Chapter 48: Declaration of War
Brielle was still not herself. A third bout of dengue fever revealed its ravages in her yellowing skin; more emaciated looking, she was listless, complaining of headaches and constant joint pain.
Her sullenness and despair increased as the days slipped by. I attributed her bad mood to the fact that she was missing her leprechaun who was up in the mountains mapping out the location of Cambodia’s ethnic minority hill tribe villages.
Our registration work finished early for the day, Wati decided to take the entire office staff for a ten-klic bicycle ride. I watched as they filed out and located their personal bicycles―most of them old and rickety, no fancy mountain bikes or ten-speeds. My initial amusement became amazement as they all rode off into the shimmering noonday sun, wearing matching shirts like an international, albeit impoverished, Tour de France team.
I walked across the parched road to the house for my afternoon nap. From the doorway I heard the thrum of the rotating fan that sat impotent on the wicker table in our sitting room. “Useless,” I muttered. Going over to turn it off, I noticed Brielle’s bedroom door ajar. She was sitting on her bed in a pair of Leannán’s boxers and a damp t-shirt, her hands balled up in fists, staring at the floor. I could feel her indecision in every word that she didn't say and every gesture that she didn't make.
“Brie, what are you doing? It’s the middle of the day. Are you okay?” I asked, sitting down on the floor next to her bed, leaning my head against her legs.
“Je ne peux pas continuer,” she said.
I could feel her body tense with uncertainty and tremble with irresolution. Her reliance on French made her distress more apparent. “I don’t understand, Brie. Why can’t you continue?” I implored. “Whatever it is, I’ll help you.”
“Ou la la, CJ. You can’t help. We live in this cockroach-infested cabane with a bucket for a toilet, while at HQ Bruno and the rest of them bark orders from air-conditioned, lavish villas that make even my real home seem a pity,” she blurted and then let out one long sigh as her body deflated.
“Brie, don’t think about what the bureaucrats have; think about how much we’re helping the Cambodians,” I offered, not quite buying the idea myself.
“I’m sick on and off for more than half of my time here,” she said, her voice cracking. “And from what? Mosquitoes! Aiden died from a fucking mosquito. I’m not dying for Untac.”
“It takes a long time to get over dengue. I can’t imagine how you feel,” I said. “But it’s not going to kill you. We will get through this. You’re suffering from stress. What can I do?”
“Stress! Stress! This isn’t stress.” She shouted in her heavily accented English. “We have Khmer Rouge guerrillas threatening anyone and anything in our province. And I don’t mean, ‘Vote for us or we’ll find you.’ I mean, ‘Vote and we kill you.’ And to prove their point―boom, boom, they blow up a bridge, they attack a village. Your Kosal is dead.”
“Brielle, I meant . . .” I began, but she cut me off before I could finish my thought.
“Every time I speak I have to stop and imaginer how a group of people, all with different cultures, langues and philosophies will take what I say.”
I could feel the fury rising inside her as she continued. “Because our bullshit cultural sensitivity training can be summed up by pas beaucoup; not everyone is like you.” Brielle was standing. I remained seated on the floor, looking up at her. Although I didn’t want to stop her because I felt exactly as she did, I was afraid to encourage her.
“The UN keeps bringing in more and more people to central command. But aye, they don’t know or comprennent anything that is going on out here.” She glowered at me, as if daring me to breathe. “They probably don’t even know where ‘here’ is, unless par chance they have a Leannán to give them a special map, because for sure they don’t provide us any. If they have maps, they probably are using them as cocktail napkins at their très chic soirées chaque nuit.”
I stood up to face her, to join her rant. “Never mind their fancy dinner parties. My office has fans with no plugs and tons of cars but no drivers, and we suck diesel from a tube to fill them up,” I said as my own anger and frustration reached the boiling point. It took more paperwork to get a pen than a new Toyota 4X4. “Just to get a box of pens, they want my signature on three forms, but I need the frigging pens to write it.”
“C'est ça, jes.” Resigned, Brielle began sinking back onto the bed as if my participation in her tirade proved that the quandary couldn’t be resolved. “I leave and I go home.”
“What? No, Brielle,” I sputtered, shocked. “Think, think, think. You can’t let them take away your will to make a difference.” I was thinking, too. Depression was like a virus, and I didn’t want to be infected.
