Life on the Streets
Diary #5 : September - November 2001
On the 13th of September I stopped by Wat Koh to check on S'kun and give her a couple of photos. She was nowhere to be seen. Several of the homeless people milling about said S'kun had been dragged off to an orphanage or something. Which orphanage or whether it was NGO or city run nobody knew. Wherever it is at least it will (hopefully) have her off the glue until that time that she bolts again, which judging by past history won't be too long.
Sometimes I can be a little dense. When I had seen S'kun in early July one of the things she was trying to communicate to me as she was indicating trouble at home was something about a fire or explosion. I understood as much but never made the connection to what really happened. Earlier this year, while I was visiting my family in the United States, there was a large fire in the neighborhood of her/her mother's house. The entire neighborhood had been a collection of squatter shacks which the city long wanted to be rid of. Those houses that were not destroyed by fire were subsequently knocked down. It's one big grass field now. Well, due to the extraordinary timing of this rather convenient fire the city got a squatter settlement out of its hair and S'kun lost her home. But that's not all...
I found S'kun in November. It took a lot of work, checking with various aid agencies which I will write more about below, some of which recognized her from my photos. At one agency - Friends / Mith Samlanh - they recognized all the kids I had photos of, even identifying Cham Nap as S'kun's boyfriend. They told me that in June he had been taken away to the drug rehabilitation center for boys out past Pochentong Airport. Srei Toch, they say, is now in Battambang.
The folks at Mith Samlanh concurred that S'kun is indeed one of the most intelligent street kids they have ever known, commenting, as have I, that she's a natural leader, always seen with a band of ruffians tagging along behind her.
But no wonder S'kun was such a mess in July. Her house burned down and her boyfriend had been carted off to rehab leaving her alone. Both of these things she tried to tell me but due to my recent return from the States and not yet knowing about this fire or the stepped up efforts by the city of Phnom Penh to pull these kids off the streets, I failed to grasp what it was she was trying to say.
In the past few months glue-sniffing street kids have been disappearing rapidly from the streets of Phnom Penh. It's actually a campaign that reaches back to the summer of 2000 but has really gained steam in the past few months as the municipal government has decided once and for all to get these kids out of sight. The kids are literally arrested - handcuffed and carted off by the police. Most of the boys are sent to the rehab center out past the airport, but as one of the directors at the Ministry of Social Affairs told me, regrettably the city does not yet have a facility for girls nor the budget to open one. Therefore the girls are sent to NGOs. And it was at one such place I found S'kun. And here's how I found her...
My first stop was Mith Samlanh. They suggested she was in rehab somewhere recommending I go to the Ministry of Social Affairs to gain permission to access the facilities. Once at the ministry I was told they don't handle girls, but to try either Krousar Thmey - an aid agency for educating street kids and is one that works with deaf children or AFESIP - Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire - that like the name says, cares for young women in precarious situations - those in the sex trade (often against their will - held as young sex slaves in brothels) or in danger of entering it.
I went to Krousar Thmey. They didn't know her but said she was too old for them anyway. They suggested I also try World Vision. So I went next to World Vision who did recognize S'kun as one they worked with several years ago but hadn't seen her since. Keeping AFESIP on hold, I returned to central Phnom Penh to recheck S'kun's old stomping grounds. I went to Wat Koh. A rough and tumble group of teenagers and a homeless family or two were in the back - one older woman remembered me as one who had come a few months earlier and taken some photos. Bingo! She told me S'kun had been arrested and taken to AFESIP a couple of months ago.
So it was off to AFESIP. I arrived at the gate and a young Khmer man regarded me somewhat suspiciously. I stated my business and he spoke to a Khmer woman behind the gate who also showed me a similar reaction. Then I produced my journalist ID and a photo album containing numerous photos of S'kun. Their demeanor improved noticeably and they let me in the gate. They did confirm that S'kun was in their care. But - the girls had been taken on a weekend trip and still I would have to meet with the center's director before I would be given access to or even further information on S'kun.
