Keo Srei Srah (foreground) prays with her mother, father and younger sister at Wat Samrong Andeth one year after getting caught in the July 5 crossfire between Funcinpec- and CPP-loyal forces. Neither side has offered to help lessen their suffering.
SHE gazes off into the distance and daydreams. She remembers.
Keo Srei Srah's family hopes she will forget, but almost one year after the fighting
that tore through Phnom Penh last July, they know forgetting is unlikely. The shrapnel
that litters Srei Srah's feet and legs - which she feels when she walks, and which
she scratches nervously as she talks - makes sure of that.
Srei Srah has learned to walk again, even if it is with a painful limp. But she can't
do much else - no cooking, no cleaning, no finding a job, her family says - and she
can't forget the shell that fell from the sky one year ago. It killed her 18-year-old
sister as she lay on the floor eating a banana near to where Srei Srah was cooking
a family meal of fish.
"I want my sister to be alive again," she says slowly. The remoteness in
the eyes of this 17-year-old girl betrays the lingering shock of the loss. She looks
perpetually sad and vacant as she talks of her inability "to do anything"
since the attack.
"I can't run. I'm not working anymore. In the house, I don't do anything. I
just sit on the bed and play with my little sister."
Her misfortune began when fighting broke out in the maze-like neighborhood where
she lives with her parents and siblings, near Nhek Bun Chhay's military base, Tang
Krasang, on July 5.
Hun Sen loyalists had begun securing the neighborhood before the fighting started,
the Keo family explains.
"They did not allow anyone to leave their home because they thought we might
give information to the other side," said Srei's 44-year-old mother, Tromuch
Trapped, most of the family hid under their simple wooden house - except Srei Srah
and her older sister. At about 8:30am the shell crashed into the kitchen at the back
of the house - from the direction of Nhek Bun Chhay's troops - and exploded. Srei
Srah screamed, then fainted.
The older daughter, unconscious on the floor and bleeding heavily from her destroyed
hip, died within three days.
Chanthou says it could have been much worse. "Only part of the shell exploded,"
she explains. "If the whole shell had exploded it would have destroyed the entire
Srei Srah's 20-year-old brother, Keo Sambath, ran to the kitchen to find his wounded
sisters. "At first I only saw Srei Srah," Sambath recounts. "But later
I went back and found my other sister, unconscious, with shrapnel in her hip."
THE WORST OF TIMES
One of the most painful images of Keo Sambath's desperate search to find help for his sisters.
Sambath put his sisters into a simple metal cart and pushed it out to Pochentong
Road to search for medical help. People around him "panicked, ran and hoarded
food from the market. The garment factory across the road burned down...
"On the way to the hospital I saw many troops and tanks. If I had not been carrying
injured people, they would not have let me leave my home."
Sambath beseeched passing motos to help him. None did. A number of foreign journalists
snapped his photo on the way to the hospital - images of his struggle to save his
sister have appeared in international magazines and news programs.
At least one newsman joined in to help push the cart along with him. "I took
one handle and the photographer took the other," he explains.
An hour after leaving the house, having avoided harm from the tanks, troops, and
explosions, Sambath and his sisters reached the hospital.
Srei Srah remembers gaining consciousness: "I opened my eyes at Kossamak Hospital.
There I saw people staring at my sister and me. I looked down at my sister's hip
and I started screaming."
Sambath soon realized that his sisters would get no help at the hospital. "There
were no doctors there," he explains, shock still in his face.
Someone - Sambath doesn't know who - offered to tow the cart with his bicycle across
a good portion of Phnom Penh to Calmette Hospital. Sambath sat on the back of the
bike, holding the cart.
"The man in the hat just met us on the street, and took pity and helped,"
Sambath says. The man refused to tell his name out of fear.
But the bicycle's chain fell off the sprockets and became tangled at the rear wheel.
"I was very afraid because I did not know if we would save my sisters' lives,"
he says. "The bicycle chain took ten minutes to fix, but it seemed like an eternity.