“Phiff, I can still make a difference in the world,” she growled, her tone undermining her words. “Only it won’t be here.”
“What if you lived in Battheay?” I suggested. “Then you wouldn’t have to travel the roads at night.”
“Oh oui, living where the guerrillas attack would help,” she spat back at me. “I’m done, fini, with the UN.”
“I won’t let the bureaucratic Untac hacks drive you away,” I stated with such a determination that it surprised even me. However, although I knew that I couldn’t do anything about the violence, I added, “They need you; the people of Cambodia need you; and I need you.”
Of course I needed her, but it was my own frustration with bureaucratic red tape and our arrogant bosses that fueled my crusade. Our house was a steam bath without plumbing, not a villa with AC and fans that worked. I couldn’t call the Orkin man to rid the country of cockroaches and diseased mosquitoes, but I was ready to take on Untac. I was an academic, for Christ’s sake. I dealt with self-important, pompous asses every day―guys whose balls were so big that they had to carry them around in bowling bags.
I decided to send a memo to the UN staff in Kampong Cham, written in such a way that, no matter who read it―regardless of nationality, culture or native language―the meaning would be clear: Get your shit together, or we are both gone. Taking action, any kind of action, was my only hope of mollifying Brielle’s angst and changing her mind about leaving.
“We will organize the DESs and stand up to Bruno and the bureaucrats, okay?” I put my only card on the table and waited for her response.
“Oui, but how?” Brielle looked at me with a tiny flicker of curiosity briefly flaming up in her eyes. But then they quickly dulled again and, shaking her head slowly, she said, “Chère, we cannot fight them.”
“Yes, yes we can fight them.” I was resolute. “Our job is to comfort the afflicted. These creeps are in our way. Let’s afflict the comfortable.”
Brielle’s chin jutted out ever so slightly and I caught a glimpse of interest shining in her eyes. I had to strike there and then.
“Help me write a memo to the DESs. Anger is rampant; they only need a spark to ignite them and bring us together. You and me, let’s light the fire.”
Sitting at our little table, we wrote a preamble to the DESs, asking for their input and support; then we took direct aim at Bruno and his staff. The memo was a laundry list of grievances, which pointed out their arrogance and lack of responsiveness to those of us working in the districts. We noted their “cynical disdain for the security, comfort, dignity and physical wellbeing of the DESs, local staff and Cambodian people in general.” We ended the memo by suggesting that the leadership at provincial HQ “get their acts together” and rebuild a working relationship among the Untac units.
I re-read the memo aloud to Brielle. She sat slumped in her chair, with her face blank and her eyes unfocused. I let the papers slip from my hand and fall onto the table. “Brie, it’s good, the message is really good,” I said, trying to resurrect the bit of animation she’d shown when making suggestions and correcting or modifying something I had written.
“Oui, maybe. And maybe the memo is shit,” she said as her fingers drew circles lazily on the table. “Let’s not be too ambitious to not be cruelly disappointed!”
As I placed a hand over hers, I wasn’t sure whether to pummel her into defiance or surrender. Biting back my frustration, which bordered on anger, I said, “The memo is a long shot that Bruno will fight. No guarantee that it’ll have any effect, but I have hope. Either way, sending it is a start. But I can’t do it without you.” Out of words and out of fight, I sank back down into my chair.
Brielle stood and grabbed a chocolate bar and two cigarettes from the table. “Come chère, c’est un début. Let’s celebrate our revolution,” she said as she walked toward the door to the balcony. She handed me a lighted cigarette as we sat looking out over the road that separated us from my office. I spoke first.
“There are people who go through their whole lives and never leave a trace, not even a spot of DNA. I don’t want to be one of those people. I want to leave behind a big footprint!”
“CJ, you examine your contribution too deeply,” Brielle suggested. “Tu es là. You are a player on the world stage.”
“The mission is half over,” I replied as I inhaled deeply. “I am running out of time, and solution real democratic election seems out of reach.”
The revolution had officially begun. Brielle and I sent our memo to all UN personnel in KPC. Our grievances had a life of their own, traveling from desk to desk, sitting in on closed-door meetings and flung angrily at trash cans. But the DESs were silent, and the bureaucrats ignored our requests.
