Chapter 73: The Mad Hatter
At our weekly provincial meeting, Bruno announced the decision of four DESs assigned to Poŭthĭsăt to leave the mission and said that sixty others countrywide had already left. Klara would take over a smaller district during the days of polling, leaving me as the only DES in my district office during the election. This news didn’t surprise me, but his decision about electoral planning did.
“Polling sites will be located on or easily accessed from the main road,” Bruno said, explaining that the strategy centered upon having a few defensible polling sites in order to reduce the opportunity for disruption by either the factional guerrillas or the KPAF. Twenty vulnerable polling stations bordered by dense jungle would be removed, leaving nine sites, each with increased military presence, positioned along the main highway.
Those were my words! I hoped that my face was revealing nothing of the excitement I felt. As I had suggested, we would let the people come to us.
The first objection came from Klara. “What about the boat people, who are vulnerable on the lake and on the shore.”
“They will have to be told to travel in small numbers—take different routes. Use leaflets maybe, dropped over the floating villages. The Khmer Rouge won’t bother individuals taking different paths. They will attack the polling sites where they get the biggest bang for their buck.”
“CJ, was ist das big bang?” Klara asked.
“Where they can do the most damage with the fewest resources.”
Klara’s head bobbed a little as if she were shaking the information into place, but then she acquiesced. “Ja, some problems, but smaller ones.”
There were more objections because of the danger involved for the people who would be traveling greater distances, but I countered them by reminding everyone that we had to rely on the Cambodians to own the challenge and make it to the polls. “The locals certainly can navigate the jungles and washed-out roads better than we can,” I said, remembering my oxcart ride. It had carried me when no other vehicle could move.
For days, the UN had leaked that Cambodia was unlikely to hold a free or fair election. It would be happy with a thirty percent voter turnout and credible, survivable results—sentiments that had fueled the need for a strategic polling plan. At least in my province, the plan would be THOR.
I no longer had any illusions about the futility and emptiness of the election. Tiny Cambodia was merely another pawn in the global New World Order. Still, it was a first step to self-determination, and at least I could be a part of that.
I used the new FAX machine in Bruno’s office, hoping it was more reliable than the post, to let Marilyn know I’d be stateside by the end of May. I asked her to notify the university that I’d resume teaching in the fall; and please, would she call my daughter, to tell her I loved her and would visit her in New York as soon as I’d settled in. I heard the ‘sent’ tone, and the machine spit out a receipt.
Although I was already thinking about going home, I felt comfortable with my decision to remain through the election period and complete the mission. I reassured myself that, should there be pervasive violence, it would begin when the election was over, even if the results weren’t known. If I joined the mass exodus and left the country, I would never know whether I had accomplished anything. was counting the days until the end of my adventure, but there were pleasant ones nonetheless. Dara had called the provincial office to leave word that Hon had delivered a baby girl, named Mai. The baby was perfect, his message said. Hon was fine.
With such good news, I could relax and simply enjoy the moment. Two petite demitasse cups of bitter coffee were stacked in front of me as I looked out through my glassless window at the banana leaves unfurling in the early morning sun, remembering that Stephan had liked to sit here. The greens of the foliage were cool and fresh. I saw snatches of flame-orange flowers amid the palms and banana leaves. The rising sun cast shadows, and the sky was still an early morning whitish-blue. But I wasn’t thinking of Stephan; I was thinking of Hon.
As I viewed the scenery, I could hear the morning sounds of Cambodia: roosters crowing, the buzzing of insects and the chirp of small lizards slinking down the wall. Children were playing, laughing and chattering in the courtyard, while motor scooters putt-putted up and down the road—their engine sounds identifying their size and the loads they carried. There was some discordant Cambodian music playing, probably at a funeral, and I wondered how many days it had been going on. I could hear the shuffling sound of my housekeeper scooting across the wood floors and dusting with a small hand mop.
By mid-day, I had finished my supply list and went to work at HQ until late in the afternoon. Returning home, I resumed my place at the little table by the window and worked on polling schedules.
Weary of the monotonous work, I lifted the mosquito net and slid into my bed. “Another day down,” I shouted to the gecko, who was hiding somewhere in the rafters.
The death count mounted as the election neared. Commune chiefs raised the alarm over landmines that were planted during the night. Another Japanese man was killed― this time, a UN CivPol. Khmer Rouge guerrillas attacked Captain Yuan’s Chinese battalion and the Polish logistics company. They also blew up a passenger train with landmines, opened fire on the packed cars and marched dozens of people, including Western tourists, into the jungle toward the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau—the site of a genocidal horror where ten thousand people had been thrown to their deaths.
On the heels of the civilian train massacre, the Khmer Rouge attacked Bakane District. So close to home. Was Poŭthĭsăt next?
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” Klara declared at the office.
“Do what?” I asked.
“Anything. Why should we? Untac can’t possibly hold the election mit all these shootings and terror.”
“You’re right. It’s all busy work, all bullshit,” I snapped. Klara and I stared at each other for a moment, as the weight of our frustration silenced us. We both knew that we wouldn’t stop doing the tasks at hand. Although it was hard to believe in Untac, our staff and the people in our district believed in us.
As attacks continued to threaten the election, Untac made the tactical decision to have local police and KPAF soldiers jointly guard polling stations with the UN CivPol and military. I was appalled. It was like asking the Bosnian Serbs to help guard a Muslim enclave. We also received a two-page memo on self-protection from the Untac military command, the gist of which was to fall down on the ground and try to become as small as possible. The mad hatter was on the loose.
I balled up the memo in disgust. Klara, who was sitting at her desk reading her copy, looked up at the ball in my hand. She leaned back in her chair, flinching as if I were going to throw the paper ball at her. “You don’t have to duck,” I said. “But somebody will, when I find out who wrote this.”
“Line up, please. I’ll distribute your flak jackets and blue UN combat helmets,” the man in charge said as he directed traffic at HQ. Klara put on her metal helmet, making her look like a Valkyrie. I lifted mine onto my head. The rock-hard padding didn’t keep the helmet shell from slipping slightly sideways and down on my forehead, pushing on my eyes and limiting my vision. It fit quite as badly, and it was heavy and hard. I felt giddy at first—like I was going into combat. I snapped on my green camouflage vest and tried to look taller.
