V EASNA runs through the iron gate onto the road near the river to find the cake seller.
He looks around, the 200 riels his mother gave him firmly in his hand, but the seller
isn't around today.
Disappointed, the four-year-old boy slowly turns back home.
To Takhmau jail.
Veasna has been living in prison since he was born.
He is a cheeky, happy kid, raised by his mother Nong Trop in the best possible way.
He counts prison guards and policemen as his "uncles", and Nong Trop's
women cellmates - convicted murderers all - his doting "aunts."
Nong Trop was sentenced to eight years jail in 1991 for murdering her lover's wife.
The lover was the father of Trop's yet-unborn child.
"I killed my lover's wife," she said. "She was blaming me for having
taken her husband. She harassed me every day in my house. One day, I took a knife
and I killed her."
The victim's family filed a complaint. Nong Trop was three months pregnant when she
arrived in jail, and stayed there nearly one year before her trial.
She was released once - to give birth to Veasna.
"I said to the [prison] director that I was pregnant. I did not receive any
special treatment. I waited. The women in my cell helped me. When I was hungry they
fed me. They gave me advice and explained to me how to behave when you are pregnant,"
"When the time to give the birth arrived a policeman drove me to the hospital,"
The prison wardens well remember the day. "All of us went to see the baby at
the hospital," said Chri Lieng, a policeman who has known Nong Trop from the
start. "We brought rice and money for her."
"We also watched over her," added another guard.
"The judge did not want me to live with my child in jail," Nong Trop said
about the day of her eight-year sentencing. "But I decided that my son would
stay with me".
She argued with Veasna's father - whose wife she had just killed. She did not want
Veasna to go and live with him.
"He does not like children. He is a womanizer. He never gave any money for Veasna,"
Nong Trop said.
Nong Trop's family could not help either. "My parents do not live together.
My mother lives in Kompong Cham province. It is too far to let Veasna go. My father
is too poor," she said.
Veasna wanders back in from outside the prison into the yard, the 200 riel note he
was to have spent at the cake seller carefully in his hand. He would not have any
"When Veasna comes back from outside, he explains to me what he saw. He explains
to me the market, the cars, the motos. It is as if I went outside," she said.
Veasna sits on his mother's knees and asks for water. She leaves the courtyard where
the prisoners are working and goes back to her cell.
Veasna goes directly to the cell reserved for the women in the corner of the courtyard.
He has known no other home.
Nong Trop takes a water bottle from behind the bars. Cellmates Pang Mom and Chey
Sophol look at the boy and play with him.
"Veasna sleeps between me and his mother," said Pang Mom, very proudly.
"I kiss him everyday," she said, screwing up her face and making the boy
Prang Mom is serving six years for killing a nine-year-old girl in revenge against
the child's mother.
Nong Trop said: "I am not afraid to let [Veasna] play with her. I know this
woman. She has been living with us for a long time and I know she loves my son."
Veasna smiles to the old woman - Chey Sophal - who has only a year or so to go of
a six year term for killing her neighbor. Chey Sophol replies to his smile by showing
her toothless mouth.
The five women in the cell have specially arranged the room to keep the boy safe.
For instance, their cooking fire is far away from the child's sleeping mat, in the
other corner of the cell.
"We give him nearly all that we have to eat, " Chey Sophol said.
The prison administration does not give any extra meals for the boy - he is not a
prisoner. Nong Trop has to take food from her rations to feed the child.
Sometimes, the policemen give money to Veasna. He can go and buy cakes.
Having drunk his water, Veasna starts playing with the policeman, Chri Lieng.
Boxing with the boy, Chri Lieng looks around. He motions up to the roof, and down
to the floor. "It is not a place for a child to live. There is nothing convenient
for children in here. There is no light. The roof is very bad. Nothing is done for
He continues: "The kid cannot go everywhere. Usually, kids can move wherever
they want. Veasna is not even able to go to the market with his mother if he would
Nong Trop does not answer. She wants to keep her son with her.
About a year ago, an NGO came to visit the prison and offered to take the children
away and take care of him.
Nong Trop said no. Never.
"We tried to persuade her," said Chri Lieng.
"If anyone ever tried to take her son away against her will, she would have
Nong Trop does not say anything. She looks to her child. After a while she smiles
and starts to speak.
"If Veasna were not here, the jail would be very difficult to bear. When he
goes out for a while, I already miss him," she said.
"Veasna does not know anything other than this jail. For him, this place is
Nong Trop says she will make her son attend a nearby school in one year.
"Veasna will follow a course for the three years we still have to spend in jail,"
It is nearly five o'clock.
A policeman named Sok So Vanna returns from Phnom Penh. As soon as he sees the policeman,
Veasna rushes to him, grabs his legs and calls him "Dad."
"Vanna likes very much the boy," said Chri Lieng.
"He is the policeman who likes him the best. Maybe he also loves the mother,"
he added, smiling as Nong Trop turned her head away.
Sok So Vanna demurs.
"Veasna's mother made a mistake. That's why she has to stay here," Vanna
"Veasna never made any mistake but he has to follow his mother. I like him as
if he was my little brother.
"Veasna means fortune. This boy is lucky because he has lots of policemen to
look after him and take care of him. The children who are born outside do not have
all these policemen to take care of them," Vanna said.
Veasna runs away after a butterfly.
He passes through the gate as his mother looks after him from her cell.