Despite the warmth of the morning sun, the mood among the group of villagers
seated on a blue tarpaulin under a milk tree is subdued, even morose. The women,
mostly widows, are here to discuss their past at a newly established self-help
group. It is Sim Keo's turn to talk.
Group therapy sessions encourage TPO program participants to talk about their past problems.
The tears roll across her wrinkled
cheeks as she describes the traumas of her life under the Pol Pot regime. Those
who think that two decades is a long time should come here - the terrible
memories are as fresh as ever, seared deep in their minds.
were the nightmares which happened to me," she sobs. "You know, my children died
of starvation and their bodies buried like those of cats." It takes several
minutes before she is composed enough to explain further.
husband was murdered, accused of being a capitalist, Keo was sent to a new
cooperative two days walk away. Her abiding memory is her children's tears of
hunger - there was no food on the journey. On arrival she went directly to the
kitchen, but the cook refused her rice.
"You know what I did?" she asks,
wiping the tears from her cheeks with her krama. "I just cried with them and
looked at their hungry faces with so much pity. I never thought that my life
would turn out like that."
As the wife of an accused intellectual, Keo
was put to work in fields far from her children. Overworked and undernourished,
she collapsed frequently. Her children were even worse off: lack of food made
them sicken. Their bodies swelled, and four of the five died.
Memories of her starved children being buried like animals during the Pol Pot years are etched deep into the soul of Sim Keo.
heard the news she ran to find them, but Angkar - the organization - refused to
let her touch her children. They were, she says, buried like animals. To this
day her head aches with the memories.
Chhay Marideth is a counsellor at
an NGO called the Trans-cultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) which runs the
self-help program. She says the group discussions are tremendously important for
coping with past traumas. The civil war and the daily struggle to survive meant
people had no opportunity to discuss their experiences. Bringing them together,
she says, helps the healing process.
"It is like an abscess," she says.
"If we do not open it, it will become even more painful."
managing director of TPO, says that talking about their problems allows others
with similar issues to suggest solutions.
"When they express their
emotions their feelings improve," he says. "This is good
Although many are unable to cry at home in front of their
children, crying in the group is common.
"This kind of intervention is
like an arrow which can kill three birds at the same time," he said. "One, it
improves their mental health, two it reduces the problems involved in taking
care of a family member, and three the family can then generate more
He gives an example: one of his clients, profoundly disturbed by
her experiences under the KR, would scream at anyone passing her house. After
her husband died she became an alcoholic and ended up with no friends.
Initially, says Kall, she refused to join the group, but changed her mind after
hearing one of the members talking about their troubles.
that after her husband died she thought her neighbors wanted her land and house.
Dwelling on that made her extremely depressed and she began to see her neighbors
as her enemies. Taking part in the group helped her depression: she stopped
drinking, attended the pagoda and improved her income.
Nom is another
participant. She initially found her experiences to painful to
"If I tried to talk about the past the emotional shock would
prove too strong. I would find it hard to breathe properly," she says. "I miss
my lovely son and my husband to this day."
Her husband was a journalist
during the Lon Nol regime, but she lost him and her son in the space of only ten
days. Some days she was unable to sleep, and the times she could sleep were
choked with bad dreams.
"If my husband were still alive, he might be
working as you are," she told this reporter.
The loss of her loved ones
drove her often times to think of suicide, but she has decided that is not an
One month later the Post went back to visit the two women.
"After talking with the group my feelings improve, but only for a short
while," Nom says, chewing on tobacco. "It still comes back. I need more
Sim Keo is slicing a fish which her grandchildren have caught in
the ricefield. She says she would like more meetings to discuss the experiences
of the past.
"I feel better now," she says. "It has been in my mind for
20 years, and in all that time I hadn't told anyone."
WHO's regional strategy
Thirty-seven western Pacific countries adopted a regional strategy for mental
health during the last session of the World Health Organization (WHO) regional
Minister of Health Dr Hong Sun Huot said the strategy should be
culture-specific and take into account the country's
"Cambodia's people only recently finished a civil war," he
said. "It left many people with mental illness problems. The country does need
to make mental health a priority, but we just don't have the money to run it
[well]. It will require support from governments, NGOs and the
Dr Shigeru Omi, regional director for WHO, said that
promoting mental health was as important as promoting physical
The objective of the strategy is two-fold. First, to decrease the
burden of mental illness and disability, and second to improve mental health in
the region. Among the new policies and legislation will be a guarantee of
adequate facilities to help people with mental health disorders.
Huot said human resources needed to develop, which would require outside help.
Cambodia has no psychiatric hospital and only three outpatient clinics. The
plan, he said, was not to build more hospitals, rather to create small units in
existing hospitals that could treat mental health problems.
[WHO] to help us develop human resources and provide education for psychiatrists
and nurses in the community," he said.
Bill Pigott from WHO Cambodia said
that the country would receive advice, resource materials and guidelines on how
to build a mental health system. The working group, comprised of NGOs and
government, would help.
"It is a good example of people working together
to do something on mental health," said Pigott. "The work [will help]
development of policy and a plan of action for mental health. It provides a