A new guy sat next to Martin, the head Unmo. From Phnom Penh, he was wearing military camouflage fatigues and standing stiffly. The sweat stain blossoming under both arms of his shirt was taking on the shape of Somalia, where all our necessary supplies were being routed by the UN. His mustache hardly moved when he spoke. “The Khmer Rouge are certainly out there,” he said, pausing as if to persuade us of the fact. “And the Untac military command believes they are setting up camps for a post-election offensive.” I liked the sound of ‘post’ and repeated the word mentally, until Martin broke the spell by confirming that KPAF troops had gone on a pre-election offensive. I could hear Russ’s cockney accent roaring in my head: bloody gits.
“But no worries,” the man from Phnom Penh continued. “We are trying to secure metal detectors for the polling sites.”
“Bloody gits,” I muttered under my breath.
Then Bruno announced that DESs and polling station chiefs would collect the ID cards that had been given out during registration. He added, as if it were perfectly logical, “That way Untac can guarantee that people vote only once.”
No way in hell! I was certain that people wouldn’t bring their cards if they found out we would collect them. Cambodia’s horrific recent past had created all manner of fears.
“No,” I said emphatically. Everyone around the table turned to stare at me. “No, the voters won’t give up their cards. Cambodians still believe they will lose free rice or some other goodie if they don’t have a card in their possession. Worse, they are terrified that the card will be used to identify them for punishment. I wouldn’t even try to take their cards, and we should fight HQ on this. And I’m not wearing this crap, either,” I said, flinging my flak jacket and helmet on the table. “Where is the gear for my staff―you know, the guys who are going to be on the front line, at the polling stations? In Somalia, with our maps?”
Martin looked at me lamely and said, “We don’t have enough for local staff. We have to reserve some for the International Polling Station Observers.”
“Great, Martin. I’m sure it will instill all kinds of confidence in the staff when they see me and the IPSOs in blue helmets and jackets but learn that they don’t get any. No worries. We’ve got metal detectors—maybe.”
Bruno scowled at me, annoyed by my outburst. Ignoring me, he said in his best big diplomatic voice, “CJ, do you know how this ends? No? And neither do I. So let’s keep it that way.” He looked knowingly at the moustache* in camouflage, who in turn glared at me.
Mechanically, I slouched in my seat, arms crossed defensively over my chest—but only for seconds. As if a hand were pulling me up, I sat up straight, returned the glare and smiled sweetly at Bruno. This was no time to pout or whine. I had an election to run, and I needed these guys to see me as an equal.
My staff and others, who I supposed were their relatives, routinely slept in the rooms on the lower level for safety, leaving during the day to work or go to their villages. They were usually back by the time I returned from work, waving and smiling when I pulled into the courtyard. One night, I stopped at the top of the stairs, pivoted and looked down at them. Could I meet their expectations?
The Cambodians who were milling around in my courtyard thought I was a heroine, but would I ever believe it? I pulled the door shut behind me, trying to ignore the self-doubts screaming in my head. I was ready to go on to something else, somewhere else. Cambodia had been my escape, but it was not my destiny. I laughed aloud at my incredible ego. Why else could I have believed that my life was committed to some greater purpose? I’d be lucky to stop repeating my same mistakes while expecting different results.
A driver from HQ delivered a note from Stephan. The timing was ironic. He planned to see me off when I left Phnom Penh to fly home.
“I would rather be in our wooden house or anywhere with you,” he wrote." I miss you. I kiss you. I will meet you." His words should have made me happy—but what if he couldn’t come? No, I wasn’t going to set myself up for that kind of fall.
To keep myself from thinking about seeing Stephan again, I changed into the dragon-embroidered kimono that Brie had given me, sat at the little table and wrote her a letter.
Dearest Brie, Mon Amie,
I want to believe I will see you in Phnom Penh before I leave Cambodia for good. Believing it makes it easier to keep myself together. I’m numb more than anything else. It's hard to maintain any feelings when you've sealed off such a big part of what’s going on around you. Perhaps the combination of goodbyes, the separation from you and Stephan and this horrible environment is too much for me. My protection is to feel nothing. It is like being alone in a crowd of people, and worse, in a crowd of people you know!
Brielle, I love you like a sister or a daughter. You are my reward for coming to Cambodia. Be as good to yourself as I would like to be to you. Love yourself with the same respect and tenderness that I have for you. You deserve nothing less.
Stay safe. We will be together again.
In the final weeks before the election, most of Poŭthĭsăt province briefly experienced halcyon days, but for me it was a time of highs and lows.
One moment I would pass from fear into fearlessness―recognizing the danger, but not letting it shut me down. In the next moment, numbness would replace feeling; food became tasteless, and my appetite waned. Alice may have thought of six possibilities before breakfast, but I had no clear vision of Cambodia’s future. Would it become nothing more than a cog in the machine of global consumption?
I understood that the country was experiencing the same horrific growing pains that had convulsed the West during the Industrial Revolution, but Cambodia existed in its own time warp after enduring decades of colonialism, the betrayal of the Khmer Rouge and its utter destruction by American B-52s during Nixon’s bombing campaign. Cambodia would pay a price in human suffering if, in the process of fighting for survival, it lost its soul.
Although the details of the polling process had come together, it was as if we were holding rehearsals for a play three days out from opening night and the leading man still couldn’t remember his lines. I watched the staff chasing their tails as they tried to tie up loose ends while adding new tasks along the way. Preparations for the election were a minefield of potential screw-ups, portending a disaster of epic proportions.
While we were out inspecting polling sites, Klara and I made a discovery that was unsettling in its absurdity. A group of Tunisian soldiers off to the side of the road were throwing palm leaves over what looked like an Ohio Indian mound. Eyes wide, Klara said, “It looks like the Tunisians try to make a bunker for the bomb.”
“Americans went crazy building bomb shelters in the 1950s.We had a cabinet full of canned beans in my family’s basement, which we kids were told not to open,” I said.
We climbed out of the car and took a closer look at the earthen and masonry pit that the soldiers were trying to camouflage. Klara’s lips tightened into a flat line as her eyes widened in disbelief. The bunker was small—too little to hold more than a few people. Help was not on the way.
