By Antonia Schuster
In the concrete bunker the acrid smoke of the bus driver’s cigarette curls through the stale air. Eva sits on the stone bench leaning against the wall, her backpack at her feet, waiting out the hour and a half before departure. So far she’s the only passenger.
Looking out across the empty expanse of rain-soaked asphalt, she listens to the driver switching between Thai and Khmer as he converses desultorily with the ticket seller. The two men are both middle-aged, verging on elderly – their faces lined with the deep furrows of permanent scowls as they also sit waiting for the clock to crawl round to ten am, time to leave for the border.
The ticket seller taps his pen aimlessly against his wooden desk in time to the ticking of the clock, sliding a quick, curious glance at Eva as he frowns down at his notebook. Eva half-smiles back, polite, neutral. Something in the flash of his sideways glance and the fall of his hair across his eyes reminds her of someone; evokes a dim shadow of a memory from long ago. A second later it dawns on her: Chantha has that same look. The sudden recollection floods her eyes with warmth.
The ticket seller smiles back at her, then gestures outside, shaking his head in mock disapproval as if he’s apologising for the weather. Eva shrugs as if to say the weather doesn’t bother her. They laugh together and the ticket seller goes back to contemplating his notebook. The driver lights up another cigarette.
She gazes out at the empty carpark shrouded in mist. The rain is easing off; hopefully by the time they’re rocketing up the mountain, into the verdant jungle, it will have stopped.
Eva carefully rolls her rain poncho down over her head and shoulders, willing it not to tear – she needs it to last at least for today – and steps out to the carpark. She looks around, marvelling that she managed to find this place at all, this bus depot – if you could even call it that – hidden in a wasteland of disused buildings on the outskirts of town. Not a single sign, not even in Thai, to indicate this is the place to take a van to the Ban Pakkard border crossing to Cambodia, and across, to the former Khmer Rouge capital city of the 80s and 90s: Pailin.
Finally, she will see Pailin.
It evokes a shudder in her still as she thinks with anticipation of walking through its streets for the first time.
Every morning at six Eva throws open the shutters above her desk to see tanks rolling out of the Victory Hotel compound next to their school. She collects her books, checks her lesson plan and summons up her enthusiasm and a smile before stepping down the broad staircase to greet her students milling round the classroom door.
The dry season offensive is in full swing, and not going well, judging by the scenes at the overflowing hospital, and the frenzied return of the same tanks – some of them – a couple of hours later each morning. They hurtle back into town from the front, sixty, fifty, now only thirty-five kilometres to the west, veering manically, haphazardly across the city streets. Everyone is frightened off the road as soon as their thundering engines can be heard approaching along Route 10, which merges into Battambang’s Street Number 1.
The mix of blaring horns and wailing sirens signals hysteria and it feels like the end is near. No one wants to guess what that might mean. For many, it feels horrifyingly like deja vu.
When the tanks come back, Eva has usually just finished the six-fifteen class, and is walking down to the market to have a pastry and coffee for breakfast, then do her daily grocery shopping. As the rumbling grows closer, she steps off the road, pauses in a doorway, and watches the exhausted, terrified gazes of the young soldiers as they roar past.
She watches the unmoving expressions of moto drivers as they edge to the kerb, looking straight ahead, studiously away from the tanks. Weariness set in their rakelike shoulders under the thin fabric of their shirts. She can sense their mix of fear of the tanks, and fear of being one of the next to be on them, the next desperate replacement for the depleting ranks of young boys sent out each morning to Khmer Rouge territory; towards Pailin.
Eva knows from her students that many of the soldiers are forced recruits; boys grabbed from their villages or off their motorbikes at random. This is why their class now starts at six-fifteen instead of six am as they do in Phnom Penh – so that when the students are on their way into town from outlying villages, it’s daylight and they’re safer.
The tanks pass and the dust settles. Eva steps back on to the road, and resumes her walk through the rising heat of the morning to Psar Nat, Battambang’s market.
Buying vegetables every morning at the market stalls is something that keeps her sane here.
Her boyfriend Luke has invited Savoeurn over for dinner.
‘What about Chantha?’ Eva asks. ‘Won’t he feel left out?’
She knows Luke has formed a close friendship with Savoeurn, and respects that, but also knows that Chantha will be hurt, though he won’t show it. He and Savoeurn occupy equal roles as office assistants at the school; so on the face of it, it doesn’t seem right to invite one and not the other.
Eva understands that Luke is already thinking about having to leave – possibly in a hurry – and wants to show Savoeurn how much he values him, wants to spend an evening talking as friends, not colleagues. She doesn’t want to take that away from Luke; but at the same time, she worries about Chantha.
The other teachers don’t warm to him. His quick anger when he thinks he’s treated unfairly, his unreadable expression when he’s lounging round on the rotunda outside the school villa – the others take that for slyness, but Eva thinks it’s more about feeling unsure; she sees it as watchfulness.
No one’s ever asked Chantha about how he survived the Pol Pot time. It’s assumed that, like everyone in Battambang, he and his family made it to Site 2 refugee camp on the Thai border, where they simply sat out the next decade before being repatriated.
