Chapter 68: Into the Heart of Darkness
News about an evacuation from Phnom Penh of Untac family members awaited me at the office. An evacuation of its own people meant that the situation was deteriorating. I didn’t trust what Untac would do to protect the general population and Hon, no longer in her village, was living somewhere in the city. Worrying was futile, as I couldn’t get to Phnom Penh to see her before the election concluded. My only comfort was the belief that I would cuddle her baby and say goodbye before I left the country.
There was also a message from Brielle, pleading with me to visit her in Skon. She and Leannán had both extended their twelve-month contracts for sixty days. With all of the delays leading up to the election, the UN was anxious to have enough DESs available, should there be even more postponements. Brielle wanted to know if I would extend, as well. She said that she enjoyed playing house with Leannán, but that his working relationship with Wati was difficult because their styles did not mesh. “Besides,” she confided, “Wati thinks to boss him around.” At the end of her note, she wrote, “Nutella is waiting for you in the house. Will this make you come back?”
Stephan was away on another reconnaissance and would likely be gone for several days, so I decided to go to Skon. It would give me an opportunity to explain to Brie why I couldn’t extend my contract. Like it or not, I was expected back in the States. I had only one year off, and it was quickly coming to an end.
“Do you think that you should drive alone around the country?” Klara asked protectively.
“Phnom Penh was evacuated, not the country,” I replied.
“No, I heard that you should have a military escort on the roads.”
“Then don’t tell anyone I’m going. I’ll be back in a couple of days.”
Hours later, Kyrill was waiting for me at the ferry crossing. “My friend CJ,” he shouted, his arms unfolding as he waved to me. “Welcome to Kampong Cham,” he said, grinning as though he’d said something humorous.
“Zdravstvuj,” I replied in my college Russian and jumped from the car, practically knocking his narrow frame off his feet. He grabbed my hands and began scrutinizing me to see if I had changed.
“Brielle?” I asked, interrupting his assessment.
His long thin face got longer. “Прости, my dear friend. Brielle is not here; she’s not in Skon.”
“Why the hell not? She begged me to visit.”
Kyrill shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Прости, but I do not know. She was here a few days ago, but she and Leannán left.” He shrugged again.
Irritation reddened my cheeks at the news. I questioned whether she was absent on purpose—as retaliation for my leaving her. But my anger soon evaporated. Sure, I was disappointed, but Brielle was not the only one reason why I’d returned. I wanted to see my staff; my fellow travelers on our journey to independence. And, of course—I smiled with the thought—my minions, the three little girls.
Mr. Om had come along as my driver, and Kyrill provided us with a military escort into Skon, where we parted at the Unmos’ compound. The rest of Kyrill’s unit was out on an extended patrol deep in the interior of the district and not due back until very late. Mr. Om and I parked in front of my former office, across the street from the house with the cheerful blue shutters. The tops of three heads appeared in my truck window before I could even open the door.
I walked through the open office door—still no AC—to find one of the team leaders teaching a session on neutrality to the electoral staff. As I entered, the room exploded with applause. At first, disoriented by everyone rising as if they were one big ocean wave, I looked at the session leader as the source of their unexpected behavior. Nhean and Kimsore pushed through the crowd to reach me. “Momma, the staff applauds for you. Everyone miss you thom thom, big, big.”
I offered to write reference letters for all the staff and posed for photos. Nodding and hugging my way out of the office, I left word for Wati to join Kyrill and me for dinner at the Unmos’ home, kissed my minions and got Mr. Om settled in with Nhean for the night. I found Fannett prowling outside and had grown into a full-size cat but, unlike the children who greeted me enthusiastically, he either didn’t remember or was merely indifferent.
Gunshots, quickly followed by loud, ground-shaking explosions, rattled the glasses on the table. Startled, we stopped eating and gaped at one another while awaiting more blasts. After hearing nothing more, Kyrill stood, his narrow face pinched with concern. “I go see what is happening. Stay,” he ordered, and went to investigate. Neither Wati nor I could touch the rest of our food. We sat fixed to our chairs until Kyrill stepped inside and shut the door, leaning his back against it as if to hold himself upright.
“Many hurt—children,” he told us. “They’re at the local clinic in the old bank building, not far down the road from the Chinese barracks. Let’s to go.” The quiver in Kyrill’s voice told me more than his words. The three of us left our meals and headed to the clinic.
We walked into a small waiting room. Its bare concrete walls were gray from mold and dirt. The air was dank and foul smelling, and I had to stop myself from retching. A slightly larger room, as poorly ventilated and squalid, completed the clinic. It looked like a scene in a B movie—no oxygen, no airway supports, no intravenous medications other than plain saline. One poorly equipped local doctor and all kinds of “extras”—neighbors, families of the victims, the police chief, Kyrill, Wati, me and a handful of Cambodian government soldiers—scurried about chaotically while the wounded lay sprawled out on tables and chairs with blood oozing from open lacerations.