“Do you know Murphy’s Law?” I asked her. “Our entire staff will be at the sites two days before the start of polling, and the chairs and tables and MREs are not scheduled to be delivered until the day of the election. And it has been pouring rain for three days. According to Murphy’s Law, if something can go wrong, it will.”
“You are too much pessimist,” she said.
“I will convert you,” I replied.
Veata presented me with a favorite meal—eggplant and pork, rice and sautéed veggies. It was not quite twilight, and the banana leaves outside my window looked more gray than green in the rapidly dimming light. I was enjoying the much-improved cuisine of late when I heard two loud explosions like distant thunder. My walkie-talkie— my constant companion—crackled, and an urgent voice demanded my immediate attention. “Mine explosions, near the soccer field where the Royalist political party is to hold its rally in the morning.”
As the world around me darkened, I slid under my mosquito net for the night. The radio, silent again, lay beside my pillow. I heard several more loud booms. The air in my room vibrated and the noise filled my ears. This time the booms were big-gun volleys from somewhere not too distant. I waited, holding my breath for more explosions. I remembered that gun lobs were like lightning; if you could hear them, the rockets weren’t hitting you.
The radio crackled alive again. “Several casualties, mostly workers preparing for the rally at the soccer field. Khmer Rouge guerillas have engaged the KPAF with fire from several directions.” The bulletin ended with a warning to turn off' all lights and take immediate shelter. Shelter? Where?
There was no place to hide. I slunk out of bed and slipped into some clothes, in case I had to leave quickly. I could hardly see in the darkness. Slowly I made my way to the door and walked down the steps leading to the bottom half of the house. I wanted to calm my housekeeper and her relatives, who had fled the outlying villages, as well as Mr. Om and some staff who were also staying there that night. Almost everyone was outside, milling around in the courtyard of the tiny compound.
“Soom toh, put out any candles, and aut pluen, no lights,” I said. “Mr. Om, tell them to go inside and keep everything dark so we are not a target for rockets. Aut panyaha, we are okay. Go inside,” I repeated.
“Momma, come stay with us,” Mr. Om pleaded, as if reading my mind. “Wooden house not good if rocket hits.”
The vein under my eye pulsed and my upper lip began to twitch. It would be easy to infect the others with my fear and panic, so I climbed back upstairs, knowing they were safer in the stone part of the house. So why was I going upstairs?
Unbidden, my mother’s classic advice spilled into consciousness: “Always be sure to wear clean underwear, in case you are in an accident.” I was lying back in bed with my t-shirt and clean undies on, silencing my mother’s voice, when I felt a rumble followed by a flash that lit up the sky white-yellow. The house shook; then the boom of big guns rippled across my body and my ears started ringing. Someone was banging on the door and shouting, “Momma, Momma.” It was Mr. Om.
Thinking we were under attack, everyone downstairs ran back outside again when the blast swept over them, rattling walls and windows and dishes. The dogs were spooked and barking, but the radio was silent. As I stood at the top of the stairs, the fear rising from the people below was palpable. Terror had frozen us all in place.
Once again, the radio crackled back to life. “This is Poppa 2.The guns firing now are pointing away from the town. The immediate threat has passed. All medical personnel should report to HQ immediately. Collateral casualties, please report immediately on channel 9. Everyone else should remain in place.”
“Aut panyaha,” I said weakly to Mr. Om. “Tell everyone to go back inside. We are safe.” Not believing myself, I crept back to my bed. I felt as if I had been on a roller coaster ride, coming down the last hill before making a hairpin turn into the dock. The ride slowed as it entered the exit gate and stopped. I fell into an uneasy sleep.
Untac brass announced that the Khmer Rouge were expected to disrupt the election by attacking polling sites. The party line had changed. Klara, the Unmos and I slept only four hours a night or less, trying to maintain our focus on the task and off of its impediments. Missing Stephan no longer disturbed my sleep or interrupted my days. I had a singular purpose: the election.
The circles under our eyes were darker, but together Klara and I inventoried all of the equipment and materials that were left over from registration. I sent back tons of things to HQ, like cooking equipment and mosquito nets. I would have preferred to give these things away to local staff, but I couldn't play favorites, and I didn’t have the energy to organize a lottery. Klara pouted. Khmers so loved to gamble, and a lottery with real prizes would have gone a long way towards making amends for everything that our staff had endured. Our office had enough MREs, water, air mattresses and toilet paper to supply a small army.
It poured continuously. Despite the rain, my staff and I went over the electoral laws one last time. I sent my drivers out with some Tunisian soldiers to recheck every polling site. Martin held daily security briefings at the Tunisian Battalion’s camp. The Unmos warned us that the KPAF had placed some high caliber mortars in neighboring provinces; they also reported that several tanks had rolled through Poŭthĭsăt town two nights earlier.
“What does that mean?” Klara asked, shaking her head, not wanting to hear more bad news. Since other DESs had abandoned the mission, Bakane 1 and 2 were virtually our exclusive responsibility, and it was wearing on both of us. Klara looked forlornly to Martin for a response.
“Everyone is putting his pawns in place for the game to start. Unfortunately, we can't tell the players apart!” Martin said, shrugging his shoulders to acknowledge that it wasn’t much of an answer. “Mines are being laid in the village of Svaydounkeo in Bakane 1,” he added. “But don’t worry. They are the government’s mines, not the Khmer Rouge’s.”
“Hell, I feel safe!” I smiled one of those “you’re a jerk” smiles at Martin across the long briefing table. I pushed away my chair, scraping its metal legs on the cement floor, grabbed Klara by the shoulder and pulled her up. “Come on. We have work to do.”
Mr. Om drove us about five klics north of the Tunisian’s camp to a back-up site in a village that had become a lake after days of rain. The quiet of the dry brown earth had been replaced by the raucous sounds of banded bullfrogs and crickets spawned in the continuous deluge. Klara squinted at the knee-high mud between us and the village center and frowned.
“Your THOR strategy had better work,” she said glumly.
“It will, and we won’t need this or any other back-up site.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
Who was being the pessimist? I kept the thought to myself. Klara was at a breaking point, and it would do no good to bait her into a fight. But as Mr. Om drove us to another site, in an abandoned clinic on a lane closer to the main road, I ran over the whole strategy again in my mind. The truth was that I didn’t know if we could pull it off, but I had bet my life on it.
