People with firsthand experience of an unfolding media story often undergo a strange disconnect: what they see in the media can seem very much at odds with what they are experiencing.
As an aid worker in Cambodia’s present flood disaster, I know this feeling acutely.
During the day, my Khmer co-workers and I travel across a vast inland sea in Battambang’s Sangke and Moung Russei districts. It takes an hour by powerboat to get from one tiny piece of land to another, each crowded with thousands of refugees. We take food and water to those with malnutrition, and doctors and medicines to the sick.
In the evenings, I log into international (and even local) media websites . . . and read endless stories about the flooding of Bangkok (which hasn’t happened yet). Once in a while, a paragraph mentioning Cambodia is tacked on the end.
William Shawcross’s famous book on Cambodia’s place in the Indo-china War was called Sideshow.
A book on Cambodia’s place in the present Indo-china flood disaster might be titled Afterthought.
The international head of Save the Children visited Indochina recently to survey the floods, and placed Cambodia number one among Indo-chinese nations in terms of ‘‘need’’. The latest data tells us that perhaps 500,000 Cambodians have been displaced.
“Displaced” is such an unemotive word. As we have seen in Battambang this month, what it actually means is to be flooded out of your home, and to move – along with your children, cows, pigs, chickens, dogs and cats – to a small island, typically a raised dirt road.
There, one sits out the flood, for weeks, on pieces of rush matting atop the mud, under plastic sheeting.
It would be hard to design a more perfect incubator for epidemics than these places. They are hot, wet, crowded, and awash with dung.
The majority of children in them now have diarrhoea. Pneumonia, dengue fever, parasites, fevers and skin rashes are ubiquitous. Our two doctors have treated 1,700 people in a week.
The “disconnect” extends to the government and civil society. The WHO announced there had been “no outbreaks”; the National Dis-aster Committee states that most displaced villagers outside Kampong Chhnang and Kampong Cham have returned to their homes.
That would be news to the many thousands encamped in the mud of Battambang’s Sangke and Moung Russei districts, and to our first cholera cases – four children – diagnosed at the Ta Phon commune on Friday.
We have reached a few such places, and could reach many more if international donors loosened the purse strings a little: many comm-unes have, to date, had no aid or medicine at all.
A few days ago, we discovered an encampment with 252 families that no one had hitherto known about. These are the ethnic Lao people of Poi Tasek village, in Boueng Preng commune, on the border of Battambang and Banteay Meanchey.
They’d been sitting alone in the mud for weeks, and every one of their children is sick.
A small crack in the wall appeared last week, when a “Cambodia flood” story ran in The Guardian.
But overall, the media vacuum surrounding such a large disaster is astonishing – although it probably has a simple explanation: most regional journalists live in Bangkok, and what few Cambodian journalists there are seldom venture outside Phnom Penh.
The result? Even Cambodian newspapers have often run more stories on the Thai floods than the ones affecting Cambodia; and local journalists are being alerted to the disaster in their own country by reading The Guardian.
Perhaps Cambodia can’t cease to be an afterthought to the world until it ceases to be an afterthought to those who live here.
John Macgregor is communications director for the Cambodian War Amputees Rehabilitation Society, which co-ordinates with three NGOs in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey – Puthi Kumar Organisation, Disadvantaged Cambodia Organisation and Ockenden – in the relief effort. They are planning a post-flood ‘livelihoods rehabilitation’ project for the two provinces.