“The police are coming!” his friend shouted. Two of his friends had already been arrested. Now it was time for him to decide how to run. It was clear that if he got caught, $1,000 would be needed.
“I then jumped from the house into the sewage water. It was high, I thought I would break my neck, but I did not want to get caught,” said the former drug addict, who calls himself Seng.
That was in 2010 when Seng was enjoying a day high on drugs somewhere near the Tuol Kork antenna. But that afternoon police were unexpectedly onto him. “I had no choice but to jump.”
Curiosity, peer pressure
Seng, 18, began taking the drug “ice” in grade seven, and by grade nine he was addicted to it. First he consumed just a small amount, but as time passed he took more and more. Asked why, he says he saw his friend doing it and “he looked happy” so he wanted to try it himself. Seng says no one forced him to use it. It was his own decision.
“In the morning, my mother gave me $5 for school but I spent it on drugs, and then spent another $5 on ice in the afternoon. Some nights I would spend around $200 on the drug with my friends.” His parents soon realised what was happening and asked him to stop. “My parents got really angry and I didn’t want to stay at home anymore.”
The Phnom Penh Post recently reported on research from the Australian National Council on Drugs, saying that injecting methamphetamines is rising in Cambodia and meth has become a drug of choice among young Cambodians. The government has estimated that up to 75,000 people, mostly young, take drugs in Cambodia. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has said this is of particular concern, as more than half the Cambodian population is under the age of 25.
Keo Kim Dara, deputy secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, told the Post that he was not aware of meth being a significant problem among students.
Committing crime for money
Along with some of his friends, Seng decided to leave home and only return to his parents if he became critically ill. When he had money, he would sleep in a guesthouse and, if not, he and his friends would spend the night in a market. To earn money for drugs and living, he resorted to crime.
“I sometimes went to snatch bags with my friends.” To grab a bag, the moto driver had to have the ability to control the balance of the bike while keeping its speed high. Seng says he never failed in his “missions”. IPhones and Samsung Galaxies were what Seng expected to see when he opened the “fish’s stomach”. Asked if he chose to do this because of drugs, he replies that he needed money, but there was nothing he could do to earn it, so crime was among the things he would do to get cash.
When he had money to spend, most of it went to buying drugs, he said.
Seng was once contacted by his “big brother” to do a job. He would be paid $20 if he could “chop” a university student who was flirting with his big brother’s girlfriend. Seng sharpened a samurai sword and he and two friends on a motorbike waited in front of a university one night for the target to leave.
“I did not know him but I knew the licence plate on his motorbike,” Seng recalled. “When I found him alone, I rode slowly behind him before I took out my sword, stabbing him in the back really quickly.” But the attempt to snatch the student’s laptop and mobile phone failed because too many other students were leaving the university and the devices did not fall out from his bag.
Destiny vs rehabilitation
Seng was supposed to have spent his last year in high school and prepared for the national exam, but he failed to do so. He admits he became bored with his lifestyle and he wanted to move on from this terrible downturn. One day his grandma contacted him. “She tricked me to go to the pagoda with her to get a water-blessing from the monks. As we got nearer, I knew she was going to take me to a rehab centre.” When he arrived there, he says he walked in by himself.
His grandmother, Kong Yin, 70, could not sleep well when she realised her grandson did not study, spending most of his time outside, playing games, and she assumed he consumed drugs too. “I watched too and saw some people being beaten. I was afraid that my grandson had become one of them,” Kong said.
“I had planned to send him to the rehab centre but I had no money. After five or six months, when my children had lent me some money and other grandmothers [her friends] started pitying my grandson, I prepared some food and called my grandson to the pagoda. But, actually, we went to the rehab centre.” Kong said that she sent her grandson to the centre without letting his mother know.
According to Yin, she spent $500 to send her grandchild to the centre. Some of the money would be spent on the accommodation. According to the centre, Seng was only mildly addicted.
“His father is busy with his work and I am sick, I have no money and cannot follow my son when he goes out,” Seng’s mother told the grandmother. “Let’s just follow destiny.”
Seng has now been receiving post-rehab centre social rehabilitation services for two weeks from the Drug Addict Relief Association of Cambodia (DARAC), which aims to provide drug addicts with psychological support, education and skills.
Nhik Yilay, the assistant to the director and a teacher, told LIFT that the best way to cure drug addicts is to teach them through their “mind”. “It’s not about being ‘fine’ but about their mind. If we can cure their mind, they are healed.”
For minor cases, a patient will spend three months there, while those in a critical condition will stay for more than a year. Seng was there for six months.
Seng used to ask himself why he was the odd one out among his relatives. “Sometimes, I wonder why I am so different from my siblings and my relatives. They all are into their studies but I’m into drugs and being a gangster,” he said.
“I began to miss my parents and grandmother. I realised that I should not speak rude words to my parents. My mother is sick, and my father is old and sick too,” Seng said, his eyes glistening. “When I go back, I will go back home, make friends with those who study, and get a high school diploma for my parents.”