Sunday, 15 January 2012

Phillay - what happened next.

Thank you, everyone, for the wonderful reaction to my little poem about Phillay.

The Khmer Rouge were in power for four years, and then there was a long war with the Vietnamese, who invaded as a liberating army, before the regime fell and Cambodia could begin to rediscover herself. 

Phillay escaped through the minefields to the refugee camps in Thailand. And here is where his recovery began. I've seen the same images of refugees that you have: rows of tents, people sitting around with nothing to do, waiting for the next meal to appear. Yes, sometimes it is like that. It takes time to provide everyone with the wherewithal to cook for themselves. Central kitchens, clean water, medical centres - all need organising, if people are to stay alive.

But UNHCR, who ran most of the refugee camps in Thailand, see their job as much more than warehousing survivors while the rumpus dies down. Lying about waiting to have essentials provided is no preparation for a return to one's own home, even if you are traumatised by what has happened.

They regard education as fundamental to recovery - and particularly crucial in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge closed all schools and regarded writing as evidence of bourgeois thinking. Education - we take it for granted. But for refugees it is precious. Not only are reading, writing, and basic numeracy essential, but practical classes make it possible for people to consider how they might earn a living, feed a family, on their return. There were workshops for motorbike maintenance, the use of sewing machines, how to construct a simple dwelling.

As well as basic skills, many people were taught a second language. Why, you might ask, learn a language? Don't they have enough to deal with without coping with language lessons. But these lessons served several functions: they gave people who felt totally helpless in the face of everything that had happened to them a sense that they could achieve something. If they could learn English, they could do anything. Some still use it - working with tourists. (Wherever I went in Cambodia, people wanted to practise their English.) In addition, the discipline involved in learning a language helped to quieten fragmented thinking: by filling their minds with words some of the terrifying images of the last few years took a different shape.

Phillay spent two years in a refugee camp. Meanwhile UNHCR negotiated land deals, ensured that everyone returning home had a basic shelter and a cow (he also had a wife, met in the camp, and the first of his ten children. He is a happy man.) As the country settled, and opened for tourists, he sold his cow to buy a tuk tuk (he calls it his tuk tuk cow) and makes money by careering all over Battambang. (His driving is, er, interesting. He warned the short cut might be bumpy. He did not say we would be hurtling through a cemetery!)

He is a man of great courage - yet doesn't recognise it. Though he does acknowledge his gratitude to UNHCR, without whom he would have no home, no wife, no children, no tuk tuk, no language. Next time I whinge about winter, please remind me just how lucky I am.


  1. I've just caught up with your last post so I'm so glad to be able to read this one straight afterwards. As you say, Phillay's story, one of many, is absolutely a reminder to us of the things that are important.

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Jo.

  2. Thank you for posting this, Jo. I'm really glad to read such a positive update for Phillay. And yes, as you say, it reminds us just how lucky we are.

  3. Ah, lovely to hear Phillay's story Jo, especially after the poem last week. These people are so strong, so brave, so grateful and so humble. Brings things into perspective somewhat doesn't it?

  4. Thank you all - and I'm relieved to have found a way to tell this story at last, so thanks for listening.