I returned Monday morning the 19th of November, and it was reconfirmed that she was in their care and had been so since early September. They produced her file and sure enough it was her in the picture - looking absolutely nasty. From their medical examination I learned the source of her deafness - some kind of lymph node problem that dates from birth. They say her hearing loss is complete and permanent. They had estimated her age as 16 and therefore she had been sent to AFESIP's youth center - in an undisclosed location several hours away from Phnom Penh.
To protect the rural youth center's secrecy - necessary to maintain safety for the girls from angry mamasans and pimps, would-be pedophiles, abusive men or basically the arrival of anybody the girls might not want to see, I would not be permitted to go to the youth center. I provided a photo of myself and added a couple of photos that S'kun would recognize the origin of. They would show these to her and if S'kun's reaction was favorable - I would be permitted to see her.
The center phoned me Wednesday morning. They had brought S'kun to Phnom Penh. They told me that when S'kun was shown my photo she was ecstatic and quite effectively communicated to the staff how she knew me, who I was, etc. and that she really wanted to see me. I arranged to return to the Phnom Penh center at 3:00 p.m. I arrived late, about 3:20.
Seeing me turn up, an exuberant S'kun practically tackled me with the strength of her hug. And she probably could tackle me now because she's put on a ton of weight! At least fifteen, maybe twenty pounds! That bag of bones I knew wasn't just well fed, she's getting fat!
One of the women in charge of the center in Phnom Penh (I've been requested not to reveal the names of any staff members) had only met S'kun for the first time that day but commented she had been nothing but smiles since she arrived that morning or at least until it became 3:00 p.m. and I hadn't yet arrived. My tardiness had made the poor girl nervous. The woman at the center had already established a bit of a rapport with S'kun and as S'kun hadn't been sniffing any glue for a few months she was communicating quite well.
S'kun, other than getting fat, was most importantly in great shape mentally and emotionally - sharp, happy. I asked her first how she felt about being in the center and she motioned she didn't like it, but it seemed she was only playing with me. Since the center has had S'kun they've reported no difficulties with her - and knowing what I know about S'kun - if she isn't happy - you'll know it. Granted, the center where she's staying is highly isolated and several hours from Phnom Penh, but S'kun could walk right off the premises if she really wanted to. And she hasn't done so.
As several photos of S'kun and her friends were on display at the FCCC it seemed only natural to take S'kun down there and show her the photos. S'kun, the woman from the center, a driver, and myself headed down to the FCCC. I must admit I was a little nervous that S'kun might pull a runner. Even though she had two of us escorting her, there was nothing to stop her from either jumping out of the car at a red light or taking off once we arrived at the FCCC. She never made a move.
In the car S'kun tried her best to tell me what was going on in her life now - her friends all being arrested and carted off, her own arrest - which was a frightening experience for her. She was asleep somewhere (I'm guessing along Monivong or perhaps even within the confines of Wat Koh) when several police officers violently woke her up, slapped handcuffs on her and tossed her in a truck, smacking her around a little bit and posturing with their guns. She was terrified.
We arrived at the FCCC and S'kun enjoyed seeing herself and her friends on the wall. Then the three of us went to a cheap Khmer street food stall nearby, I fed S'kun and we "talked" some more. Right now she's harvesting rice and apparently doing a little cooking as well. Her hands are a bit chewed up from the work but she seems happy with it. I was actually looking closely for any signs of self-mutilation given the abrupt and significant changes in her life and her now ten-week abstinence from glue. According to the center, there have been cases where girls have come in from situations similar to S'kun's that included solvent abuse and the girls have turned to harming themselves. Didn't seem to be a problem with S'kun. Smiles all around.
I then told S'kun of the effort I went through to track her down. This generated a big laugh, reacting as if for her this was all some sort of real life version of hide-and-seek. But she seriously appreciated that effort.
Then S'kun told me more about the fire that destroyed her neighborhood. She was there when it happened. Curiously, before the fire, a number of armed men wielding batons came through the neighborhood beating and forcibly removing the residents.