The clinic was small and grimy but structurally sound. It stood on a rise in a clearing, an easy walk from the main road, even if the lane became too wet for vehicular travel. Klara smiled. “Well, this one will do in an emergency. I put it on our list.”
I picked at Veata’s dinner of rice and braised pork, mulling over Martin’s security briefing about new landmines and Klara and my less than stellar success afterwards. By the end of a very long day, we had only three potentially viable sites if we had to move a polling station during the election. THOR had better work.
I found out that Téphanes, who had left the mission after the new year, had returned to Cambodia as an International Polling Observer and was living with Brielle and Leannán. This good news provided some measure of assurance that Brielle would get through the polling. Téphanes’ return also meant that I had been in country so long that people who had left Cambodia were scheduled to come back.
Our IPSOs arrived, seven in all, one day before the voting began. They were extremely well-compensated foreign dignitaries and international elites, charged with observing the polling and watching for any discrepancies that could invalidate the outcome of the election. I picked them up in the early morning, already bright and hot, to take them through a mock election day schedule.
The Tunisian IPSOs were late, claiming that they didn't know the meeting time. The Norwegian in the group greeted me with the questions, “Breakfast, where is breakfast? Will we get breakfast when we get to our polling station?” His concern was beyond laughable, but I swallowed my sarcasm. I was under strict orders to be politically correct and to treat these people with the utmost care.
“We’ve got food and supplies at our office in Bakane District, so there is no need to fret. Please, we are behind schedule and must get moving. Please take your seats in the van. Thank you.” In my non-PC language, I would have said, “You’re late, get on the damn bus.” I was proud of my self-control at 5:30 in the morning.
I organized the IPSOs’ equipment and got the French-speaking Unmos to take them to breakfast; then I changed their polling station assignments so that they and the CivPol on site would speak the same language.
Bruno was enraged. “We keep the IPSOs in the polling station where I’ve assigned them. Rearrange the CivPol if you need to,” he boomed as he burst into my office.
Interfering with the IPSOs was not politic. Some were former heads of state; others were wealthy socialites; and all of them were well-connected politically. I had no choice but to comply.
It was Klara who told him off. “My sir,” she said in her clipped German accent. “CJ made certain that everyone could be understood. Her assignments guaranteed the IPSOs security and comfort.”
“And by rearranging the CivPol assignments, the same was accomplished without disturbing the IPSOs’ assignments.” Bruno bellowed his reply. Smiling at his logic, he sat down, expecting Klara to retreat.
“These IPSOs are princes. You kiss their asses!” she countered, not ready to retreat at all. She accused them of earning huge amounts of money, even though they had arrived after the real work was done. “Besides,” she reminded him, “the CivPol are not under CJ’s command.”
“True, CJ’s plan serves all parties,” he acquiesced. “Nonetheless, my direction stands. IPSOs will remain at the polling sites where I assigned them.”
“You should not have intervened,” Klara said, making full use of her 5’8” frame. “CJ must reschedule the entire CivPol for seven people. Ridiculous.”
“It’s done, and the IPSOs will be teamed with CivPol who speak a common language.” Bruno turned to me. Sheepishly, he asked, “It’s a good result, don’t you agree?”
“A good result,” I answered, repeating his words more than agreeing with them. It was like pleading ‘no contest.’ Klara, her back to Bruno, muttered under her breath, “Drachenfutter.” I was pretty sure that her response was more colorful than mine.
Days of Reckoning
Dawn was breaking when I arrived at my office. It was the first day of the election, and Untac’s whole gambit in Cambodia had come down to this. There would be three days of voting before a two-day break in the five-day voting cycle. Untac wanted time to adjust if anything went badly during the first three days.
In the words of Meatloaf, I was “glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife.” I was down to one hundred two pounds, my fighting weight.
I ran an uphill marathon all morning. A PO, short for Polling Officer, had come down with malaria; people forgot to take water to the polling sites, and fluorescent lights broke. Eventually, everyone was stationed and voters stood patiently in long lines. Cambodians would not be denied their election.
Other than the few polling stations set up in pagodas, most of them were located in schools. But the picture was always the same—long lines of people, young and old, waiting eagerly in the hot sun for their turn to cast their ballot. Dozens of rusty bicycles stood against trees or littered the ground. Even a few oxcarts and water buffalo were parked among the many motorcycles. The CivPol and Tunisian soldiers checked the registration cards while our POs inked fingers, despite resistance—some resulting in fist fights—collected identity cards, and settled any disputes or voter irregularity. The IPSOs sat in the shade if they could find any, gulped down bottles of clean water and, when they weren’t gossiping, kept an eye on the party agents.
By the end of the first day, fifty percent of registered Poŭthĭsăt voters, including Bakane, had cast their ballots, as well as thirty percent of Cambodia. The POs returned to the office. “No attacks, no landmines,” they cheered. “But Momma,” one PO reported unhappily, “some of the ballot boxes have broken seals.” The radio crackled at the same time they were giving me their news. The ballot boxes were being delivered to the Tunisian’s compound, where I needed to go to check the seals. Party agents would meet me there to verify that there had been no ballot tampering.
A staffer handed me a clipboard saying, “You’ll have to complete a broken lock report, and the party agents will have to sign it.” I stood in a hot fog of humidity, the big field lights attracting swarms of insects.
I took the clipboard. Ballots in tubs, made of flimsy plastic with thin wire locks, were stacked five deep in a big eight-wheeler truck parked in front of the barracks. In the damp and mud, my neck and shoulders covered with crickets and grasshoppers, I checked all of the locks in full view of the party agents. Flying insects attacked my eyes and midges crawled up my nose. Holding up five fingers, I reported, “Pram locks are broken.” The party agents shook their heads and sneaked peeks at each other, as if to assure themselves that no one opposed my count. In unison they all said ban, confirming the number.
I wrote with one hand and waved the other like a wild woman, trying to protect my face while finishing the report. When I felt something crawling down inside my shirt, I shook with spasms. Several of the Tunisian soldiers clustered around me, vainly trying to pick the bugs from my head and shoulders while I put new seals on the boxes. It was like a scene in a B horror movie.
