This story, like those before, is a tale of community. It took place in 1996, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Perhaps besides being a story of good neighbors, its also a lesson for our time of great wildfires and how we should help our communities devastated by them.
My narrow street was a metaphor for the glaring cultural and economic gaps in Phnom Penh. Mansions and squatter shacks stood in stark contrast to each other in the same space. I lived in a small two-story house, with a wooden upstairs and a bottom made of cement and stone. Across a narrow dirt lane that fronted my little walled compound was a huge old pagoda that hosted a squatter’s village of unthinkable density. The front yard was made of cement, maybe 35 feet wide by 40 feet long. The stone bottom part of the house, which I must admit I had never entered, opened onto this cement courtyard. The big iron gates opened to the lane. Often when I left home in the mornings to go to work, I crossed paths with Vietnamese “taxi girls” coming home from their evening’s labors. Still wearing heavy makeup and gaudy, slinky dresses, they went inside their dingy huts to sleep away the day.
As I settled into my new neighborhood, I began to get to know the people who inhabited hollowed out rooms in the pagoda wall across from me. At first, there were just smiles and waves as I came and went.
Then I started to take photos. Cameras were a rare commodity among the local people, one of the more obvious victories for the anti-tech reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge. Very few peasants had access to important event pictures such as wedding portraits, much less family photos. The cost of processing a roll of film was equivalent to a week’s pay for one of the families that lived across from me. Most of the expatriates working in Cambodia were on a holiday from their Western, modern, high-tech lives but, like all good “tourists,” we had our equipment if we wanted or needed it. I routinely took snapshots of children, families, and even special occasions when they finally got up the nerve to ask. I would get the film developed and hand out the eagerly awaited photos. Soon my neighbors were waving to me, shouting my name, and occasionally bringing me some sort of Asian delicacy. They waited patiently for the evenings when I would arrive with pictures. When they saw me crossing the lane with an envelope in my hand, all the shyness gave way to giggles, smiles, and the elders’ slightest bows of the head. We had no common language. We only had this little gesture of friendship and trust.
One day, I had gone home for lunch and a nap instead of sleeping at my office for the noon siesta. I smelled it before I heard it; I heard the roar before I saw it. The pagoda, which was hundreds of years old, went up like kindling, the flames soaring 40 to 50 feet in the air. Black smoke was pouring across the road, and a huge burst of flame gave off so much heat that I could feel it on my porch. I could see huge billows of black smoke spewing from the interior of the squatter camp; shouting people were rushing everywhere, carrying babies, meager possessions, prized TVs, and boom boxes. The flames climbed higher, but the wind was blowing in the opposite direction from my house. Khmer friends came over to make sure that I was okay; they turned off my stove and electricity and begged me to close my gates. “Shut your gates, mum!” they shouted, “Please,” they begged. “Close the gates before all the squatters run in here.” “No,” I yelled from my porch. “Open the gates wide; tell the people living in the wall to bring their belongings and children inside.” They came. They came with sewing machines and bedding; they came with toddlers and infants; they came until there was no room left and the gates were closed.
We stood watching as the entire shantytown of two to three hundred shacks became a wall of fire, an inferno of intense heat. Most of the expatriates on the street fled in their cars and locked their gates behind them, but the three of us closest to the pagoda stayed and kept our houses open. My yard initially looked like a flea market, but it quickly took on the look of a refugee camp. I bandaged toes, held little Vietnamese[LW1] children in my arms to calm them, sedated one of the old ladies, and basically gave moral support to those known families who lived directly across from me. Miraculously, we heard of only one death.
That night, six or seven youngsters, scared and nervous, came upstairs and slept in my room with me. They smelled like gerbils, only more sooty and dirty. Outside, little pink and blue mosquito- net tents sprang up like mushrooms across the courtyard. The old women and babies slept in the downstairs salon, or what was left of it. We[LW2] had opened the doors to the bottom stone part of the house, where many stowed the few belongings they had managed to save, including motorbikes and sewing machines. I gave the key to a man who spoke a little English. Others slept in the yard, while most of the men stayed outside the gates and guarded what was left of their homes.
It was winter, and the night air was damp and cool. Inside the burned-out pagoda, families slept on damp, burnt earth; inside my compound, they slept on cold, damp cement. We set up a clinic on my porch and a friend, the doctor for the Australian Embassy, treated infants for exposure, colds, and dehydration. The Vietnamese that were now living in my compound helped with the lines of Vietnamese and Khmer refugees from the fire who came to the little clinic for help. The Cambodian Red Cross refused to help because so many of the victims were Vietnamese squatters, in Cambodia for work or to escape the Vietnamese government. The Cambodian government was committed to removing them from the country. Ancient enmities and claims that they took jobs from the locals supported the government’s position. The International Red Cross gave into political expediency; rather than offend the government, it did not offer assistance, either. To make the situation more dire, the major humanitarian organizations refused to provide aid lest they run afoul of government disapproval. People were cold. People were sick. People were hungry.
I was the executive director of the Committee for Cooperation in Cambodia (CCC), a network of all the humanitarian organizations working in the country, but I did not have actual programs, resources, or staff to provide rice and other necessities for survival. I was able, at the risk of losing my job, to convince some of the less politically dependent NGOs, notably Lutheran World Service, to bring bags of rice to my compound. The organization wouldn’t actually be disseminating it…just storing it! Once 2.5 tons of rice were delivered to my house, the Vietnamese men who were living inside my compound carried the 100-pound sacks on their backs across to the burned-out pagoda and passed it out to everyone, Khmer and Vietnamese alike. They also distributed 500 sleeping mats as well as 300 mosquito nets and tarps. They worked while much of Phnom Penh stood by, indifferent, and watched.
As it happened, I had already rented a new house across town before the fire, so my guests and I had to leave my compound by week’s end. The majority of people had drifted away from the burn site, finding new places to shelter, but all my neighbors stayed with me until moving day. As evening fell, my driveway was lit by cooking fires, and I could smell the exotic Asian aromas as the smoke curled up towards my little porch, where several of the children slept under a net tent. Except for helping at the free clinic, most days I left for my office, emotionally drained from fighting with the heads of the large NGOs who wanted to skewer me alive for aiding the refugees against the government’s wishes, while my “community” went about their individual business of finding shelter and work. On the evening before I was to move into my new house, I arrived home to a frenzy of activity. Food prep was in high gear, the children scrubbed clean and blankets laid out neatly in a large circle. Using some sort of pidgin English, my ‘guests’ made it clear that they wanted me to join them for a last dinner together. Everyone had contributed to the community dinner, which was a veritable feast. They wished that I would live more than one hundred years. I sat cross-legged on the ground, surrounded by happy faces, with people eating pho and bánh xèo (savory pancakes), as I fumbled with my chopsticks and tried to make conversation. But words did not matter. We were celebrating life, we were celebrating community, and trust abounded.