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Orphans Cope on Their Own At 'Rose Number One'

Orphans Cope on Their Own At 'Rose Number One'

The grim conditions at Kolap (Rose) #1, a staterun orphanage in Phnom Penh, conjure

up a flower in neither sight nor smell. Rickety stairs lead to a communal dormitory

that resembles more a stable for animals than living quarters for humans.

There, Kim Ieng, 26, sits numbly on her metal bed, which is covered only by a thin

woven mat. She shyly shows a visitor her tattered notebook, page after page of which

is filled with disjointed phrases and non sequiturs in a mixture of Khmer, Russian,

and French.

"Please give me three cakes and a half loaf of black bread," she's written

out in neat Cyrillic script, which she learned during her studies in Leningrad, where

she was sent on a three-year scholarship in 1984.

Kim's face is furrowed and preoccupied, her eyes distant and sad, although she brightens

for a brief second when she recounts stories of her studies in Russia, perhaps the

happiest time of her life.

"I liked the food there-the black bread, butter, cheese, coffee with milk and

the cakes," she says. "I liked going for walks. I used to visit the zoo

in summer."

Losing both parents to the Pol Pot regime, Kim grew up in orphanages in Phnom Penh.

Winning a scholarship to study in Russia seemed to offer one way to permanently leave

institution life, but when she returned to Cambodia in 1987 she was unable to find

a job in line with her training.

In 1988 Kim's troubles got the best of her and she sunk into a depression.

She quit her job at a textile factory and ended up back in Kalap #1. Many of those

she'd grown up with there were gone-finding jobs or getting married-causing her spirits

to plummet even further.

A year ago she became so withdrawn that she stopped talking altogether, spending

most of her time alone in a filthy back room at the orphanage with only a cat for

company.

"Ieng looks better than last year," said Suon Kim San, 25, another long-time

resident of the orphanage. "She talks more. Before she stayed in bed all day

doing nothing. She would insult the pictures or tear them off the wall for no reason."

"Sometimes still she sleeps and cries on the bed if her brother does not come

to visit her," Suon said. "People know that she thinks too much about her

problem-we try to comfort her."

While many of the other girls in her dorm work or go to school, Kim has little with

which to occupy her time-spending hours writing in her notebook.

"I write Russian so I don't forget it," she says. "I'd like to apply

to study in Russia again if possible. Then I could continue my studies and relax."

She receives 1,000 riels (about U.S. fifty cents) a month from the orphanage, which

she uses to supplement the orphanage's bland cafeteria diet.

"I want to save my salary to buy a necklace, but I've never saved anything,"

she says.

Asked about her plans for the future, she says: " My hope is pinned on Kolap

#1. I think I will be here forever as I have nowhere to go. It is my shelter."

Her friend Suon adds: "There is no one to help her except us who live with her."

Seemingly abandoned by everyone, the voices of the residents of Kolap #1 are not

heard in this impoverished nation, except perhaps in the graffiti scrawled on the

stained concrete walls of the dorm.

"Goodbye all my poor buildings," an anonymous inmate has written. "Fire

is a good servant, but a bad master."

- Ker Munthit and Sara Colm

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