The agents signed off and left the compound. I headed for home, in the dark, hardly slowing my vehicle through two KPAF barricades. Although my heart was still racing from the attack by an army of flying insects, I somehow managed to stay calm and play along with the soldiers’ usual charade about landmines on the road. After handing out cigarettes at each stop, I searched in my rearview mirror to make sure that no guns were aimed at my departing car. I didn’t want to tempt fate and wind up dead on a bridge. I wanted to go home.
The second day of voting saw a repeat of long lines and ended without incident, except for another broken lock on one of the ballot boxes. By then, Bruno’s assistant PEO, Robin, had devised a system to replace the boxes immediately, so aut panyaha. I checked them off in front of party agents before they were loaded onto a truck and shipped to Phnom Penh for final counting. No swarming insects would ravage me again.
My car crawled back to my house in Poŭthĭsăt. I was tired; my head pounded and whacked, as if an African drummer were stuck inside it. Dinner was on the table. Without stopping, I walked toward the bedroom, telling my housekeeper, “Aut nambye tinai knei. No dinner tonight. I’m not hungry.”
Veata grasped my arm, pointed at the food that she had prepared for me and sat me down at the table. Then she pushed open the shutters. The night air smelled faintly of jasmine, which mixed with the aroma of the dish—noodles with onions, cucumbers, yams and peanuts along with a plate of fresh mango. Surprised at her insistence, I picked at the food until she was satisfied that I had eaten enough.
Usually, Veata grudgingly left me a thermos of hot water in the kitchen so that I could fix instant coffee. One the third day of voting, however, she stood by my bed before dawn with a cup of coffee in one hand, gently shaking me awake with the other.
I picked up the IPSOs at an unholy early hour and delivered them to the Bakane office. From there, CivPol escorts drove them to their polling stations, exactly as Bruno had instructed. Then I sat in the office with the remaining CivPol, discussing whether the relative calm of the past two days would continue. We were convinced that it would not.
“Echo Charley Bravo 1. Come to Metuk polling site; several dead and injured from an explosion.” The horrific scene in Skon flashed before me. By the time that I arrived, voting had come to a standstill and chaos reigned in the street. Victims were crumpled in the road. Someone, likely a Khmer Rouge soldier, had fired a rocket into the market not far from where people were lined up to vote, killing six and injuring three.
My job was to keep the polling stations open, not play the role of a triage nurse like I had done in Skon. The locals would have to comfort victims, transport the injured to a nearby clinic and take on the ghoulish task of removing the bodies and debris. I could only survey the carnage and hope that the explosion wasn’t a portent of events to come.
Calming down the two Tunisian IPSOs at the scene was a challenge in itself. They refused to stay, demanding that I return them to HQ immediately. Luckily, a couple of officers from the Tunisian battalion had arrived to secure the area and search for evidence because the Unmos wanted to know who had caused the havoc. Claiming that I needed a strong man to help me, I flattered one of them into promising to protect the IPSOs when the polls reopened. Satisfied that their Tunisian countrymen would keep them safe, even if I couldn’t, the IPSOs relented and voting resumed.
Before I left Metuk to return to my district office, the lines were longer than before the attack. Cambodians would not be deterred.
I returned to HQ at the end of the day to a buzz of conversation. A Battheay polling station in Kampong Cham had been attacked in the afternoon. Brielle’s district. There were explosions and the station was closed early, but details were sketchy at best. Martin was reminding everyone in the room that, unlike Poŭthĭsăt, Kampong Cham hadn’t moved its polling stations to the province’s main roads. Rather, polling stations were set up throughout the districts, some accessible only by boat because of the early rains.
I didn’t give a flip about his explanation; I only wanted to know that Brielle was safe and unharmed. When I was able to reach Téphanes by phone, her soft voice was reassuring.
“Brielle and Raena were at one of the remote stations, trying to resolve a dispute, when a villager shouted something about approaching Khmer Rouge guerrillas. The rumor sped through the crowd like a rocket. Apparently Raena freaked, which panicked the KPAF soldiers and a couple of CivPol who were providing security. The KPAF soldiers ran into the forest and Raena drove off with the Jeep, leaving Brielle stranded with two CivPol and no guns.”
“Did the guerrillas attack? Brielle . . . was anyone hurt?” My stomach tightened into a knot.
“No, no one was hurt,” Téphanes reassured me. “But the guerillas did lob a few grenades, scattering the villagers who were lined up to vote. Without protection from the KPAF soldiers, the IPSOs insisted that they close the polling station. Brielle is traumatized. She hasn’t stopped trembling, and even Leannán can’t calm her. He wishes you were here.”
“She’ll have nightmares.”
“He knows that. Why do you think he wants you here?”
“That bastard, Bruno. If he had pulled the polling stations back to the main highway . . .”
“But he didn’t,” Téphanes said in her quiet, practical way. “And Raena has radioed to apologize—but I doubt that Brielle will ever forgive her.”
I thanked her for the information and, like an old mother hen, cautioned her to be safe. Relief and fear melded together into a fog that covered me like a lead apron. I had to struggle to breathe. Brielle was okay, but there were still several more days of voting. How safe was she? For that matter, how safe was I?
The sun shone brightly on the final two days of voting in Poŭthĭsăt. Registration cards had been collected with diminishing minor resistance. By the last day, ballots had been cast by ninety-eight percent of its registered voters and pretty close to that rate throughout Cambodia. Other provinces had suffered attacks but, for the most part, Cambodians had risked everything to vote. Untac had lucked out and would claim success. The turnout had exceeded all expectations, but the outcome—who had won—wouldn’t be known for several days, perhaps longer. The ballots that had been shipped to Phnom Penh daily were being tallied by hand, leading to a new question. What would the election mean?
With the election over and polls closed, the local staff would sleep at the polling stations in order to collect and return equipment to the district office the next morning. I met Klara for a beer at a small outdoor restaurant in Poŭthĭsăt. Wired from the overall success of the polling, I wasn’t ready to go home and pack for my imminent departure.
Martin was there, along with a few other Unmos and some Tunisian soldiers. When he waved us over, Klara and I each picked up a metal folding chair and joined them at their table.
