I was walking in the rain down one of the most flooded streets of Phnom Penh and
I was thinking how wise I was to walk . The notion, that otherwise I could be stopped
at gun-point and my vehicle driven away, made me feel comfortable even if I could
not see where I was putting my feet. I had time to think and I felt sad for Cambodia
and for these people who have changed so much since I arrived here years ago...
1986-1988: Two years of hell in Somalia trying to help the people, trying to do a
job with faith and confidence, trying to walk the streets in sunshine. And at dusk,
trying to speak and smile to the locals, trying to help beggars, trying to help the
small boys who watch the cars - sometimes two, sometime four of them fighting amongst
themselves. Sometimes eight, then more and more, coming out from every corner.
This crowd of people was suffocating, demanding, attacking. I had an old Suzuki jeep
which, through time, became increasingly naked: The handles gone, mirrors gone, indicators,
lights, number plates and, on top of everything, when there was nothing left to steal,
the brats liked to scratch the car, break windows, force locks, and slowly empty
If you walked the streets of Mogadishu in the day, stones were thrown at you. After
dark, you risked an attack or were robbed or insulted.
When I came to Cambodia I thought I was out of my nightmare. There were the Khmers
with their sorrows, the memory of their sufferings, their warm smiles and their dignity.
Everyone was poor, everyone was proud. There were no beggars in the streets of Phnom
Penh. There was no garbage because there was not much to consume. A lot of poverty,
a lot of things to be done, a lot of help to be provided. They lived with little
and the little they had made them happy and they all had plenty of hope. At that
time the smile of the Cambodian children competed with the glow of the sun.
Times have changed. There is a lot of garbage in the streets; some of my old Khmer
friends have grown fat. They eat better, they dress better, they have replaced the
missing teeth, they have attained their dreams. But there is more poverty in Phnom
Penh now than ever.
The streets are full of beggars and the children do not smile the same smile anymore.
Buildings have been restored but others, which were beautiful even in their decadence,
have been demolished to host new-comers with dollars. Cafes have turned into brothels,
restaurants into cold empty dining rooms, and the peaceful expressions of the people
have turned into looks of tension and greed. But most of all they look unhappy.
The election is over and it was nobody's success. If someone thought to come here
and end the war, it did not happen. The war is not over. You still hear gunshots
day and night, and one never knows why.
It is out of fear and desperation that some Khmers have become thieves, killers and,
day-by-day, are losing their pride and dignity. The Khmers did not want their people
to beg in the street, they wanted to recreate themselves, they wanted their culture
and pride to emerge.
The Khmers have become a population of hysterical beings. They form gangs and steal
cars. They continue to blow up bridges, bomb trains and break into houses .
Terror is taking place and everyone of us - walking the street, driving a car, eating
in a restaurant - is terrified of what will happen next.
The contribution of the last foreign invasion, the unhealthy behavior towards this
country, and their departure, leaves a path of further uncertainty.
The invaders were ignorant of the right moves required to help save this part of
humanity. They unwillingly created misunderstanding and confusion and tempted Khmers
who are extremely vulnerable to greed and vendettas.
Something went wrong somewhere. Nobody cared to understand that these people wanted
peace and green rice-fields. They wanted their children's smile complete with the
glow of the sun.
Life in Cambodia has never been easy for the local population or for the foreigners
involved in aid assistance. We, friends of Cambodia, shared the same hope for a better
future. We believed the dream was coming true.
We wanted clean roads and to see happy children going to school. We wanted to see
hospitals functioning and we waited with courage, with patience, for all of this.
We and the Khmers are still waiting.
This is a country still facing many enemies: the people, the political power-struggle,
the guns, the mines, the floods and the droughts, the real misery and the illusion
of richness and splendor.
I felt as if I were walking down a street in Mogadishu but knowing the simple fact
that one cannot walk the streets of Mogadishu today. How much longer before we are
unable to walk the streets of Phnom Penh?