A seriously injured young woman was lying on her stomach on a hard table, her soiled krama covering the large, open cuts on her back. A boy of about twelve sat in a chair trying to be stoic about his torn flesh. His right arm was pressed tightly against the big holes in his side; dried blood covered his knuckles, wrists and ankles. Bruises had already appeared on his arms and neck. “P'ohn srei-p'ohn srei.” His guttural voice was hardly audible, but I followed his pointing finger and turned towards the nearby wall.
The boy’s little sister sat on the cement floor with her back propped up against the wall, a musty towel was rolled up and tucked behind her head. She had gashes on one arm and both legs. Thanks to Americans’ love of television crime series and coverage of the Vietnam War, I had seen gunshot wounds, but I had never personally seen such carnage. Kyrill, ghostly white, grabbed my hand and urgently began to pull me in the direction of the back wall of the clinic. I tried to pry loose from his grip. “Another victim,” he growled. “This one you must attend.”
Sitting on the floor against the far wall, a woman was cradling a child. Long dank hair, glistening with blood, obscured the girl’s face, but I vaguely recognized the woman holding the child. Her eyes, impassive or paralyzed from shock, stared up at me vacantly.
“Madai, Moam-Moam, is that you?” I asked. My stomach heaved again from the smell of blood as my body trembled with recognition. The woman’s eyes flickered and she opened her mouth to speak. I saw the glint of her gold cap in the dim light and knew that she was Moam-Moam’s mother.
I gasped, leaning hard into Kyrill’s bony chest; then, kneeling down, I gently brushed the hair from Moam-Moam’s face. Her pale skin was cold and damp, and the blood clotting above one temple went deep into her hairline. Her body was limp and unresponsive, but I was afraid to turn her over to look for more wounds. I could barely stand up. “Kyrill, get her to one of the tables. The Chinese doctor should be here soon.” As Kyrill lifted Moam, I helped her mother to her feet. “Toev, toev,” I said, pushing her to follow Kyrill.
Everyone was running around wasting precious time while the injured, lying among soiled clothes and dirt, continued to bleed. Propelled by impulse and the instinct of a triage nurse, which I was not, I made a quick mental list of everything we needed. “Do you have clean bandages or cloths for the wounds?” I yelled in the direction of the local doctor, my voice rising above the din of disjointed conversations. He motioned in the direction of the waiting room, and Kyrill ran to get them as the Chinese doctor arrived from the nearby barracks.
“Can she be moved?” I asked him, pointing at the woman with the deep lacerations on her back. The concern on his face told me that she needed a proper hospital, and soon. Not stopping, I took him to the table where Kyrill had laid down Moam-Moam. The doctor began to examine her, gently moving her hair to reveal a huge gash etched into her skull. Gagging, I covered my mouth to keep from vomiting and spun away, only to stare directly into her mother’s tormented face.
I’d already dashed her hopes that Moam would be a gold bar child, but could I help to save her little girl from Cambodia’s senseless brutality? I touched the mother’s cheek and then headed back into the mayhem.
A hunched old woman, not quite squatting and not quite sitting, was ceaselessly rocking forward and back, forward and back—either an effort to comfort herself or merely a helpless physical response to unimaginable trauma.
Through the pandemonium, I saw Wati surrounded by a group of locals who appeared to be relatives or neighbors. Their arms flailed about as they talked―gesturing, pointing and trying to communicate without a shared language. Wati’s frustration rose as she frantically tried to understand them.
“Wati,” I yelled. “Quit trying to figure out exactly what they’re saying. It doesn’t matter. The gist is that they want help for their families.” She nodded her agreement and went to comfort the boy in the chair.
We were becoming desperate for an interpreter when Nhean miraculously arrived. After conferring with the doctors, he told me that they simply couldn’t help the seriously wounded.
“Wati, radio the CivPol to help transport the wounded to the hospital in KPCC,” I shouted.
Her voice barely audible over the din, she yelled back, “They are already on the way.”
With Moam-Moam in our car, we sped behind the CivPol to the hospital where I spent the next two hours helplessly watching her and the other injured lie on soiled gurneys, covered in filth and mostly ignored. The walls of the hospital were a dull yellowish-green; naked bulbs hanging from the ceiling on skinny wires provided the light, giving everything a ghoulish pallor. The Cambodian doctors inspected the injuries, but they could do little more than wait for the arrival of doctors from Médecins Sans Frontiéres.
With her mother on one side of the gurney and me on the other, we stood vigil over Moam-Moam until one of the French doctors came to examine her. She, like the other children, was stoic and cried very little, even while her wounds were dressed. The doctor shook his head and looked sheepishly down at his feet. He couldn’t tell me whether she would survive.
I wondered how these children found the courage to live in a society where so many families had lost loved ones in the Killing Fields, where they went hungry because of the destroyed infrastructure and where senseless violence continued to plague them even as the UN tried to impose peace and democracy.