They had some serious news to tell us. White UN tanks had patrolled the streets after a pre-dawn rocket attack on the Phnom Penh airport and the villages that straddled the runways and outskirts of the city. There had been civilian casualties. The details were sketchy; not even Martin had any useful intelligence beyond the fact that the airport was still operational.
“It appears to have been a hit-and-run attack,” he said to me. “It has been quiet all day, but I wouldn’t take any chances when you get there. You might want to take the flak jacket with you.”
While he smirked at his joke, alarm bells went off and a wave of unease enveloped me. Dark thoughts circled my head like a murder of crows. Hon lived near the airport. But she would be safe, wouldn’t she? She was a survivor, I thought, trying to quell the panic I was feeling. Nevertheless, I promised myself to check on her as soon as I got to the city.
I was up at the crack of dawn, ready to go. After performing my last official act, which was getting the IPSOs on their bus for a two-day holiday at the beach, I returned to the house to finish packing my few belongings. Marilyn, who had watched me attempt to pack the entire contents of my bedroom a year earlier, would not have believed how little I had left.
Veata had come to help me pack and to clean the house for my landlord. When she wasn’t trying to serve me coffee, she was moping around and aimlessly picking up odds and ends, then putting them down again. I looked around for a gift—a token like the ceramic incense burner I had picked up in Bangkok’s tourist market, but that wouldn’t be right. I dug through my newly packed suitcase, found what I was searching for and presented her with my silk kimono.
Mr. Om showed up, too, although I was driving myself to Phnom Penh. Uncharacteristically for Cambodians, who rarely displayed emotions, Mr. Om gave me bear hugs and a tear or two welled up in Veata’s eyes. I knew that I had helped to empower them and their scarred countrymen. I had helped to create a window of opportunity and a respite from decades of war. The future was up to them.
Then I dropped by HQ to have coffee and a goodbye chat with Bruno. “Election results won’t be official for several days, but I’ve heard that the UN has called the election a tie and that twin governments will run the country,” he confided
The election had not been the end game for Cambodia. It wasn’t even the beginning of the end—merely the end of a first step. A rough ride was in store. But my luck had held in Cambodia. I hoped that the new democracy would be lucky, too.
It’s a shame your contract is up,” Bruno said. We both knew he didn’t mean it, but I was leaving and he could be generous.
Playing my part in our détente, I replied, “I would stay if I could. I spent a year of my life on this election. But not only is my UN contract up, my leave from the university is also up and summer classes begin in less than a month. Staying on as a volunteer won’t pay my bills.”
I never had the option to ask Bruno to extend my contract for another sixty days, like Brielle and Leannán had done. Still, I wanted to be in Cambodia when the new government was installed and, more than anything, I wanted to celebrate Cambodia’s future with Hon.
Bruno clasped my hand in his and shook it hard. “Good fortune, CJ. I’m glad we finished this together.”
Klara was also there at HQ. She kissed me full on the mouth and handed me a pretty blue embossed greeting card. I opened it and read the few words neatly printed inside: You are the best of the best of them. I looked at her, wishing with all my heart that I could believe her.
As I left Poŭthĭsăt and headed toward Phnom Penh to begin my long trip home to the States, I shouted out the window, “I’ve done it.” With my free hand, I pushed the call button on the radio and said to no one in particular, “Echo Charley Bravo 1, I’m out of here. So long, and thanks for all the fish.”
Chapter 77 The Fiction of Winning
Throwing my luggage on the bed of my Phnom Penh hotel room, I hurried off to the central market in search of Hon. A stranger stood behind her usual booth, ignoring me as she chatted to a few other sellers standing around waiting for customers, who seemed to be particularly scarce. I saw one face I recognized.
“Where is Hon?” I asked, hoping that she spoke English.
She eyed me suspiciously for a moment. Then, as recognition dawned, she pointed toward some imaginary place and said, “The old market with her husband. She open second shop there.” I caught a cyclo-cab and, as I settled in for a bumpy ride, I realized that I didn’t need to fight for one. The drivers were all lined up, waiting; several were sleeping in their carriages. There was a conspicuous lack of people, but there were still a lot of military uniforms as well as tanks and the ubiquitous white UN trucks.
Unceremoniously, the cyclo-cab dumped me out on the corner of the old market, where I scanned the row of small jewelry repair and money-changing shops. Dara was not at work, and no one stood behind the locked glass cabinet where Hon kept money and gemstones. Missing work was not an option for most Cambodians, but maybe the baby was sick. The shop was empty and I needed to find them. I stood looking down at my feet, not knowing what to do, when one of the neighboring sellers spoke. “You need money change?”
“No, sorry. I am looking for Hon. Do you know where she is?”
“Her baby, is she okay?”
“No, baby not hurt. Hon hurt, hurt bad. Rockets hit their house.”
“Which hospital? Where is she?”
I knew that hospital. It was across the road from Stephan’s favorite restaurant in Phnom Penh.
I tried to make sense out of that news. Were Hon’s injuries critical? Who was taking care of her? Where were Dara and their baby, Mai?
I climbed on the back of a taxi-moto, hoping to move through Phnom Penh’s terrible traffic quickly, but we were suddenly engulfed in a sea of chaotic cars, overloaded wagons and huge, lumbering trucks all trying to squeeze through each intersection at the same time. I clung for dear life to the bare waist of the driver while we headed toward the old, yellowed, stucco French hospital. As we weaved through traffic, I thought about Hon—sweet, gentle Hon, whose young life had already known more than its share of hardship and tragedy.
At the hospital, I found her lying on a gurney in a crowded hall just outside the waiting area. I took her hand in mine. Dara lay on another makeshift bed where a small baby, only weeks old, slept peacefully at the bottom. A French woman in a nurse’s uniform was the only medical person in sight. I called her over. She explained that Hon had shrapnel in her neck, the remnants of a rocket that had hit her house when the Khmer Rouge attacked the airport.
A doctor stopped by to suggest that I massage her back to relax her without touching her neck, as the shrapnel could slip and slice her spinal cord. He moved on to Dara, changed the bandages on his more obvious wounds and finally spoke privately to the nurse. I saw her slip a vial of medicine, probably morphine, into her pocket and nod to the doctor in agreement. I was stunned and empty of feelings. My mind was shutting down, while my body operated on autopilot.
