Life on the Streets
Diary #3 : April 2001
I made a quick dash to Phnom Penh from April 8-10 and spent a couple of hours on the afternoon of the 9th with the kids. I spotted S'kun hanging around a street corner on Monivong with a couple of boys. I only recognized the one-legged boy. There was another boy, maybe 16 or 17 who spoke a little English and came across as reasonably friendly. Another boy of about 15 who was heavy into the glue saw me solely as a source of cash or other handouts. It was quickly evident he wasn't well-liked by the other kids and combined with my refusal to give him anything he soon disappeared.
As with every visit with these kids, I peeled back another layer of their lives, revealing a little bit more the Hell that these kids have been living through.
The one-legged boy was in bad shape. The previous night another boy had attacked him, hitting him in the face a few times before hitting him in the arm with one of his own crutches. I'm 90% sure the arm was broken. As I was looking at the arm, an older British man showed up. He introduced himself as a Franciscan monk who regularly fed some of the kids. He took the boy off to get some pain meds and promised to get him medical help later.
The attack was motivated by robbery, but what precipitated the motive is not clear. The monk mentioned that he knew of a nearby place where street kids, boys, could get themselves cleaned-up and earn a bit of cash - for sexual favors with older men. The boy had been cleaned up recently and somebody saw fit to rob him but that's all we know. There are more questions than answers as the boy didn't want to discuss possible motives for the attack. S'kun would probably give me all the answers I wanted if I knew how to communicate better with her.
I took S'kun and a couple of the boys to get some noodles. Walking along a side street, S'kun motioned over to a particularly nasty looking boy. She communicated to me that the boy had beaten her up recently. Further sign language indicated that some kind of sexual assault may have been part of the attack. To what extent I could not understand.
Trust earned, trust learned. After the meal, the food seller was handing me my change. I wasn't standing very close so S'kun reached her hand up to take the change and pass it on to me. The food seller jerked her hand away and gave S'kun a dirty look. I took two steps back, putting the seller in the position of having to give the change to somebody else if I was going to eventually receive it. I looked at the seller and nodded in the direction of S'kun. Cautiously, the seller handed the money to S'kun who promptly passed it on to me. I smiled at S'kun she smiled at me, and on cue we both smiled at the food seller. Face gained, face lost.
I gave S'kun copies of some of the photographs you see here. She wanted to take them back to her house; again I grabbed a moto with an English-speaking driver and I came along as well. We left the boys behind, so it was just the three of us.
Despite the argument of three weeks prior, the mother welcomed me back in the house and was surprisingly submissive this time - with me, with her daughter, about everything. Perhaps last time she was too stoned or drunk to remember anything anyway.
I learned a bit about the family. S'kun made sign language and her mother spoke a little. S'kun has an unknown number of siblings and half-siblings from an indeterminate number of fathers. Her real father is dead, various step-fathers are missing and to S'kun, irrelevant. She showed me a few family photos. She showed me an older sister - died last year of Aids. She was a prostitute. While looking at some of the photos, a baby half-brother, partially paralyzed on the right side and bloated from malnutrition, crawled around on the dirt floor of the shack.
At every possible chance S'kun made derisive sneers towards her mother. She made it very clear to me that she has little feeling for this woman and zero respect. I asked the mother what was S'kun's age. The mother started counting on her fingers and eventually came up with the number 18, but really wasn't sure if that was correct or not. So I asked her mother her daughter's name. Surely she'd know that. "S'kun" was the answer. One for two isn't too bad, I guess.
Later, the mother put the baby down in a puddle of water that could have been urine. S'kun scolded her mother. When we were leaving, S'kun asked if I'd give 1,000 riels (25 cents) for some food for the baby. I obliged. S'kun grabbed her mother by the shirt and with a sneer and a grunt shoved the money in the woman's pocket and pointed to the baby's stomach. The mother may have the physical strength on her daughter, but clearly has no strength advantage in sense of responsibility, intelligence, or much of anything else for that matter.
diary #1 (May 2000 - October 2000)
diary #2 (March 2001)
diary #3 (April 2001)
diary #4 (July 2001)
diary #5 (September 2001 - November 2001)
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.