A sudden cry, a shrill keening, roused me from my thoughts. Moam’s mother’s head was thrown back in a roar of anguish. I looked down at Moam-Moam, my beautiful Moam, who was lying perfectly still. I clasped her hand in mine, but I could feel the emptiness. I could see the emptiness. Her life was gone.
Of all cheap things, life is the cheapest. Damn Cambodia.
I sat huddled, pressed back into the corner of the seat, my sobs punctuating Kyrill’s and Wati’s silence as we drove back to Skon. They could find no words to console me over the loss of Moam-Moam, but the silence only dragged me further into darkness. I gulped for air, trying to calm myself. I wanted Brielle to be with me. She loved Moam-Moam as much as I did.
“Where the hell is Brielle?” I asked, hurling the words out into the dark car.
Wati pivoted in her seat, then stiffened and jutted out her jaw. “She’s gone because we had a big fight.”
I straightened up, trying to stifle my sobs and wiping my face with my shirt. Even in the dark, Wati’s eyes glowed fiercely.
“What fight? What happened?”
“Brielle had to stay in KPCC because it was after the curfew, but I was busy and forgot to tell Leannán. He got nervous and foolishly went on the road to find her. Brielle found out and was furious that Wati had not passed on her message. When I tried to explain that I was too busy to track him down, she got red in the face and shouted in French. I didn’t understand her, but I put my hand on her shoulder to calm her. She pulled away my hand and slapped me hard across my face. Then she ran up the stairs, crying and still shouting. I worry about Brielle’s state of mind. She’s so excitable lately,” Wati said more somberly. “I’m not angry, CJ. Really, I’m just sorry.
“And I don’t blame you for going, for wanting to stay with Stephan,” Wati sighed, her anger abating even more. “Really, I understand; but life is more difficult, because you left.”
That stopped me. What had I done by leaving her—and leaving Brielle—for a man?
I let the air go empty between us, but there was no quiet in my mind. Her words sent a new wave of emotions—shame and guilt—washing over me. I wanted to turn my attention elsewhere, but my only other thought was more terrible: Moam-Moam was dead. I would never again hear the sound of small bells when she laughed. She would never be a gold bar child; death had become her escape from the inevitable future that Cambodia held for her.
Fatigue inevitably settled in and damped down the guilt, stabs of adrenalin, as well as my grief. We rode the rest of the way to Skon draped in silence.
Kyrill stopped in front of Wati’s house to let her out. Her hand rested on the door handle, but she didn’t open it. With little hesitation, she twisted stiffly and regarded me.
“I could have handled it without you,” she stated tersely.
“I’m not sure any of us could handle it,” I muttered.
“This was not the first bad thing to happen, and I’ve taken care of all of it without you,” she continued, as her anger mounted again. “You went to Poŭthĭsăt by your choice and left me this district, these people, these problems. I’m in charge, not you.”
Her outburst was overdue. I deserved her resentment. Listening to her words was like self-inflicted penance that was required in order to redeem her good will and my self-respect.
Wati stared out the window, as if looking at an unseen audience. “I have no one to depend on. The other DES is useless, always absent or hiding. Leannán is soft. He doesn’t take charge of the staff, and some people take advantage.” Her voice quavered as she twisted to face me. “The staff, they know it is all on me and they try, they try hard but . . . but it is my responsibility, all my job.” Wati didn’t wait for my response. She finally opened the car door and stepped into the darkness.
When Kyrill pulled back onto the road, the air in the car felt ominous, as if haunted by an unhappy ghost.
Awaking early the next day, I retrieved Mr. Om from Nhean’s house. I wanted to leave immediately to escape the tension with Wati, but mostly I wanted to flee the horror of the night before and the grim reality of Moam-Moam’s death. Kyrill was the only one up at the Unmos’ house, and we said our goodbyes. I waved to him from the open window as Mr. Om shoved the gear in reverse, backed out of the compound onto the narrow paved road and headed northwest toward Poŭthĭsăt.
Brielle reached me on the radio two days after Moam Moam’s funeral, full of apologies and self-criticisms. “Leannán and Wati working together drives me nuts. Pff, I can't see an exit to this discorde. But I shouldn’t have run away. I should have been there with you when Moam-Moam was injured. My place was by your side when she died. Mon amie, I can’t bear that you suffered this terrible loss alone. Such a tragédie.”
“What could you have done? Held my hand while I held hers? It was an impossible situation, and I escaped as soon as I could,” I replied bitterly. Then, softening my tone, I said, “I should have stayed for the funeral.”
“Leannán and I returned in time for it. Such wailing. The whole village was crying, and the other little girls were inconsolable. The coffin . . . the coffin was so small.”
The image of Moam-Moam flashed before me—her tiny white teeth and bright pink tongue when she laughed; her thick, curly black hair falling off her face, not quite under control; and her smooth café au lait skin. I saw the child I had imagined raising as my own in the States. The image was so clear, it caught my breath.
“Oh, Brie,” I sighed. “Yes, I wish you’d been there with me.”