“Are you her patron?” the nurse asked me in a mix of French and English.
“No, I’m her friend—their friend. Have any relatives been to see them?” Questions began to whirl again. Who was going to take care of the baby? Would they survive their injuries?
I was screwing up the courage to ask her when Hon’s limp hand squeezed mine weakly. I bent over to hear her. “You are my luck in Cambodia. Don’t leave me,” she begged.
Clasping her hand, I said, “Oun sra-lun bong na. I love you, too. I’ll be back soon, you’ll see. Be brave.”
Hon lay back on the gurney. Her husband was unconscious. The baby, round and pink with a shock of fine black hair, continued to sleep. I secured the nurse’s attention with a stare. I needed to know what to expect. Rather than speaking, she picked up the baby and handed her to me. Mai lay quietly, cradled in my arms, unaware of the horror around her.
“They will not survive the night. You must take the child. No one has come to claim her, and if she goes to an orphanage . . . well, it will be tragique.”
The rundown, over-extended and corrupt orphanage system was despicable; children were sold for adoption, or worse, sold into domestic or sexual slavery. Without a family or a community, there was no good future for little Mai.
I was on my own. I looked back at the pale, still faces of Hon and Dara, hiked the baby up on my hip, grabbed a plastic bag with bottles and a few pieces of clothing and fled the hospital. I had to get to the US consulate.
The consulate was in a state of high alert, with men in military uniforms patrolling every corridor. Although no one was particularly helpful in the chaos of activity, an American woman holding a Cambodian infant was an odd enough sight to attract official attention.
“Are they dead? No other family?” asked the consular officer as he rifled through the papers on his desk.
I cradled Mai gently on my knee as I answered his questions—dying, not dead—and tried to disguise my fear and frustration. The more he turned pages, the angrier I became over his lack of urgency. Finally, pushing back his glasses and swiveling slightly in his chair, he said, “Come back tomorrow. We might be able to get emergency asylum for the baby and sort everything out once you are stateside. Emm, assuming that the parents are indeed dead.”
And no longer your problem, I thought as I got up to leave. Still, there was something I could do. I wondered if I could carry the baby on the plane or if I would need an additional ticket.
Returning to the hospital to check on Hon and Dara, I collided with a CivPol who had worked with me in Skon. “Hi, CJ. I see you finally got someone to leave you her baby?” he joked, tickling Mai under her chubby chin. He had been around the previous fall when the village woman had brought in the foundling.
“Hell, I wish it were so simple. Her parents got caught in the rocket attack two nights ago and their wounds are likely to be fatal. No family. No one has come to claim the baby. I’m trying to arrange asylum so I can take her home to the States.”
The big CivPol scratched his head. He looked from Mai to me and said quietly, “Phnom Penh is dangerous. I don’t know how long you plan to be in the city, but you should get yourself a gun. There’s a thriving black market for small caliber weapons from Eastern Europe not far from the pizza restaurant on Mao Tse Tung Blvd. You’ll find it; one pizza place and one arms market. A piece of cake. Good luck.”
I walked slowly through the hospital doors, imagining that Hon would sit up smiling and reach for her baby. But the gurneys were empty. I saw the French nurse down the hall and started towards her. Her hand shot up like a school crossing guard making a stop sign. She shook her head slowly and motioned for me to leave. I turned and, with Mai tucked under an arm, hurried back to the exit doors.
I reached Brielle by phone from my hotel. “She’s dead, Brie. Hon’s dead.” I choked on the words but continued speaking, tears leaving hot tracks on my face. “Dara is dead, too. They died of injuries from the attack on the airport. I’m taking the baby, Hon’s baby, to America.” I couldn't stop crying, and it was difficult to breathe.
Brielle was aghast. “Have you lost your senses? What will you do with this baby?” There was a lot of static on the phone line, but her consternation and shock were obvious.
“She’s dead, Brie. Hon’s dead,” I repeated, my words trickling out between sobs. There are no relatives to take Mai—only a friggin’ orphanage. An orphanage,” I stuttered. “You know what they’re like. She’ll wind up sold to a brothel.”
“Ou la la! You have to leave, you have to go. Cambodia is not safe for Hon’s baby. You’ll figure it out.” Brielle tried to reassure me by staying on the phone until my sobs became shudders and my shudders turned to sighs.
“Come to Phnom Penh,” I begged.
“It is still chaos here and my nerves are wrecked. I think having to say goodbye to you will destroy me for sure. But I try,” she said softly.
We made kisses into the phone before disconnecting. I picked up Mai from the bed and cradled her in my arms. Breathing in her sweet smell cleared my head.
The gun was a Slovakian .22 semi-automatic revolver. The papers from the consulate would allow me to take Mai to the States. I had finally found a flight that didn’t make a million stops, and the airline said the baby could sit on my lap. We would leave in two days.
I had just rocked Mai to sleep when the phone in my hotel room rang. Lifting the receiver, I heard, “Hi sweetie” spoken in an unmistakable Polish accent. In seconds, Stephan was at my door. Wordlessly he pulled me into his chest. I stood there for a long time, inhaling his familiar smell and enjoying the warmth and strength of his arms around me. In that moment there was no leaving Cambodia, no dead Hon and no baby to rescue. There was only my lover holding me. Time was suspended and reality along with it.
“Shouldn’t you be somewhere else?” I asked, after regaining some of the composure that I’d lost in his surprise appearance.
“I only have a few hours, and I want to spend them with you,” he replied.
Stephan and I gave up clutching at straws and ignoring our inevitable end. All of the obligations, guilt and tension lifted. The room felt larger and cooler as we talked, made love, talked and made love some more.
Eventually Stephan rolled away from me, stood up and looked around for his clothes. “I have to go,” he said sadly.
“Will you come to the airport tomorrow?” I asked
“No, I cannot stay in Phnom Penh until you leave. I only came today to wish you luck,” he replied, speaking slowly and staring into my eyes. “I called to say goodbye, but you had left already Poŭthĭsăt. Bruno told me where you are staying.” He inclined his head and eyed the the sleeping baby in the small bassinette thoughtfully. “But you have this baby. You won’t miss me.” Looking back up at me, he put his hand over his heart. “You will always be here, safe.”