Luke has asked Savoeurn and knows his story; how he lost most of his family and walked to Thailand aged twelve, carrying two dead chickens, one in each hand. When Khmer Rouge officials asked him where he was going, he replied that he was going to the next commune to visit his aunt and was bringing her these chickens. That way, he made it unsuspected to the Dangkrek Mountains, climbed them knowing only that Thailand was on the other side, and reached a camp.
Eva sometimes thinks: How did you get to have two dead chickens? I thought everyone was starving? How is it you could move around freely like that? But she doesn’t ask, as she knows that the reality of that time probably allowed for lots of things that contradict the movies and books – like any war or occupation, it’s not as simple as it looks, there are nuanced ways of surviving and traces of humanity, ordinariness which lie under the mass-consumed narrative.
The day before Savoeurn comes over for dinner, Eva asks Chantha his story. Everyone in Cambodia in 1994 has a story, and at a certain point in any relationship, the story needs to be invited, if the narrator wants to tell it. And they all do, they are all eloquent in the telling and are waiting for the question. They have all told it many times.
Chantha is touched that she asked. He looks at her directly, in a way he doesn’t normally look at anyone.
‘I lost my parents in Phnom Penh.’
Eva and Chantha are the same age so she knows he must have been six or seven.
‘In 1975?’ She swallows and pauses, shocked and thinking how to continue asking. They’re sitting in the rotunda in the lunch siesta break, no one else is around. The heat and smell of frangipani from the overhanging trees are drug-like, making her head swim with the aroma and her general exhaustion.
‘Yes, in 1975.’ Chantha sweeps his glossy fringe back over to one side and shuffles his bare feet. ‘I don’t remember much of that time. I was in Banteay Meanchey province, I worked, I said nothing, then when the Khmer Rouge was finished, I went with my new family to Aran.’
Aranyaprathet was where all the camps were; a veritable industry of refugee services had thrived there.
‘How did you meet your new family? It must have been…’ Eva struggles for the right words. ‘That’s good someone looked after you.’
Chantha shrugs and laughs the laugh that the other teachers distrust; hard-edged with a sideways smile, his eyes cast down.
‘Yes, they were good to me. It also helped them to have me, as they got more food so they could take my food.’
Eva frowns and doesn’t know what to say. Part of her, bewildered, thinks his English is really good, he’s so bright. He’s really picked it up, more than any of the other staff. Why can’t anyone see that?
‘So how was it in the camp?’ she asks, changing tack; not knowing how to ask more about the new family who took him in but supposedly also exploited him.
Chantha flashes a sudden grin at her, a rare show of warmth.
‘It was much better!’ He throws his head back and laughs. ‘I went to school, I had food, it wasn’t always safe as the Khmer Rouge came at night time… but it was okay. I found my cousin Samnang again, he was the only family I could find.’
‘Oh that’s good!’ exclaims Eva, relieved. ‘Where’s your cousin now?’
Chantha shrugs and curls his lip, his eyes sliding away.
‘I don’t know right now.’
They sit for a moment. Eva waits and lets the silence hang over them.
Chantha shoots her a sideways look. ‘He was in Battambang, but he… he’s gone now!’ He kicks a palm frond out of the rotunda and watches it slide across the dust of the yard. ‘He… he joined the army now. He has no job, so he joined the army. I think he’s gone to Pailin!’
‘You mean, he chose to go to the army? Why would he decide to do that?’
‘He has no job,’ repeats Chantha. He raises his wide dark eyes to Eva and gives her the look that the other teachers read as manipulative. ‘With no job, no money, no way to live, maybe only the army can save you.’
Early one morning it’s time to leave. The call has come from the UN Evacuation Coordinator: all foreigners need to assemble by eleven am, to leave in convoy.
Tess, the school’s manager, drives to Eva and Luke’s house at daybreak to tell them; they know as soon as they hear her Jeep roaring through their gate what she’s there for.
The thuds of shelling in the night have mingled with unseasonal thunder; for a fortnight now Eva and Luke have slept with their bags packed and ready to go under their bed. Student numbers have dwindled as it got harder and harder for them to get into town. Some of their villages have been taken by Khmer Rouge; the town is encircled.
The scene in the office that morning is pure chaos. The four teachers are throwing randomly chosen textbooks, photos, reports into bags, and locking away everything else. Piles of papers slide across the floor, and Da, the cleaner, is crying as she walks round the adjacent kitchen twisting a washcloth in her hands. There’s nothing to clean; no one has made coffee there this morning, and no one will be eating there today.
Vicheth, office manager, stands grief stricken by his desk.
‘Tess, you must go’, he says earnestly.
Tess has crazed dark rings round her eyes and seems to be refusing to leave.
‘The end of term exams!’ she almost screams. We need to finish the term – I’m staying.’
Luke, Eva and Mark, the other teacher, pause their frantic packing of books and equipment, and look at each other in panic.
Mark clears his throat and steps forward.
