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Widows still fighting the demons of war


Srey La, 65, walks 10 kilometers to and from her watermelon farm everyday.

W idowed by war, tens of thousands of Cambodian women struggle to make ends meet with little support and terrible memories. In light of International Women's Day on March 8, the Post's Sam Rith listened to several widows' stories of hardship and loss, and musings about a Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Sitting on a hammock handmade from water hyacinth, 65-year-old widow Srey La rests her chin on her hands and looks out at her four grandchildren, a daughter and a son-in-law sleeping in the shade.

The narrow gaps in the woven stick walls of her farmland lean-to cast a matrix of shadow and sunlight on her face as she lights a roughly rolled cigarette.

"I very much pity myself. I have never taken even a day's rest. My livelihood has not changed since the country achieved peace in 1979," she says during a midday break from watermelon farming on her Battambang property.

"Everything remains the same, working in the morning for only in the morning but ending up without enough in the evening. It seems I get nothing from the peace besides being able to farm, walk and do something freely - not under someone's command."

La is one of thousands of women made widows during the Khmer Rouge era. A government health survey in 1998 found that 5.2 percent of adult women were widows. Minister of Women's and Veteran's Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi said the number of matriarchal households has decreased from a quarter of all families in 1998 to around 19 percent today.

For many women who lost their husbands during Cambodia's conflicts, life has been tough. La's village of O'kambot is one of the poorest in Aek Phnom district, according to village chief Eam Phan. He says that 91 of the village's 390 families are headed by widows, many struggling to survive under the pressure of debt and the relentless cycle of sustenance farming. Phan attributes his village's poverty to a lack of irrigation systems and the high number of widows.

La's husband died in 1978, leaving her to look after their 11 children alone during the Khmer Rouge rule. She remembers receiving just one ladle of watery porridge per meal, of which she sucked only the water and kept the rice in a pocket to feed her children. When Pol Pot's militia caught her hiding the rice, they accused her of betraying the revolution and threatened to kill her.

Today, nine of her children have married and La has 33 grandchildren. Some of her children and grandchildren help her work on the watermelon farm and some work as construction laborers. As the matriarch of the household, however, La continues to shoulder the burden of her family's situation.

Each morning La wakes at 4 a.m. and walks about 10 kilometers to get to her watermelon farm. After working on her one-hectare farm she makes the three-hour journey home late in the evening.

"Sometimes I sleep here when I am too exhausted. If my husband was still alive, life would not be difficult like today."

La's 8-year-old granddaughter, Nan Srey, accompanies her to work in the fields and has never been to school.

"My grandmother walks on this road and I come with her everyday. It's very far and too tiring to get there, you see?" says Srey, on her daily walk.

The recently harvested rice crop yielded just enough to pay the landowner the 300 kilograms of rice he takes each year as a land rental fee, and La says the profits she makes from growing watermelons will go mostly to pay off debts.

It's a hard existence faced by many widows and their families.

Kek Galabru, president of human rights group Licadho, says the demographic imbalance that occurred as a result of fighting meant women have taken on exceptional responsibilities in post-conflict Cambodia.

"Many women were unprepared after the loss of their husbands for the burden of being the sole income earner," says Galabru. "Woman [often] had to bring up several young children of their own and sometimes the orphaned children of friends and relatives as well.

"Aside from the loss of lives, the Khmer Rouge period left families scattered without homes to live in, rural areas ravaged, and the country's economy and infrastructure in tatters," she says.

Battambang is one of those areas.

Sim Mary, acting director of the Battambang Provincial Department of Women Affairs, said Battambang has 179,574 families in total, of which 30,300 are headed by widows. Mary estimates that the Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for about 60 percent of those widows, with 20 percent due to the civil war in the 1980s and the others from diseases such as malaria and AIDS.

Families headed by widows are typically poor because they work alone to support the family and also have a lot of children, says Mary. Usually, they do not have their own assets for farming, or they have sold everything to care for their families.

