Setting out with a first draft
In June of 2019, I am in Phnom Penh once again. I’ve brought a draft version of the book along with me. Made with a program for photo books. Looks neat. I’ve placed the book in a black box. This is how it is to be presented to the US Ambassador, next year, 50 years after the bombing of this family.
Vann’s Story is the working title.
This is the birth of UN-SEEN.
Vann and I enter upon a new adventure. How do we get a book like this printed, what will it cost, who is going to sell it?
And will it be completed by January 13th, 2020?
Big plans, but can they be realized?
At my request, Vann takes me to see his brother Thorn (1950). Thorn and his wife run a rice business, both for wholesale and for consumers at local markets.
I have a rough idea of what to expect from the meeting with Thorn, but it isn’t even close to the truth.
We stop our tuk-tuk in front of Thorn’s storage. He seems slightly surprised at the sight of his brother and this white lady, but he does approach us and we greet each other as Cambodians do.
Vann shows his brother the draft. He tells him about the book, and about how it focuses on the bombing.
And then something unexpected happens:
Thorn gets emotional, gesturing how small the kids had been when they lost their lives.
He barely holds back his tears. Vann, too, is surprised. This is not something he had anticipated.
We agree to have lunch two days later. Over a traditional Khmer meal, Thorn tells Vann about what took place back then. This story is entirely new to Vann, and with growing astonishment he hears about what really happened, in detail.
Thorn’s story, 1
Thorn explains how he and his sister Loon (1956–1983) had been sent by their father, Nget Both, to a nearby clinic in Chhonca Andung. They were to help out there and learn how to care for the sick and the injured. They had both started working there only recently, after the schools had closed.
One afternoon, they hear and see a bombing take place in the distance. They look at each other: could it be their village? Flames rise up high above the trees, and large clouds of smoke appear.
Shortly afterwards, a neighbor stops by.
The message: “Stay here, it’s horrible! Wait for your parents, they are on their way.”
An anxious anticipation, they see the tuk-tuk approach. It carries a sibling of theirs who died on the way: Mom, just 10 years of age. Rim, age 11, is terribly burnt, but still alive. 8-year-old Ry has incurred burns but is still alive, as is 6-year-old Cham Rean. Thorn hears from his parents that Rourng, 7, and Chhuch, 3, have both died.
Rim, Ry and Cham Rean are admitted to this simple clinic and their wounds are attended to. For Rim, it is too late. He dies a few days later, and is buried near the clinic. Mom’s body is transported back to Bosthlan Village.
Ry and Cham Rean receive a tetanus shot and are nursed and looked after. Eventually, for Cham Rean, it is to no avail. He dies three months later, in Siem Reap.
Thorn’s story, 2
Thorn and Vann seem exhausted after sharing the memories that, even after 50 years, are so vivid.
And once these conversations have started, there is no stopping them.
Thorn himself is 19 years of age when the tragedy takes place. Up until shortly before, he had still been going to school, to college. His father wanted him to get a good education. He needed to travel some distance, and was regularly stopped by soldiers of the Cambodian army. Luckily, he could always count on his status as a student and show them his college card.
But the schools were closed, due to the level of unrest within Kompong Cham province and probably in its surrounding area as well. Therefore, he and Loon are sent to Chhonca Andung to learn how to care for those who are sick or wounded. It is a small, primitive clinic, run by members of the Khmer Rouge.
For about two weeks, they all take up residence in a second house that the family owns. Once Cham Rean and Ry have recovered sufficiently, they head towards Siem Reap. It takes them three months to get there. The eldest children’s bicycles are packed with things, and they carry the small children on the back. The father also has a moped that can be cycled upon, and it is fully laden with the rest of their belongings. Khun Ann and the baby also undertake this journey. Meanwhile the mother, Khun Ann, is no longer capable of breastfeeding the baby. En route, they appeal to any nursing women, asking them to feed Vann as well.
They find shelter in the temples of Angkor Wat. People are living there in simple huts, and they join up with refugees from the eastern provinces.
The men set up a small business, the women cook and bake food to sell.
It is an utterly frugal existence.
Thorn’s story, 3
Thorn tells us that their father, Nget Both, is wanted by the Khmer Sâ (White Khmer). He explains how cautious he and his brothers need to be when traveling, in order to avoid the Cambodian army. These are dangerous times. And while all of this is going on, the US Air Force is in the process of bombing the entire eastern region of Cambodia.
Carpet bombing, as it’s known.
One and a half years later, the decision is made to return home to Bosthlan Village after all, and to restore the family farm. The plantations remain, and they have managed to save up enough to make this all possible.
The moped is sold, and they purchase an ox and a cart. The cart is filled to the brim. Khun Ann is pregnant.
The men continue to trade goods along the way and manage to make a little money. The women cook and bake, selling the food on markets that they come past.
For a little while, they take shelter in Pralay. That is where Thorn meets his first wife, Si Yeat. Before continuing on their journey, they are married.
The village, the estate and the house are all hugely damaged. The family gets to work, starts rebuilding the house and working the land once again. They need to watch out for the bombs that are still regularly falling in the (wider) area, as well as for the unexploded bombs and grenades in the fields.
Thorn and Vann just keep on talking, so absorbed in the story that some bits end up going untranslated. Then Chhoun, Thorn’s wife, calls to say that his client is waiting for him.
We say our farewells, and it is only then that I realize I haven’t taken a single picture of this encounter. Am I the photographer here, or…