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Begging for life on the mean streets

Begging for life on the mean streets

W ITH two legs and one arm crippled, Deth Veasna raises his only good arm to

produce half a sampeah (Khmer greeting). The sun has just gone down over Phnom

Penh, as the more affluent Khmers and foreigners look forward to a night on the

town. It's time for Veasna to go to work.

Over the next few hours, he

will be a common sight at the city's nightspots, particularly the Foreign

Correspondents Club and the Martini bar, though he will get only as far as their

doors.

Veasna, 42, is a professional beggar - a career begun in his

childhood - and an old-timer on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Perched

outside bars, or shuffling through the roads on one hand and two lame legs, he

is perhaps the city's best-known beggar to foreigners. To many, he is "the guy

outside the FCC," always ready with a smile and a wave to those he depends on

for his living.

There is another side to him, with his wife Doung Mom and

his five children, that few get to see.

Veasna is a survivor, who since

the day of his birth has had to fight the odds to try to carve a future for

himself.

Born in Svay Reang in 1953 with stunted, crippled legs, he has

no idea what caused his disfigurement. He wonders whether one of his parents had

some disease.

He never knew his father, who left his mother while she was

pregnant.

His mother wandered from village to village, seeking work as a

maid. Veasna spent most of his early years with an uncle who beat

him.

One day when he was aged about nine, he thinks, his mother returned

to see him and he complained about his uncle's beatings. She replied: "You

should make money yourself. You can't depend on anyone else anymore."

So

he set off for Phnom Penh. There he spent the rest of his childhood as a beggar

and shoe shiner, living on the streets.

In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge

forcibly evacuated the city after seizing power, he remembers crawling along the

road to Takeo province.

He spent the Khmer Rouge years in Prey Kabas

district, making rope, sharpening tools and scaring off birds.

"They put

me in a tall guard tower in the middle of a rice field in the sun to watch the

paddy. They gave me a drum to hit when birds came to eat rice."

One day,

desperate with hunger, he left the tower and picked rice stalks to chew. He was

caught.

Village cadres, he says, beat him severely. His right arm was

broken in two places. He recalls ducking to avoid blows to head, so his collar

bone was broken. He doesn't talk much about those times, but simply describing

them as "unforgettable."

In 1979, when the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer

Rouge, Veasna returned to Phnom Penh, living in an orphanage and then as a

squatter at Wat Botum.

It was there he had perhaps the first real piece

of luck of his life - he found buried treasure. "One day I saw a piece of a bag

buried in the ground and tried to pull it out. But the bag was very deep. I

decided to dig. In it, I found a small package containing two pieces of

necklace."

It was made of about two domlungs of gold - worth maybe

$800.

Aged in his 20s with a small fortune to his name, he headed where

anyone with an eye to making money was going - to Cambodia's western border with

Thailand. He wanted to join the booming trade in smuggled goods into Cambodia,

and caught a train to Battambang. Along the way he met a woman who was to become

his "godmother".

She proposed they work as partners together at O Trau,

one of the biggest Cambodian refugee camps on the Thai border. They set about

buying cigarettes, housing materials and all manner of goods to smuggle into

Cambodia.

His godmother would carry the contraband; his job was to use

his begging skills to get the pair through police and army

checkpoints.

But security along the border was poor, and robbers

plentiful, and after three or four months they decided to return to Phnom

Penh.

His godmother suggested he get married, which he scoffed at because

he was only a poor cripple, but she took him to her Kampot home to find a

wife.

There, a friend of his godmother's agreed, after some hesitation,

to allow her daughter to marry him.

"She asked me whether I had a wife

already and she was worried that I would treat her daughter badly."

But

after Veasna's godmother testified to his good character - and the prospective

bride agreed to marry "if he loves me faithfully" - the pair were married on a

mat of palm leaves.

Five months later, his wife, Doung Mom, got pregnant.

Needing more money, Veasna left for the border to have another crack at the

smuggling trade, leaving his wife behind.

He soon had to resort to his

only "professional skill" - begging - and for nearly two years passed from

refugee camp to refugee camp trying to get enough to live.

Eventually he

was sent to Khao-I-Dang refugee transit camp in Thailand and was asked if he

wanted to be resettled abroad. He applied to go to America, where an orphan

friend of his had been resettled, and after a month or so was told he had been

accepted.

"They asked me if I had family. I said I did. Then they gave me

a letter allowing me 23 days to bring my family to Khao-I-Dang."

But his

hopes were dashed. Traveling to Kampot to get his wife, he was stopped by police

at Sisophon, who found the letter about his resettlement in the US. He was

accused of working for the Central Intelligence Agency or Cambodian opposition

groups waging a guerrilla war against the country's Vietnamese

occupiers.

"They covered my face with a plastic bag and beat me. They

shocked me with electricity and forced me to drink Teuk Trey [salty fish

sauce]."

He was detained for two or three weeks before being released -

too late to find his family and return to Khao-I-Dang in time.

Destitute,

he returned to Phnom Penh and began begging at Psar Chas (Old Market). There,

one day a woman from his wife's village recognized him. "She told me that my

wife was waiting for me with my son.

"I told her I was scared to go back

because I left them for almost two years and I had only empty hands for my

family."

Days later, his wife appeared at the market with his young son,

who he had never seen. They returned to her village but, ashamed and embarrassed

in front of his mother-in-law, he took his family to Phnom Penh. They began

squatting in front of the railway station, before moving to the grounds of Wat

Sarawan around 1985. He roamed the streets begging, while his wife sold fish at

Psar Chas.

One day, while begging at the Neak Leung ferry port, an old

lady approached and asked him the name of his mother, and what province she was

from. The woman had known his mother in Svay Rieng and, because of his

disability, had recognized him all those years later.

His mother, she

said, was still alive. So - 33 years after he left - Veasna headed

homeward.

"I traveled from one district to one district and asked people

if they knew my mother. At last I found her. She was very old and I almost

didn't recognize her but she recognized me, perhaps because of my crippled

legs.

"With tears, she asked me where I had been for almost 40 years. I

told her my story, and she told me that she was poor and lived alone." He took

his mother to Phnom Penh to live with him at Wat Sarawan, where she died several

years later.

Over the years, he and his wife had four more children -

three sons and a daughter, the youngest now two. Asked if he wants more, he

throws up his hands and says: "No more, no more".

His family now lives in

a squatter resettlement camp at Trapeng Reang, 15km from Phnom Penh, but life

remains hard.

His eldest son, 14, has been sick for months, while feeding

his family is a struggle for Veasna. He says he swims in the lake behind his

small house to find snails, weed and water lilies to supplement their diet of

boiled rice.

A recent fall off a moto taxi, meanwhile, seriously injured

Veasna's right arm, which he now carries in a sling. Without adequate treatment,

it too seems likely to be permanently crippled.

Veasna spends a week or

two at a time begging in Phnom Penh, sleeping outside Wat Sarawan, before

returning to his family. He says he makes on average about 8000 riel a week,

spending 3000 getting back to Trapeng Reang on a moto, and complains other

beggars do better because they are more mobile.

After 30 years or so of

begging, he would like to give it up. What would it take to allow him to do so?

"About 20 kilograms of rice a month," he says.

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