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
Veasna, 42, is a professional beggar - a career begun in his
childhood - and an old-timer on the streets of Phnom Penh.
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
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
He never knew his father, who left his mother while she was
His mother wandered from village to village, seeking work as a
maid. Veasna spent most of his early years with an uncle who beat
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."
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.
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."
desperate with hunger, he left the tower and picked rice stalks to chew. He was
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
It was made of about two domlungs of gold - worth maybe
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
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
His godmother would carry the contraband; his job was to use
his begging skills to get the pair through police and army
But security along the border was poor, and robbers
plentiful, and after three or four months they decided to return to Phnom
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
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."
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.
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
"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."
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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.