The grim conditions at Kolap (Rose) #1, a staterun orphanage in Phnom Penh, conjure
up a flower in neither sight nor smell. Rickety stairs lead to a communal dormitory
that resembles more a stable for animals than living quarters for humans.
There, Kim Ieng, 26, sits numbly on her metal bed, which is covered only by a thin
woven mat. She shyly shows a visitor her tattered notebook, page after page of which
is filled with disjointed phrases and non sequiturs in a mixture of Khmer, Russian,
"Please give me three cakes and a half loaf of black bread," she's written
out in neat Cyrillic script, which she learned during her studies in Leningrad, where
she was sent on a three-year scholarship in 1984.
Kim's face is furrowed and preoccupied, her eyes distant and sad, although she brightens
for a brief second when she recounts stories of her studies in Russia, perhaps the
happiest time of her life.
"I liked the food there-the black bread, butter, cheese, coffee with milk and
the cakes," she says. "I liked going for walks. I used to visit the zoo
Losing both parents to the Pol Pot regime, Kim grew up in orphanages in Phnom Penh.
Winning a scholarship to study in Russia seemed to offer one way to permanently leave
institution life, but when she returned to Cambodia in 1987 she was unable to find
a job in line with her training.
In 1988 Kim's troubles got the best of her and she sunk into a depression.
She quit her job at a textile factory and ended up back in Kalap #1. Many of those
she'd grown up with there were gone-finding jobs or getting married-causing her spirits
to plummet even further.
A year ago she became so withdrawn that she stopped talking altogether, spending
most of her time alone in a filthy back room at the orphanage with only a cat for
"Ieng looks better than last year," said Suon Kim San, 25, another long-time
resident of the orphanage. "She talks more. Before she stayed in bed all day
doing nothing. She would insult the pictures or tear them off the wall for no reason."
"Sometimes still she sleeps and cries on the bed if her brother does not come
to visit her," Suon said. "People know that she thinks too much about her
problem-we try to comfort her."
While many of the other girls in her dorm work or go to school, Kim has little with
which to occupy her time-spending hours writing in her notebook.
"I write Russian so I don't forget it," she says. "I'd like to apply
to study in Russia again if possible. Then I could continue my studies and relax."
She receives 1,000 riels (about U.S. fifty cents) a month from the orphanage, which
she uses to supplement the orphanage's bland cafeteria diet.
"I want to save my salary to buy a necklace, but I've never saved anything,"
Asked about her plans for the future, she says: " My hope is pinned on Kolap
#1. I think I will be here forever as I have nowhere to go. It is my shelter."
Her friend Suon adds: "There is no one to help her except us who live with her."
Seemingly abandoned by everyone, the voices of the residents of Kolap #1 are not
heard in this impoverished nation, except perhaps in the graffiti scrawled on the
stained concrete walls of the dorm.
"Goodbye all my poor buildings," an anonymous inmate has written. "Fire
is a good servant, but a bad master."
- Ker Munthit and Sara Colm