It happened one evening at the Samrong education centre in Cambodia. I was shutting up the office, exhausted after an early start, when a sponsored child came to find me. He asked me if I could spare a little time to listen to what he had to say. We sat downâ€¦
This is the story of a child from a small, forgotten village in Cambodia. The beginning of his story resembles that of many young Cambodians: a childhood spent in the paddy fields, with school in the morning, when the teachers were around. One day, his father disappeared from the family home after an argument with his mother. His older brothers, who left school at an early age, tended to the fields as their father had taught them. The family was poor: it only had five hectares of land, much of which was not weeded – not enough to feed eight people. The father also left debts behind him. A difficult period thus began for the family.
Like many young people from the village, one of his older brothers left to try his luck in the land of milk and honey located just ten kilometres or so from their home: Thailand. Wages there were higher and there was great demand for labour in the farming and construction sectors. The brother did not want to hear the rumours that most of his friends who were already over there were being mercilessly exploited by the local mafia and the border police, or that money borrowed at extortionate interest rates (over 50% in some cases) was being used to bribe customs officers and pay astronomical sums to illegal drivers. What is more, there would be a huge risk of being arrested at any moment, as most of those who fled over the border did not have valid papers. Neither did he want to believe that some unscrupulous employers were taking advantage of Cambodian workersâ€™ illegal status to lower their wages and make them work like beasts of burden. He wanted to get rich quick and leave a place where he felt he was stagnating.
In search of El DoradoÂ
The boy did not hear any news of his brother for a long time and, on days when meals were scarce, he thought that perhaps he too could take the same route out of poverty. He began to daydream and his grades at school fell away drastically. When the results of the end-of-semester exam were published, his name did not appear on the list. He would have to repeat the year. He did not need any more reasons to follow in his brotherâ€™s footsteps. Having borrowed money from a neighbour, he set off with two friends for the nearest border post.
Stripped of all his money by the vampires of the clandestine employment market, he was then sent to a construction site in a provincial Thai town. Working fourteen-hour days, he slept in the building under construction and received a single food ration and just a few banknotes a day for his troubles. His job was like something from the olden days, when businessmen preferred cheap manual labour to machines that might suffer costly glitches. In Thailand, a Khmer can be replaced in a matter of hours. Replacing a machine, meanwhile, can sometimes take a very long timeâ€¦
Despite his tender age, the boy was growing up fast. He learned to drink and smoke. What little he managed to save disappeared as quickly as three aces win a hand of all-in-one poker. It was then that he began to realise the trap he had fallen into. After the death of one of his friends, he decided to go home. Swallowing his pride and putting his dreams on hold, he spent everything he had on a one-way ticket to his village.
Back to reality
There was to be no welcome-home party. Back in his home village, he still had a loan to repay and his familyâ€™s situation had not improved. Worse, soldiers had arrived in the region due to a conflict with Thailand. Two divisions of soldiers began to set up bases along the border, particularly in the vicinity of Tamoan temple, just next to the village, which was bitterly disputed by the Khmers and the Thais. The soldiers seized 1,500 hectares of land from over 140 families in the region to feed their wives and children.
The boy’s family was one of those that lost everything. An older brother negotiated with the soldiers and successfully persuaded them to at least let the family harvest what they had sown, but they did not know what they would do the following year to feed themselves and pay their debts. The boy was now working for his creditor as a farm worker. His boss agreed to let him go to school in the mornings.
Check back in the next few days forÂ Part 2, which will continue the Story of a Young Cambodian.
Article by FranÃ§ois-Hugo Russel, overseas volunteer in Samrong. Previously published in Enfants du Mekong magazine 176.