‘Tess, this is not a choice thing. The convoy leaves in an hour, we have to go – come on – look, we’ll hang out in Phnom Penh for a couple of weeks then it’ll be over and we’ll be back, for sure.’
Eva touches Tess’s elbow.
‘Come on Tess. Staying won’t help anyone – no one’s going to come to school now, we can’t hold exams this term. We have to go.’
‘Have we done the references?’ asks Luke, suddenly, then quickly adds, ‘Just in case, you know…’ He trails off uncomfortably. Shots are heard outside, and Eva, Luke and Mark drop to the ground.
References have been written for the Khmer staff, and the plan is to place these in the mailbox of each development agency that intends to continue operating in Battambang.
Tess, still at her desk, has her head down on her elbows and is visibly trembling. ‘Yes, I took them round to the NGO Coord Centre last night. I put one in every mailbox.’
‘For all the staff?’ asks Eva.
Tess slowly starts to pile up folders on her desk and doesn’t look at Eva. ‘For Vicheth.’ She glances at him, and he bows his head in thanks. ‘And Dara, and Savoeurn, and Da.’
‘What about Chantha?’ Eva can’t keep the edge out of her voice.
Tess stands unsteadily. Everyone can see how finished she is; both Luke and Mark are silently praying that Eva won’t push it. They need to get the office packed and get out.
Mark makes an impatient downward gesture with his hand.
‘Okay.’ The anger in his voice is barely controllable. ‘While you guys have this out, I’m going to start loading the Jeep. You know, so we can have time to say goodbye to everyone, get out of here and make it to the convoy the UN have kindly arranged for us.’
He strides out into the hallway, his boots echoing on the pretty French colonial tiles. ‘Because I don’t know who else gives a shit here if we live or die!’
Eva can see out of the corner of her eye that Luke is struggling – he wants to help Mark. But he doesn’t want to leave Eva alone on the verge of a screaming fight with Tess.
‘Why not Chantha?’
Tess doesn’t reply. A siren begins to sound and Luke quietly tells them both to keep packing, and move out to the front verandah when they’re done.
Before they descend the stairs for the last time, Luke tells the two girls to wait. He runs out to stand on the step of the rotunda to take a photo of them – in their work sarongs, standing on the tiled, balustraded verandah of the old French villa that was their school. Yellow painted walls, green shutters, the garden laced with the heady aroma of frangipani and vivid flash of flame trees. As Luke calls out to them to smile, his voice shaking, they put their arms round each other and Eva feels tears rising.
Pailin is almost anti-climactic. It’s a shambling nondescript town with a sprawling market, where people eye Eva with muted curiosity as she strolls through. There is no trace of an ominous past; it’s mundanely peaceful. She doesn’t stay; grabs the offer of a seat in a share-taxi to Battambang, and enjoys the ride on the now smooth scenic road through lush countryside.
In Battambang, Eva stands outside the site of their school, now ringed by corrugated iron fencing and long tangled grass. Homeless people seem to be camped out the front and watch her as she cranes her neck to glimpse the house, just visible over the high fence.
The villa is abandoned. It must have been used for something after their departure, but has since fallen into dereliction. Eva takes a couple of photos and moves on, walks slowly through the streets, where life is normal, where girls in pressed white shirts serve cream cakes in air conditioned bakeries, backpackers lounge in winebars and local artists sit in dark shopfronts exhibiting their paintings of flowers in deep joyous yellow, and of the Sangke River which weaves through town, a magnetic blue reflecting the clear sky of the dry season.
Eva takes the bus to Phnom Penh, and in her favourite breakfast café in Street 172, finds a folder filled with photos on the bookshelf where she’s browsing through magazines. They’re old photos of Cambodia, from the 90s.
‘What are these photos?’ she asks the waiter.
‘A photographer who lives here, he live here many years, he take these photos a long time ago. He sell them. You can buy.’
The waiter leans over and flips through the pages for her, lingering over the photos of Phnom Penh – the old railway station, the Buddhist Peace March of May 1993, a week before the UN-run elections. Eva was at that march.
She nods, and continues flipping through the pictures of rural life, provincial town streets, overladen bullock carts, soldiers wielding AK47s and rocket launchers standing in a menacing chain across the street to stop a vehicle. Some of the soldiers have all their limbs, but many don’t.
Then she comes to the photo of the place she knows. Her skin crawls. There is their school.
There is the sign over the gate – but shot through with bullets – and there, crouching before the gate, are four soldiers, their guns angled casually up to the sky, young faces grinning at the camera.
Two boys stand behind them, not in uniform, but toting guns. One of them directs his rocket launcher at the camera, smiling cheekily in a white cap and dirty tie-dye T-shirt.
The other boy is Chantha, cigarette dangling from his lips, face tilted up and to the side as if challenging the photographer. With his gun slung over his shoulder, black T-shirt emblazoned with skull and crossbones, jeans sagging with grime, he casts his narrowed eyes at the camera.
The photo is titled ‘Last troops to Pailin’.
The description in neat cursive script beneath the photo tells her that these boys were part of a deployment of Government soldiers in May 1994, and it wasn’t known if any of them returned.