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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A survivor - lessons learned in '97

A survivor - lessons learned in '97

VATH Phath's mother, feeding a baby in her arms with a milk bottle, stands near the

smashed sugar cane cart. Through her sobs, she cries out for help for her teenaged

daughter, lying a few meters away. Vath Phath had fallen down as she was running

from the cart. Passed out, flat on her back, arms outstretched, blood on her throat,

legs and arms, she looks dead.

Today, Vath Phath sits in the back of classroom No. 40 in Phnom Penh's Sothearos

School, with her fellow grade four pupils. The class is taking an exam. During the

break, Phath joins the stream of blue and white-uniformed pupils into the schoolyard.

She jokes with friends, and practises a few movements she learned in her weekly dance

lessons.

Between the two scenes, nine months have passed. Nine difficult months spent recovering

from a few seconds of March 30, 1997.

Vath Phath, aged 14, was the sugar cane girl. She went to the fateful demonstration

outside the National Assembly to sell cane to the protesters. The grenades went off,

the first one right near her. The shrapnel carved into the cart and the people, including

Phath; the sugar cane stalks soaked up blood.

Nine months later, Phath is a survivor, just one of the many wounded, maimed or grieved

for whom 1997 was not a happy year.

In some ways, she is luckier than some of the survivors of 1997: her wounds have

healed, if not all the scars, and she has escaped permanent disability; she, like

all the rest, got no help from the government, but someone cared enough to look after

her and now, to send her to school.

As for the emotional scars, well, time will tell. At one point, she thought of doing

what the grenades tried to: kill herself. But Phath, aged 14, is now more positive.

"After I was wounded, I thought 'I will have scars all over my body for all

my life'. That is very bad luck for me. But now, I am able to go to school, that

is good luck." Pausing for a while, she says softly: "If I had not been

wounded, maybe I would not be going to school."

It's a hell of a way to get an education, but that may well be true. Phath gave up

school in her home village in Kandal province four years ago; her father had died,

her mother was poor, the family needed money.

She and her mother came to Phnom Penh, found a spot to live with squatters near the

Naga casino, and set about earning a meager income. "At first, I sold eggs.

I followed people who knew the streets well. Then I did it alone," says Phath.

Finally, she switched to sugar cane, after earning enough money to buy a cart.

One day in March, when she was with some other vendors, "some people came to

give us leaflets to go and attend a demonstration against the corruption of the courts.

We thought it was good for business because there would be lots of people there,"

she remembers.

The girl went along with four friends. Two were injured along with her.

"I heard two explosions and I ran away. I fell down... I looked back and saw

lot of smoke. People were shouting and crying all around. I tried to run but I couldn't

move ahead. I grabbed some grass to help me to crawl on the ground but the grass

was not strong enough. I didn't feel pain but when I looked at my trousers it was

covered with blood," she says, with a glance at the blue skirt she wears today.

"I remember people were crying and saying that their legs had been cut off.

I was afraid that my legs were cut off too," she adds, displaying the scars

on her legs.

Put in the back of a pick-up truck with other victims, she was taken to Kossamak

hospital. "They put a boy on top of me. On the way, I asked him to move because

he was heavy. He told me to move, but I couldn't... he asked me for water. Later

he died."

At Kossamak, she was left on the floor. "I asked for a pillow but they just

gave me a bandage to put under my head. I lifted my sleeves up and I saw that my

flesh was in pieces... I thought the doctors would cut off my arm," says the

teenager.

After a few days, Phath was sent to Kanta Bhopa children's hospital. "When I

woke up, I saw an old woman sitting next to my bed. I called her 'Om, [Aunt] Om,

can you go and call my mum, I want to see her'. The woman moved closer to me and

asked 'Who am I?' Then I realized she was my mother. I asked myself 'Why my mum is

so old?'."

Phath had been unconscious for two days and a night, in critical condition. "She

was lifeless. She was dying... there was little hope she would survive," recalls

Eva Bon-denstam, a nurse from the human rights group Licadho who saw her.

Remarkably, despite serious shrapnel wounds to her neck, arms and legs, Phath survived.

"When I was at the hospital, I was very worried because my right arm would not

move." When doctors told her that her arm may never work again, Phath was worried

she would never be able to get married. "I was thinking 'How I will do Chom

Reap Suo to my mother-in-law?'." she says.

"I told my mother that if I stay disabled I would drown myself in the river,

with the sugar cane cart."

She stayed in the hospital for a month, and then returned to her squatter home. After

a while, her arm moved again. Phath reckons it is because every morning she massaged

it with dew, as her neighbors advised her to do.

Today, she has scars over her body, including on the left of her neck - from the

wounds that nearly killed her - but is not disabled except for two of her right fingers

which do not move.

Since March 30, she has received nothing from the government or from Khmer Nation

Party leader Sam Rainsy, who called the demonstration that morning. The KNP once

asked for her picture, and got her to fill out a form, but she never heard anything

from them again.

Her biggest supporter has been the local NGO Licadho, which has provided medical

and financial help for many of the March 30 victims. When Phath's mother asked for

money to buy a new sugar cane cart for her daughter, Licadho staff said no; instead,

they offered to support the family so Phath would be able to go to school, rather

than walk the streets for a living.

So now - courtesy of the NGO's staff chipping in their own money - Phath goes to

school. She doesn't think of suicide any more. "I just want to have good marks

on my exams. Before, I was just selling in the street; now I can study and my future

will be bright."

Phath has occassionally passed by the National Assembly - "I felt scared and

I saw the images of the people running away. I worry that it could happen again."

Her memories were revived when, a few weeks after she started school, the July fighting

erupted. "Two shells landed near my house," she says, adding that she ran

away to her homeland in Kandal.

"I think that all that is happening in Cambodia is very cruel," Phath says,

tears in her eyes. Wiping them away with a blue cotton hat, she says: "I want

Cambodia to have peace. I hope these events never happen again because they scare

the people."

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