It took too long. I wanted it to be done in one or two minutes but I could not make
the driver fix it faster because he was helping us out of kindness."
During those 10 minutes a Western photographer jumped out from behind a "flower
tree" and snapped the photo that became such a compelling one of the pain caused
by the July coup.
Sambath is standing looking into the lens, his face riven with grief. The unknown
helper is bent over the chain. The two women lie broken and bloody in the cart.
X-ray images of Srei Srah's legs reveal the metal that is still embedded in her flesh
Sambath says the photographer disappeared. He doesn't know where to.
After finally fixing the chain, they continued across Phnom Penh for another two
hours before finally reaching Calmette. The hospital is near Funcinpec headquarters
where there was substantial fighting.
"I was surprised and very afraid as we neared Calmette because there was shelling
and grenades being thrown," he says.
Calmette was full so Srei Srah was lain on a hallway floor. There were no Cambodian
doctors, only foreigners.
"When I woke," says Srei Srah, "I saw bandaged people all around.
Later I was moved into a room with a girl who had lost four toes. I was frightened,
scared. I was near the window and I heard the shelling. I was not given any medicine...
I didn't have nightmares, but I was so afraid."
She pauses and scratches at her foot. "I still hurt. There is still shrapnel
Her mother takes out an X-ray of Srei Srah's leg clearly showing bits of metal.
Srei Srah stayed in the hospital for one month and was unable to walk for two more.
"She cried all the time," her mother explains.
Even now, Srei Srah cannot move three of her toes. She worries that in the future
she will lose her ability to walk entirely.
"I have a lot of pain when I walk, when I sit, when I stand - all the time,"
Srei Srah is despondent. She is prone to gazing off into the distance and has little
motivation. Her family says she was different before the coup.
"Before she was very talkative," her brother says. "Now she doesn't
always make sense because she is afraid. She is different. I am [always] surprised.
She used to listen to me or her parents, but now she just does what she wants. If
she wants to walk somewhere, she just does it. She doesn't listen to anyone."
She quit school several months before the coup to start working at a $30-a-month
garment factory job. She got the job by paying her superior $100 - money her family
borrowed and has yet to pay back along with $20 per month in interest which is eating
away at the family's future.
"My boss who got me the job was fired so I don't dare go back," Srei Srah
says. Her older sister worked there too.
On top of the debts, Srei Srah must pay $15 for each operation to remove large pieces
of shrapnel from her legs as the metal rises to the surface of her skin, her family
"I worry my daughter cannot do anything and she will not be able to do anything
when I get old," Chanthou says. "Right now I can still take care of her
and find food for the family. But when I am old, I don't know what I will do."
She points out Sambath's own handicaps - a malformed leg from beatings during the
Khmer Rouge era and a big toe lost to a bicycle chain in the 1980s.
"It is up to her to do what she wants," Chantou says. "If she goes
back to the garment factory again, maybe she will get hurt. If someone could help
her to go to school or give her a job, I would be so thankful."
Asked what her dream for the future would be, Srei Srah replies slowly: "I want
to do any job I can do, to work, or to study so I can do a good job like translating."
Sambath has his own hopes.
"If someone could help me to study English again, I would be very happy,"
he says, explaining that he had studied for three months before the coup.
The Keo family doesn't expect much on the anniversary of the fighting - ceremonies
for the dead on Pchum Ben and the Khmer New Year were all they could afford.
"I wanted to have an anniversary for my [dead] sister, but I don't have any
money," Sambath said. "My money is barely enough to feed my family."
He says he makes 3,000 to 6,000 riels per day as a wood vendor.
"July will remind me about last year. It will remind me of my sister, about
her pained feet, and about my sister who died. In this neighborhood this is the only
house that got damaged from the shelling. I am very upset. People in the bigger houses
suffered no pain, but us, the poorest, we did.
"I hope there is no fighting any more," Sambath says.