Next I wanted to see S'kun's teeth. Earlier this year one had been broken when she was assaulted and she had complained about pain from time to time. She also has a huge cavity on the other side. The cavity and the black broken tooth are there, but overall the teeth are clean and she has no pain from either condition.
About 5:00 pm it was time for S'kun to head back to the center but I promised to return the next morning to see her again and take some photographs of her.
The following morning S'kun was dressed in a schoolgirl's uniform and again in very good spirits. We "chatted" for an hour or so and several of the other girls came around to see the foreigner with the deaf friend. It was kind of strange feeling for me, surrounded by a group of teenage girls who were all in good spirits, chatty, and playful, yet knowing the horrid abuse they had recently been through. Some of these girls wanted to get in the pictures too, but AFESIP had requested that I do not photograph any of the other girls.
I gave her a brief literacy lesson - number recognition - using the digits 0 to 9. She got 0,1,5 down okay, sort of got 4, but kept getting confused over 2 and 3. We left 6 through 9 for another day.
But that other day would have to wait. The following morning S'kun would be returned to the youth center. With the impending nationwide closure of all nightclubs, karaoke clubs, and discotheques coming that same day, the Phnom Penh center expected an influx of girls and needed the space.
S'kun can stay at the youth center for two more years and then she can be transferred to the Phnom Penh center. The normal vocational training period there lasts up to one year before reintegration. S'kun can, if she wants, learn some basic job skills that would allow her to live on her own and take care of herself.
In the meantime, she will remain at the rural youth center. AFESIP is exploring possibilities for providing education specifically geared for her - sign language, literacy. Any education won't begin for several months as for the time being it's best simply to allow her to live in a safe comfortable environment and ultimately decide for herself what she wants to do. There is concern as well whether several years of inhalant abuse has caused brain damage to the extent of significantly hindering her capacity to learn.
AFESIP does not keep girls against their will. If S'kun decides to leave, or refuses their offers of education or vocational training she is free to do so. The next direction of her life is up to her. More than ever, I say, "good luck, kid."
Aside from my monthly columns which generate several e-mails a day - usually travel related questions, it is this piece you're reading now that generates the most e-mail. And after the monthly columns, it is this piece that receives the most readers as well. Often I'm asked how someone can help S'kun or kids like her.
The most direct way to help is to make a donation to AFESIP. To learn more about this organization please refer to their website: http://www.afesip.org. While the organization will happily receive donations, any gifts will, by policy, go to the organization's general fund. You cannot make a gift directed to an individual case, though there's nothing wrong in mentioning that S'kun is perhaps a motivation behind the donation.
To help Phnom Penh street kids in general, a good organization to contact is Mith Samlanh / Friends. Their website is http://www.streetfriends.org.
Mith Samlanh / Friends knows S'kun well. I spoke with the Drug Program Supervisor, Man Phally and the Outreach Team Leader, Pin Sokhom. They knew of her living on the streets for at least ten years. They knew her family - the mother, the procession of men fathering various children, the abuse S'kun endured from the mother and step-fathers, and that the mother and various half-brothers and sisters were all homeless for a time.
They described her as a happy and very clever child who spent much of her time begging for money which she used to help her family. Glue entered her life about three or four years ago and as I had observed myself, her usage of it went in cycles and her lucidity and demeanor also changed in accordance with that usage. They confirmed that for awhile she was having sex with foreigners for cash but never entered a brothel. They seemed to think she was doing quite a bit of it for a time. Judging by what I have seen I would guess she was doing a lot of this around the time I first met her, but not so much this past year if at all.
They had brought her to their training center a number of times letting her watch what was going on and seeing if she had any interest in entering a training program. She never showed interest. I offered that perhaps due to her inability to speak and hear there may have been some measure of trepidation on her part. They considered that a plausible explanation.
If you're wondering what I was talking about, re: nightclub, karaoke, disco closure, jump over to this page and have a look: http://talesofasia.com/cambodia-update-dec01.htm
Good Luck, Kid
S'kun "Srei Kor" - March 15, 2001
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.