She estimated that about seven percent of widows in Battambang have their own land to farm or plant rice, 20 percent use their relative's land and 10 to 13 percent rent others' land. Others work as laborers, go to work in Thailand or have small businesses at home, such as selling vegetables.

Chan Seoum, 69, lives in O'kambot. Typical of many, she does not have her own land to farm. Instead, she plants mushrooms and prepares kapok fruit and leaves for incense making. She pays her neighbors to use the produce of their kapok trees.

"When my son-in-law goes to work far away from home, I climb up the kapok trees myself," she says. "I am afraid of falling down, but the hunger urges me to climb. If I don't climb, I will have to face hunger."

Like La, Seoum's profits are tiny, just enough to buy some food and pay for the right to climb another kapok tree. Seoum has remained in the same house since she married. In 1977, her husband - a former soldier - was taken away by Khmer Rouge cadres, ostensibly to plow rice fields with others in Battambang. But a few days later, word drifted back that her husband had been killed along with several other people.

"I don't know why they killed my husband," she said.

Although she hasn't seen her husband for nearly three decades and knows he's almost certainly dead, Seoum still says she is "waiting" for him to come home. She has no radio or television at her house and says she has never heard of International Women's Day or of efforts to establish a Khmer Rouge tribunal. But she welcomes the prospect of justice after all these years.

"They killed my husband like cattle. If they have a Khmer Rouge trial, I hope that [senior KR leaders] are punished with life imprisonment," says Seoum.

"As Buddha said, if someone commits wrongdoing, they will receive bad in return. If there is no punishment, it motivates perpetrators to continue committing crimes and will be a bad example to the younger generation."

Despite her own poverty, Seoum thinks that money would be better spent on a Khmer Rouge trial, rather than development, as she is not convinced the aid money would actually reach the poor.

Eou Leing, 59, disagrees, saying that she would like the government to focus money on directly helping people instead of conducting a tribunal because nowadays many people are facing starvation.

"It's of no help," she said of the trial.

Leing, who lives in Trapang Chor village, Staung district, Kampong Thom province, was lucky to have survived the Pol Pot years. She was separated from her husband - a former government soldier - soon after the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975. She was told he died of illness in 1977.

Two years later, Khmer Rouge cadres told Leing she was on a list of people to be killed on January 10, 1979. A mass grave had already been dug.

They accused her of hiding a government soldier. Scared, she plotted to flee into the jungle but was saved by the Vietnamese invasion.

The soldier she once sheltered is still alive, working in Prime Minister Hun Sen's bodyguard unit. He visits her frequently.

She doesn't have land to farm or plant rice because she has sold it all over the years for money to feed her two children. Life is better now for Leing, with her two children coming to her house every day to look after her.

For many widows, it is not only the battle to put food on the plate that haunts them, but bitter memories of their losses under the Khmer Rouge.

Meas Phum, 67, also lives in O'kambot village. All of her six children have married but one daughter stays at home to care for her mother.

Her husband previously worked as chief of the village militia before the Khmer Rouge period and died in 1976. Phum's daughter, Cham Ram, was only nine years old, but can still remember the day.

"One comrade came and arrested my father. I was crying, but trying not to make a sound. If he heard me crying I would not have survived," she says.

That night, Pol Pot's henchman stayed under their stilt house to observe whether the murdered man's family cried.

"To be avoid being killed - both my daughter and myself - I pretended to tell my daughter that her father had betrayed the nation and that's why he was killed," says Phum.

Om Yentieng, advisor to Hun Sen and president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, acknowledged that many widows have never had the chance to properly grieve.

"In the Khmer Rouge, there's nothing more pitiful than killing someone's husband or father and prohibiting them to shed a tear," says Yentieng.

Traumatic experiences under the Khmer Rouge have cast a shadow lengthened over the years by poverty for Phum and many other widows. But they have managed to raise families in spite of adversity and contributed to the rebuilding of the country.

Says Kek Galabru: "The experience of the last 25 years of war and conflict somehow seems to have affected women more than men, and it has taken women longer to recover."



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