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Chapter 50: Not Your Daughter's Pajama Party

As the trauma from Kosal’s death diminished among the staff, fewer registration teams asked Wati and me to stay with them overnight. However, we prepared our gear for a sleepover in Knoldombau, one of the larger and most important communes, located at the furthest point in our district. Usually Radush kept his promise to accompany us or sent Kyrill, but this time our two regular CivPol escorts went along—one from Cameroon, the other a Jordanian. UN regulations forbade them to carry weapons.

Knoldombau lacked both a schoolhouse and a meeting hall, so Wati and I met the villagers in the large, open pagoda that served as both a school and a gathering point. It would also shelter us for the night. Attached to us like Siamese twins were Nhean and Kimsore, who had replaced Kosal as our second translator.

The monks sat in front of the large, plaster gold-painted Buddha, and I could smell the heavy scent of jasmine from the burning incense all the way across the thirty-foot space. Some women sat with infants held sling-style in their kramas. Others divided their attention between us and their toddlers, who were running half-naked in the dirt alongside the platform. The men smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, their bare skin dusty from their labors.

Wati and I were a tag team. With the help of our translators, each of us in turn explained some facet of the registration process, the identity cards and the role of mobile registration teams that would visit the village soon. The X factor for marking the ballot came up again like a thorny weed. The Cambodian people couldn’t wrap their minds around using an age-old symbol for danger to indicate their preferred leader. It was simply an anathema to them. Still, the villagers smiled and touched us as if we were rock stars.

Cambodians go to sleep early; they get up with the dawn to work before the sun is high and hot. The villagers in Knoldombau were no exception. By seven in the evening, Nhean and Kimsore had prepared our cots and mosquito nets; they and the team would sleep in hammocks hanging between the pillars of the old pagoda while the CivPol slept in their truck.

We had stayed overnight in villages a handful of times with no incidents and no worries. Exhausted from the long dusty drive, I hoped that I could sleep without seeing shelves of skulls or hearing crying babies in the jungle. I planned to be back on the road to Skon by the crack of dawn.

The staff’s whispers in Khmae were nearly drowned out by the loud chirping of crickets and the twittering of vespertine birds, who were singing out their welcome to the approaching night and lulling me to sleep. The staff were at peace. I was at peace.

Howls and barking dogs broke the silence that had finally taken over the night. I heard footfalls and shouting. Nhean’s hand was roughly shaking my shoulder as he pleaded, “Momma, wake up!” I tore off the mosquito net and sat up to adjust my eyes to the darkness. I saw Wati standing next to one of the CivPol; the other lay prone on the ground. A herd of young monks erupted from their sleeping shelter, running towards us.

“Nhean, what is happening?” I asked, panic rising in my voice.

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