The David and Goliath feeling that I had when sending our memo shifted to agonizing over the lack of response. A little rebellion might be good for the spirit, but the consequences of its failure would be dead ugly. Luckily, each day of voter registration provided enough trouble and unpredictable challenges to keep me occupied and deliver me from useless worry.
On a day that seemed full of promise, as if fresh air had blown our problems away, the inevitable response from Bruno arrived. Using ‘the buck stops here’ approach in his memo, he accepted responsibility for the general unhappiness among the UNVs. But his warning, in words bristling with menace, clued me into how he really felt: You should expect some rapprochement, and you are not to leave your district.
“Rapprochement” was quite a sinister word, I thought, as a kind of madness descended on me. I wasn’t sure whether Bruno meant to create an accord or to fire us. When the hole in my chest finally began to close, I was amused that his attempt at a formal reprimand was to ground us—forbidding us to take trips to Phnom Penh or to go on holidays when work was slow. We were volunteers and, although he couldn’t technically fire us, he could recommend sending us home. I could hear myself years ago yelling at my teenage daughter, “No mall, no movies, nowhere.” Were his threats as empty?
“Echo 4 Julia, come in.”
“Echo 4 Julia, over.”
“Brie, we are summoned to KPCC to meet with Bruno. Can you meet me in Skon in twenty? Over.”
I leaned my head back against the truck seat, conjuring up imagined punishments for Bruno. I saw him standing, only allowed to stand, at the mouth of Dante’s purgatory—condemned with all the others who were not good enough for heaven, or bad enough for hell—for the sin of either mediocrity or duplicity.
“CJ, Brielle, bienvenu. Sit please,” Bruno said, his voice pleasant and calm. A short, fit man in his early forties, he stood motioning us to the chairs in his office. “I understand how frustrating it must be not to have the registration supplies you need. I’m sure that the challenges of living in a country with few resources are equally as daunting,” he continued, his face radiating concern, although it didn’t look as if he had pillaged a thrift store to decorate his office.
“Do you?” I asked from my comfortable, well-padded chair, as I glanced around the office to signal that his environment was nothing like ours. Brielle scowled.
“CJ, I know that, to you, a bureaucrat seems backward, distasteful and not quite comme il faut. In a word, ‘uncool.’ Truly, I try very hard to be on your team. If it were up to me, you would have everything you need,” he said agreeably. “But I’m only a middleman here. I’m in the same predicament as you are, unable to get things from Phnom Penh, and my every request is wrapped in as much red tape as yours.”
“Really? You seem to have managed to unwrap enough of it to have a fully stocked office, a staff and a comfortable living environment,” I countered.
“CJ, your perception of my surroundings is quite skewed,” he said sociably. “What about the attacks and the guerrillas?” interjected Brielle. “You don’t have to live in fear when you go to the office.”
“Brielle, if I could control the Khmer Rouge, none of us would have to live in fear,” he said, lowering his voice as one might do when consoling a friend. “Your district is particularly bad, I know; but if the guerrillas target the city, I will easily be just as vulnerable.”
Brielle sighed and, swiveling in my direction, grabbed her throat with her left hand and pretended to swallow an imaginary bitter pill.
“In your frustration―and yes, much of it is well-founded―you have exaggerated the negative,” Bruno said, looking only at me. “The others are facing the same challenges, but understand that we are all a team, fighting Phnom Penh and the UN bureaucracy. Your fellow DESs look to me to resolve their grievances with Phnom Penh.”
“Bruno,” I replied, finally able to look him in the eye. “Brielle and I are not the only ones who know that problems exist in the districts. You’re not a tiger and we aren’t sheep. You can either dismiss the memo as the whining of two women, or you can reference it as the wake-up call it is. In the end, the choice is yours.” I stood up to leave.
“I understand that the concerns you raise are not merely whining,” he said, without returning my gaze. Then he addressed Brielle. “That is why I also want to take this opportunity to approve your holiday in person, Brielle. You need and more than deserve the break.”
“Merci,” Brielle replied, with absolutely no sincerity, as she also stood to leave.
The sky hadn’t fallen yet, but I would clearly be the target when it did.
Bruno had blinked. I wasn’t sure if we had won a victory or if his failure to retaliate had merely been postponed.