A 17-year-old recovering yama addict leaves the Chom Chao Rehabilitation Center in Phnom Penh unsupervised to buy cigarettes. He was brought to the center by his parents two months earlier.
Several months ago, Sar Savin beamed proudly at a stack of her older son's drawings.
She hoped that he would find another one of her sons, Ramy, who ran away because
of his addiction to yama.
Sitting at home, Ramy's older brother whispers quietly once his mother has walked
upstairs. He says he was an addict for one year.
"She doesn't know," he says. "I still take it sometimes but not as
much. She thinks it is just Ramy who likes yama."
The family's struggle with yama, a dangerous, sometimes lethal, drug cocktail of
methamphetamine and chemicals, is alarmingly common among students. It is indicative
of a larger battle spreading to the streets and homes throughout Cambodia.
In Ramy's case, human rights workers say, his addiction led to a life on the streets.
Ramy, who is 17, had stolen his mother's motorbike and electric fans from the house
For a time he scavenged at Phnom Penh's rubbish dump, said a Mith Samlanh/Friends
social worker who talked to him.
"He has tried every drug that is to be found in Phnom Penh," said his social
worker, who asked to remain anonymous. Although his family attempted to locate him,
they failed. He remained missing for two months.
"I finally found him near Naga casino," she says. "I cried when I
saw him. He just looked at me normally."
Ramy and his family are not unusual. He is just one of perhaps 500,000 drug users
in Cambodia, according to the figures compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs
and Crime. Most of the evidence remains anecdotal, but it is abundant.
Savin knows plenty of women in the same predicament, she says. There is the woman
selling phones near the local market. And the sons of several of her neighbours have
disappeared as well. And then there are mothers she sees roaming the streets, looking
for their children. They all repeat the same story.
The boys-it is almost exclusively boys, drug officials say-began missing school.
Eventually, they did not even come home to sleep. When they finally returned it was
either to ask for money or steal. Ramy was no exception.
"He disappeared until one friend told me she saw him on Monivong Boulevard,"
she says. " I phoned my brother-in-law. We drove there with the car and went
round and round and round. We found him and forced him in the car. It was then that
we decided to put him in that place."
"That place" is Chom Chao Rehabilitation Centre, an eerie yet peaceful
place where about 100 boys are either locked up or, if their addiction has subsided,
allowed to walk in and out freely. They may stay there for months until returning
to their families.
Ramy complained of being beaten and bullied by his roommates. It was enough to persuade
him to run away again-which he did by walking out of the facility where he was supposed
to be locked up and hailing a motodop.
Once out of the centre, he went home. Within three hours, his mother, Savin, had
capitulated to his pleas, gave him some money and unlocked the door. He soon left.
His mother received a call from one of her cousins in Takeo the next day. Ramy was
with him, where she had urged him to go weeks before.
He remains there, far away from the streets of Phnom Penh and, his mother hopes,
far enough to escape from his dangerous past.
Before leaving the centre, Ramy himself said he was unsure how his addiction began.
"I don't know," he said softly, sitting on one of the benches at the Chom
Chao Rehabilitation Centre in July. It just happened, he said. He wanted to dream
about all the things he could have if he had money. He said he just wanted to be
happy. And he is not alone.
"Every house in this road has a son who is doing yama," says his mother
with anger in her voice. "We know where it is coming from. The big white house
where the police chief is living. I go past every day and I know what is happening
in that house but I can never do anything-ever."
The authorities, when asked about Savin's problem, suggest a simple answer.
"She should come here to the Ministry of Interior and make a complaint,"
says Neak Yuthea at the National Authority to Control Drugs (NACD).
But Savin says she is too scared to lodge a complaint. In her mind, she says, the
policeman living in the big white house down the road is too powerful.
And there are few alternatives. For some, hope may lie in the handful of rehabilitation
centers to be built in response to the unprecedented wave of drug addiction. But
the supply of help is still woefully short of the demand.
Drug experts at the UN warn that today's situation may be dwarfed by the surging
levels of drug use. At the moment, there is still only the Chom Chao Rehabilitation
But most parents do not even have that option.
In Prayuvong Pagoda, 100 meters from Independence Monument, inside a small, dark,
cramped room, another woman, Ma, can't stop crying. She incessantly bangs on the
floor with her palms, slapping the cold cement.
"I've lost my two sons," she wails. "Lost them, lost them, lost them."
A mother of four, Ma has lived for 20 years in the modest pagoda. She has tried everything
to stop the never-ending cycle of stealing, lying and abuse that she has experienced
from her sons in the last year.
Her two sons, aged 20 and 17, began smoking yama at home in front of her. She had
no idea what was going on and did not know that what they were doing was bad. Now
it is too late, says Ma. She sits in an empty room, since everything has been stolen.
Students, during school hours, are transfixed by video games in one of the many arcades across the city. The game parlours are often where school kids first try yama.
"Three years ago there were no drugs in this place," she says. "Nothing.
I want the police to come and stop all of this and see what is happening. My neighbors
and their son are taking this yama; everyone is taking it."
Outside Ma's small door, an unkempt man wanders by aimlessly.
"You see," she shouts, pointing at the man. "You walk out of the door
and they are just there, these crazy people on drugs."
For Ka Sunbaunat, vice-dean at the Faculty of Medicine, these stories are depressingly
similar and offer typical examples of why more people, particularly students, are
"Young, bored and not that interested in studying," he says. "This
is typical and if there are few problems in the family it just adds to the need to
experiment with something."
But many still avoid the drug. A student at Santormok high school, Tog, 18, says
she did not know about yama before moving here from Kratie six months ago.
She now lives with her parents in Phnom Penh. The only time she had ever heard of
the drug was a rumour about two beautiful girls who came to Kratie from the capital
to sell 100 tablets of yama.
But in the last six months she has heard, seen and witnessed rampant yama addiction.
"The boy behind at school seemed normal and we became friends," she says.
"But one day he started making strange noises in the class. He took a ruler
and started to try and cut himself. Then he tried with a small knife. The blood came
and he drank the blood. No one turned around but me. I am from the countryside; I
was shocked. The teacher kept on teaching."
During breaks at school, she and her friends talk about yama. They watch the girl
whose hair is unclean and cannot stand well enough to walk properly. They talk about
the U2 club and how boys put yama in the drinks of girls. About how yama makes you
want to have sex and about girls who wake up next morning with their boyfriends and
friends in a guesthouse.
"Its crazy. Phnom Penh is crazy," she says. "But I am worried that
one day it will get to Kratie and that my brother might take it."
Yama (amphetamine-type stimulant, ATS)
Cambodia : yama or yaba
Thailand: Yaba meaning "crazy drug" in Thai
Yama is produced by chemical synthesis by the pharmaceutical industry or in illicit
laboratories. The drug itself, a form of methamphetamine, is generally mixed with
a chemical fixing agent and other substances in the final product. The pills, which
are small and exist in a range of colors, are often stamped to denote their place
of origin including Burma, Thailand and, recently, Cambodia.
Price: Between 2000 and 4000 riel per pill on the streets of Phnom Penh
It is either swallowed or smoked.
Excited state, dilated pupils, decreased appetite, insomnia, heart palpitations
Long term effects:
Chronic sleeping problems, anxiety and tension, rapid irregular heartbeat, paranoia
and prolonged psychosis. An overdose of amphetamine can cause death
Source: UNODC, Interviews