Life on the Streets
Diary #4 : July 2001
I saw S'kun on July 3 stumbling around the Capitol, and for the first time, she was alone. She slumped up against a street pole, partially covered her head with a dirty krama and started sniffing out of a plastic bag. She looked awful. When she looked up she just gazed off with a far-away look in her eyes. Eyes, though scanning her surroundings, seemed disinterested in absorbing anything they saw. She seemed to be in some sort of pain, physical or mental or both, I don't know. And she was filthy - her clothes, her body, her hair. She was in bad shape.
After a couple of minutes I walked into the open. Noticing me for the first time, she brightened up and hopped across the street greeting me with a big hug - but not before first shoving her glue bag deep into her pocket. Hugs over, I pointed to her pocket and motioned with my hand to fork over the contents. She pulled out what appeared to be some kind of Cambodian version of trail mix and with the most devilish of smiles popped a few of the tidbits in her mouth as if to say this was all she had. I frowned at her, motioning with my hand again to produce. With an "okay, you caught me" look out came a second bag. I didn't have to, but just to confirm, I stuck the thing near my face, sniffed and darn near fell back on my rear. Whatever the solvent was, it was strong. I poured out the contents and dumped the bag in the garbage - which I'm sure she retrieved later.
She tried with her best sign language to communicate to me whatever events had transpired in her life since I last saw her three months ago. Perhaps it was too complicated, perhaps she was too wasted on glue, but I could understand very little of what she was trying to say. Something about her friends running off, something about another problem at home, I really couldn't tell. All I could tell is she was in the worst condition I had ever seen her in.
As always she hoped I'd have some photos for her. I didn't. So I left her with a pair of passport photos of myself. That was more than enough. She kissed them, flashing me a sultry grin.
I left with a friend to get her some clean clothes. I picked up two t-shirts and a pair of shorts at a used clothing stand for a $1.50. I came back to the vicinity of the Capitol. She was next door slumped down in a plastic chair outside a video game parlor. She had the same look on her face, sort of a combination of 'I want to die' and 'I want somebody else to die'. She forced a smile when I gave her the clothes and then asked to be fed. I complied. She perked up a little while she ate. She then asked for 500 riels to get herself cleaned up at some public restroom/washing facility. I gave her a thousand. And she walked off towards Monivong and beyond. Alone and unsmiling except to give me a wave when I rode past on a motorbike.
Three weeks later, July 25. I'm back in Phnom Penh. Given the mess this girl was in three weeks before, I made a point of tracking her down. I asked my motodop friends around the Capitol if they had seen S'kun lately. None had.
But it didn't take long. She was out on Monivong, a few blocks up, near Wat Koh, standing around watching the world go by. Though still by herself, she looked a bit better than three weeks ago, but still nowhere near as well as she had been several months prior. She was at the very least, clean. Excited to see me, she motioned for me to follow her. I followed her into Wat Koh where off in a corner a number of seemingly homeless kids were hanging out, many sniffing glue. I thought it strange that solvent use would be tolerated here. Many pagodas also have schools and Wat Koh is no exception. Another strange juxtaposition - a group of ruffians hanging out in a pagoda sniffing glue with a school of young children, dressed in their uniforms, reciting their lessons but a few meters away. It was an even stranger sight when twenty minutes later the classrooms emptied and the children took to playing in the yard - while the urchins with their glue remained in their midst.
S'kun pointed around the area indicating she sleeps here sometimes. She then grabbed a few kids and one older woman insisting I take some photos of them. Afterwards, she proudly produced the passport photos I had given her three weeks before. She had had them laminated. I considered emptying her pockets to see if she had a glue bag stuffed in there somewhere, but decided that knowing the answer wouldn't change anything. She already knew I didn't approve, but as she's shown me plenty of times in the past, she'll do as she pleases regardless of what I, or anybody else, thinks.
I bought her some noodles, said goodbye, and with my interpreter walked over to the pagoda's office. They told me they didn't know too much about her. She usually came in the afternoons, but more often than not left to sleep in the area between the Pailin Hotel and the Central Market. Unfortunately, yes, lately she had been sniffing a lot of glue. I asked if they knew of any assaults on her. I was thinking back to early April when S'kun had told me about the beating and (attempted? achieved?) sexual assault made on her. A man at the pagoda recalled that incident, remembering her face being bruised and a tooth broken, but fortunately reported that he knew of no other incidents since. None were aware that she had a mother and a house. When I told them this information, they corrected me, insisting all the children were homeless. I told them I had twice been to the house, where it was, and that I had met her worthless mother. I told them all I knew about the mother and the family and the situation there. They understood, then, like me, why she was here and not there.
They also told me a French NGO comes sometimes to try to rehabilitate these kids in one way or another. They didn't know the NGOs name.
As for S'kun. For reasons I can't possibly know, she's not doing too well these days. If it wasn't for the return to heavier solvent use, I might have written this month off as simple bad health, perhaps she's sick with something. But she's fallen back into the glue. Apparently quite heavily.
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.