Ry’s story, 1
Following this elaborate meeting with Thorn, Vann goes quiet. He drives me back to the hotel, where we decide to have a drink. For a moment, there isn’t much left to say.
When we meet up in the evening to make plans for the rest of our journey, he tells me that Ry has phoned. She, too, wants to talk. So off we go, back again to Bosthlan Village.
Ry is waiting for us with Oun and Khun Ann. Vann shows them the draft version of the book. As they browse through it, Ry begins her side of the story:
She had been on the banana plantation with her parents, Nget Both and Khun Ann, and with baby Vann the five youngest children, working and playing. When they hear planes overhead, they rush to the underground shelter. They remain there until the sound has disappeared completely.
The children race back to the plantation, followed by their father, with Khun Ann and baby Vann close behind. They hear planes once again, and look for cover under the thick canopy of banana trees, alongside another family. Nget Both decides that the bomb shelter is safer, and urges everyone to run there as quickly as they can.
Khun Ann and Vann are inside, followed closely by Nget Both along with Ry and Cham Rean, as their land is struck by bombs. One lands right next to the shelter’s entrance. A tongue of fire shoots down, causing Ry and Cham Rean to incur severe burns.
Outside, the sound of the four youngest children screaming and crying. They are on fire, as the bombs continue to drop. Once the others can get out of the shelter, they see that two of the children, Rourng and Chhuck, have already succumbed to their wounds. The other two children, Mom and Rim, are severely burnt.
Ry’s story, 2
We manage to work out that both Ry and Cham Rean received a tetanus vaccination. Tetanus is considered life-threatening in tropical countries, especially in the case of burns. Whether this came too late or perhaps the dosage was too low, Cham Rean doesn’t make it, dying three months later. He is cremated in Siem Reap, and his ashes are brought back to the village.
Ry is the lone survivor, left with horrific memories and with the recurring effects of the tetanus infection.
She shows us her right arm, which is covered in scarring from the burns. She explains that it still causes her a lot of pain, and that most years she has to return to the clinic for further treatment.
As Ry speaks, more and more family members come and listen. Loon’s widower joins us, as do her daughter, Oun’s eldest daughter and husband, an aunt, and a friend from the village.
It is powerful, seeing this happen again.
Never before did they speak about it. And now, with a simple photo book in their laps, the stories keep on coming. One after another.
Vann is so engrossed by it all, that he is barely translating anymore.
Later that day, we all have a beer together. Leaving the family behind at the farm, Vann and I then head out in search of the small clinic in Chhonca Andung, some 5 miles down the road.
Thorn had explained roughly where the clinic was located. Vann drives there confidently, but is unable to find the right place. He calls his brother, who tells him to ask someone elderly, as they are bound to remember.
After asking around, Vann eventually finds an older gentleman who is able to show us where the clinic once stood. Now just a skeleton, but is this is the skeleton of the clinic? No answer. Vann strikes up a conversation with the man. Other, younger people start to gather round, and also have their say.
Together, they put together the story of the bombings, of all the countless times that a sea of fire had appeared, just as it had on that fateful day.
And yet again, it becomes clear that these things are never spoken about.
Vann and I continue on our way, and spend the night in Kompong Thom. The next day, we head on towards Siem Reap.