a racket trying to jimmy open my front door. In my unnerved state I forgot the emergency number in favour of the non-urgent assistance line, whose automated system told me “If this is an emergency hang up now and dial 000”, which I promptly did. They answered immediately with “Police, Fire or Ambulance?” and I was put through to a police line before I’d even spoken the word in full.
The next minute or so of my life went something like this:
“I am home alone and someone is breaking into my front door”
“What’s the address”
“<Address>….. He’s gone quiet, I think he might already be inside!”
“Can you lock yourself in a room?”
“No there are no locks anywhere”
“Okay find somewhere to hide”
<Climbed into the wardrobe> “Okay I’m in the wardrobe”
“Stay on the line but don’t speak unless you have to. I am here, the police are on their way, they shouldn’t take long. You’re doing really well, the police know and they’re on their way, don’t hang up on me I’ll keep talking so that you know I’m here, you’re not alone and the police won’t be long, I am just letting them know that you are in the wardrobe…”
“<Whispering> I just saw a flash of a light”
“Are they in the bedroom with you?”
“I’m not sure”
“The police are going to arrive at any minute”.
I don’t believe I was in that wardrobe for longer than about two minutes when four uniformed officers arrived, knocking and shouting “Hello! Police!”. I climbed out of the wardrobe and opened the front door, relieved to learn the intruder had not succeeded to get inside. Two policemen had jumped over my 6 foot front gate, frightening him into the back yard and losing him over the back laneway.
The 000 woman left me with the police and I am still thinking about her help that night, advising me based on what I told her was happening. Had I not thought he was already in the house she would have advised that I turn on all lights, make noise and shout “the police are coming”. Her ability to support me through a frightening few moments revealed someone well trained and highly skilled at her job. There is no way of knowing who she is or where she was speaking to me from, so no way of thanking her. This is not expected because she was doing her job, which it can be safely assumed she receives an acceptable living wage to do.
A female officer stayed with me while I calmed down; another went through the house to confirm no one was inside; two others scoured the yard where evidence of what had happened was collected. The culprit had spent a significant amount of time at my back door, and only moved to the front door when he couldn’t get through the deadlock at the back. The fact I had not heard anything while he was at the back likely made him assume no one was home.
An hour later various evidence had been taken, including fingerprints on both doors; I’d been led through the yard under an officer’s torchlight as he pointed out various clues such as a lighter, a water bottle, an open shed door; I’d given my statement; and I was assured they would be patrolling the area all night. Cameras, iPads, torchlights, fingerprinting equipment; skilled teamwork and training to identify what had probably happened were all part and parcel of their excellent service. I went back to sleep feeling safe and sound, unharmed, nothing having been stolen from me and not having to pay for any of the services that had just been spent on me.
This is another example of how we in wealthy countries are safe and cared for thanks to having such sound systems in place. In most parts of the world, services with such levels of expertise, resources and skilled care for a complete stranger, do not exist and any attempt at providing a version of such a service comes at a cost to the provider on a user-pays basis. In my world, citizens are valued and have a level of power and control we are not even conscious of, thanks to the strong systems which protect and respect us.
The difference is not cultural, but systematic. When a country is left war-torn and not supported to full and proper recovery, then uneducated and amoral leaders have the chance to flourish. This is happening in many countries around the world today, with millions of citizens suffering the long term consequences of wars, many of which ended decades ago. Corruption established at the very top filters through every aspect of any system. An example that I know of, is the way that government staff are paid unlivable wages (but guaranteed said wage until they die, which is more guarantee than most citizens have). Applying for government positions costs a significant amount of money, with many taking loans, for the guarantee of a lifetime salary. These fees filter up through the system, with higher level officials receiving the most benefit. This largely explains why, when you visit a third world country, the rich-poor divide is so evident. After years of living in Cambodia I have made some vague sense of these observations.
Earning an unlivable wage forces public servants to top up a number of different ways. One way is to have your own private business separate from your government employment. This sees public servants spending minimal amounts of time at their government workplace, resulting in low quality of service in any government department. Various user-pays demands are also made on anyone attending a government institution, such as a patient’s level of nursing care being determined by how much cash crosses their nurse’s palm at each encounter; school students required to pay a small daily cash fee to their teacher; police checkpoints where a fine with receipt will cost $X but if you don’t need a receipt you pay less; drivers licence applicants pay one fee for an exam with no guarantee of passing or a higher fee for a guaranteed pass; medical clinics and hospitals charge patients with no health literacy for treatments they don’t need. The list of possibilities for corruption is infinite and a never-ending cycle of the poor indefinitely indebted in order to feed the rich.
A telephone number to call if you are in an emergency does not exist in most of the world, let alone one where skilled staff are on the other end of the line at the blink of an eye. Four uniformed police turning up at one home within minutes of a reported break-in is an impossible fantasy, as is the idea that no cash or other benefit is required from the victim. When my phone was stolen from me in Phnom Penh 8 months ago now, we attended a police station where a statement was written on letterhead for me which I was able to use for insurance purposes. There was no talk of any investigation and local friends and colleagues all talked to me with the same theme: that the police often benefit from any robberies taking place in the area they patrol; they can be embroiled in, or even lead, robbery gangs; that I was lucky I didn’t have to pay cash for the statement; that usually locals don’t even report crime to the police because there is no level of trust in the system and a lot of suspicion and fear. More than simply a lack of money, the real definition of poverty is a lack of protection.
Meanwhile the only follow up I can expect from the police – if any – is if they identify the person who attempted to enter my home the other night. Any fingerprints they can lift will be placed into a computerised program and held indefinitely, so that if the culprit has never been fingerprinted yet, then it doesn’t mean he won’t be identified even years on from now. Justice can’t be more complete than that and the world – for me – can’t be a fairer place. If only everyone sharing the world with me could say the same.