That time I didn’t roll my eyes, because his words offered me solace. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t devastated. During my time in Cambodia, I had found a new independence and an undeniable self-reliance. My year of living dangerously had come to an end. Indeed, my adventure had followed no script. Stephan was not my future. Mai would be.
Chapter 78 Murphy’s Law
Time was running short. Soldiers were still on the streets. I grabbed a few baby things, along with the revolver, and threw them in my backpack. Then I stopped with Mai at the US consulate to get our final papers before heading to the airport.
It was absolute turmoil. Security personnel were absent, and the scanning machines were still broken from the recent rocket and mortar attack. There was nobody to give the revolver to and nowhere to leave it, so I ejected the magazine and tossed it in two pieces into my suitcase, which drifted on the conveyer belt out of sight and out of mind.
I was already resigned to Stephan’s absence. Nevertheless, despite the pain of saying goodbye, I was still hoping that Brielle, at least, would meet me at the departure gate.
Mai and I breezed through a makeshift security checkpoint, and I hurried into the departure lounge. I was looking for a quiet place to sit and feed Mai when a pimply-faced, youthful security guard stopped me. “Madame, do you have something metal in your suitcase?” he asked, holding it in his hand.
“Oh!” I flushed red. In lieu of scanners, security agents had opened every suitcase and inspected them by hand. I had totally forgotten about the gun, so I was stunned by the confrontation. The unsmiling guard looked squarely at me and, with an icy sternness, said “Saum, follow me.” I did.
Holding Mai tightly, I was ushered into a small waiting room with old 1950’s naughohyde furniture and the heavy smell of stale cigarettes. A severely thin Cambodian man in a police sergeant’s uniform walked up to me and said, “This is very, very serious. You have broken the law of my country.” There was not the slightest hint of irony or bluff in either his voice or his manner.
A flood of explanations exploded from me. I tried to keep the desperation out of my voice, along with any hint of flippancy. “I’m sorry. I forgot that I had that gun in my bag. It isn’t loaded. Take it and let us go. My plane’s leaving. We’ve got to go. I have this baby with me. She’s an orphan. There are too many soldiers in the streets. Surely you can understand.”
The whip-thin sergeant clearly did not appreciate the situation. “You have committed a serious offense, and you will be detained,” he stated.
He left the small room and I sat down. Other people came in and out to see the American woman criminal. Some were polite and others quietly curious. I was given coffee and cigarettes.
It was dangerously close to my departure time, and I had been incarcerated in the small waiting room for almost an hour. Occasionally, someone would ask me a few questions, take some notes and then abandon me to smoke more cigarettes and wait. I smiled deferentially at anyone who came into the room, hoping to gain allies. I conversed with everyone who wanted to talk, and slowly I began to leak out personal information about Untac, my university credentials and anything else that might serve either to intimidate or to create a connection with someone. Mai, swaddled in blankets, slept undisturbed on the chair beside me.
Eventually I saw a stocky, pleasant-looking man with a countenance that combined both authority and kindness. My first instinct was to see him as an ally. He looked like a professional, but he was the first person actually to smile at me since my detention. Still, he could have come to take Mai.
“Saum looksray, the new government wants you gone,” he told me. They want to avoid a potential international incident, but . . .”
But? I could see his eyes narrow into tiny slits as his lips slowly curled into a sinister grin. My head spun and my fists clenched. Hon, Moam-Moam, Dara and all the horrors of the past year flooded my brain. A wave of cold penetrated down to my bones as my face drained of color, and I almost doubled over in pain from the terrible ache in my chest. Struggling to retain some composure, I took deep breaths until I could clutch Mai to my breast. They would not take her from me.
He spoke, but in a voice that sounded very far away. “You don’t mind. We must confiscate the gun, of course.”
I stood mutely for a few seconds, or maybe minutes. So dumbstruck was I by this request that I couldn’t process it at first. My muscles twitched and reality dawned. They wanted the gun, not Mai. “Ban, ban, I understand. Yes, take the gun.”
Knowing how capricious good fortune can be, I ran with Mai back toward the departure lounge, desperate to board my plane and leave Cambodia.
“CJ, mon Dieu, where have you been?” Brielle appeared right in front of me, gaping, with her hands on her hips. Leannán, Kyrill and Téphanes stood behind her, bouquets of flowers in their hands, their expressions mimicking Brielle’s—a mixture of consternation and relief. Brielle rushed forward to take me in her arms; Téphanes followed in her wake and grabbed Mai so that I could return Brie’s hug.
There was only time for a rushed explanation of my detention and subsequent release. Everyone’s eyes widened, and hands reached out to touch me reassuringly. Brielle took Mai from Téphanes, who shook a small turtle-shaped rattle that she had brought as a gift.
My flight number came up on the screen as the boarding call was broadcast from the desk at the entrance to the tarmac. Brielle handed the baby to me, sniffling back tears. Téphanes placed the rattle in my backpack and tucked a bouquet of flowers under my arm.
“I keep these other flowers to cheer up Brielle,” Kyrill said as he leaned in and kissed me on the forehead.
Leannán took his place by Brielle’s side, comforting her as best he could. There we were, four former strangers brought together on a journey of indescribable heartache and love, bravery and violence—saying goodbye, probably for the final time.
“Final call for flight 3478,” the speaker blared again.
No one moved but me. There were no more words, no more hugs . . . only the bittersweet ending to our year together.
Sighing, I carried Mai onto a DC-9 for the two-hour flight to our first stop in Penang, Malaysia. Fastening my seatbelt with the baby on my lap, I whispered into her tiny ear, “From this moment on, I vow to be the hero of my own life. And yours.”
Mai and I finally reached Los Angeles, the next stop on our way to Ohio, four days after we had embarked on our journey out of Cambodia. Smiling at the flight attendants, I carried her off the plane as if I had planned all along to rescue an infant and bring her home. I had finally learned to live without a script.
Chapter 79 EPILOGUE: “The best day of your life was the one on which you decided your life was your own. No apologies or excuses. No one to lean on, rely on, or blame. The gift was yours–it was an amazing journey–and you alone are responsible for the quality of it. This was the day your life really begins.”―Bob Moawad