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Chapter 46: Cambodian Credit Card

The death of Kosal and the two CivPol had almost brought Wati and I and our teams to the breaking point, but registration continued. Kosal’s death became a rallying cry for the other teams to register more villagers. Only a couple of days after his death, we were leading the province in total number of people registered.

“Our team registered about three hundred sixty persons,” the radio squawked a boast from KPCC.

“Congratulations on your attempt,” I sang my reply. “But we hit four hundred thirty-six today. I believe that would give us the record for the most registrations in one day.”

Scheduling, equipment and travel glitches continued, but nothing caused more headaches than the matter of registration cards. With Nhean as my translator, I learned just how big the problem was at an outreach session held in a village pagoda. One elderly man—with sunbaked, leathery brown skin, clad only in a cotton-checked sarong—asked, “How much rice can we get with a card?”

Aut bay,” I told him, shaking my head to be sure he understood there would be no rice.

He spat on the floor, missing my bare toes by an inch. “Pol Pot’s soldiers will hurt us if we take the card,” another man said. He was probably right, but I shook my head rather than lie to him. Still others feared repercussions from the interim government if they were caught with the card or voted the wrong way.

“Can I use the card to travel to Thailand to see my sisters?” asked one woman eagerly.

I replied, “Soom toh, I’m sorry. It’s not a passport. You need to have a registration card so that you can vote for your new government in May.” She didn’t spit, but her face registered her disappointment.

“You need to register. The more people who register, the more people you can elect to represent you in the new government,” I continued, hoping that Nhean’s translation was either more eloquent or informative than my explanation. And presenting the idea of a secret ballot would be like trying to convince them that Santa Claus was a Buddhist monk.

“Nhean, we have to try to make people understand what the registration card is for.”

Aut panyaha, Momma. We only need to make sure they have one.”

“You’re right. Let’s get back to Skon. We’ve got a funeral to attend.”

Wati, Nhean and I drove in silence to Kosal’s funeral. Passing the destroyed bridge on the way, we stopped to take movies of the Chinese engineers’ rebuilding effort as if it were some sort of macabre tourist site. How unlucky Kosal had been. Wrong place, wrong time. When I had begun to worry about the risks involved in accepting the UN mission, Marilyn had told me, “Really bad things don’t happen to people like you.” But how was I different from Kosal, who had survived the worst of the Khmer Rouge slaughter only to die when his life was full of promise and possibilities? Did his luck run out? Was Aiden, a war hero killed by a mosquito, just as unlucky? Or, despite Hon’s mantra, was Cambodia a country of no luck where mine would run out, too?

The funeral was held at the edge of a rice paddy. Kosal’s charred remains would be interred near this small patch of emerald green, one of his family’s few remaining possessions after the ravages of Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge. I instinctively recoiled from the continuous funeral music. It was loud, discordant and jarring to my already shattered nerves. In sharp contrast to the music, Kosal’s father, who had donned the persimmon-colored robes of priests for two weeks of mourning, sat behind the red-painted wooden casket, reverently reciting a soulful sutra. I had no words for him, no words for a parent burying his child.

Several elderly pagoda women--their heads shaved, wearing white cotton shirts and traditional wide black pants—smiled through their reddish-black betel nut-stained teeth and offered us steamed rice in wrapped banana leaves. Food was a part of every Buddhist ceremony, but who could eat, much less swallow anything?

Walking over to Kosal’s mother, who sat surrounded by his siblings and a few small children, I pressed a hundred dollar bill in her hand. She smiled dully and took the money, then handed it off to a person sitting nearby. One of the older siblings said aw kuhn as she handed me incense to light and place in the sand-filled metal basket in front of a very old photo of her brother. Wati followed, repeating my actions.

I thought about all the death and mutilation I had heard about or witnessed since my arrival in Cambodia. But not since Aiden’s death from malaria had I felt such overwhelming sadness. My gentle, eager Kosal. My Thomas Jefferson, the one who really understood what democracy could mean for his country. My raw throat ached from keeping the sobs from reaching out as screams of anguish. What had Nhean said after the murders at the underground gambling joint? “Momma, forget and don’t worry. For us, this is life.”

It was a time to be solemn, although crying at funerals was discouraged in Buddhism; Kosal would already be on his journey to reincarnation. A tap on my shoulder brought me into the present moment. “Soom toh, please,” one of Kosal’s brothers said, asking me to take photos. A camera was a rare possession for a Cambodian family, but he correctly assumed that I, a privileged Westerner, would have one.

I looked to Nhean to speak for me. “Khnhom pitchea rikreay knong kar thveu vea ban,” he said, and I knew he had agreed on my behalf. That mundane act of taking photos gave me an intimate connection with Kosal’s grieving family and a means to share my sorrow with them.

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