One of the most emotional visits that impacted me greatly was my outreach in Cambodia. I remember reading an article in the English language paper headlined: “Children sold to Neighbors in Attempt to Buy AIDS Cure.” I met the parents who were sitting in the hospital waiting for drugs. They were sad that they chose this path but had no alternative if they wanted to live and take care of their other children still at home. The husband was very sick and frail. Perhaps, he weighed 100 pounds but no more. His skin was sallow and his eyes tired from the illness wracking his body. His wife was silent, clutching his hands as we spoke through a young interpreter. I sensed she was absolutely heart-broken but in many cultures, the husband speaks for the family. She was beginning to show the first signs of the cancer Kaposi Sarcoma.
During March 2000 while walking in this poverty-stricken country, I lived and worked in remote areas until recently held by the remnants of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces. The infamous killing fields are still visible where mounds of bodies lay barely buried, But tragically, the countryside is also the home of the fastest growing youth AIDS epidemic in the world.
Having lost a fifth of it total population over the last 25 years to war, famine, and intra-genocide, the gentle Khmer people appear shell-shocked by the realization that their young sons and daughters are dying from a mysterious enemy that no one can see. Accompanied by local PeerCorps trainees who act as interpreters and outreach volunteers, I met with young people dying of AIDS in every village and urban neighborhood I visited. Truly, I have never before witnessed an HIV/AIDS epidemic of this magnitude with the exception of parts of Africa.
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, I first spoke to youth in schools, in parks, and along narrow alleys in slums built on stilts over putrid water and decaying waste where babies played. I took many of these youth volunteers on the rounds of hospitals treating AIDS patients close to death. Amazingly, in one hospital we visited, doctors and nurses refused to assist the dying patients. They said there were no medicines so it was better to let them die. However, when medical doctors receive only $50 a month salary, and nurses much less, most believed the risk of getting AIDS was not worth their lives.
I met many wonderful young people who were all alone and afraid. Most were without any family support. It was sad but I would tell them, “You are a good person – you must believe that. A mistake has been made and you have AIDS. But there are people who love you.”
The PeerCorps teens accompanying me witnessed the reality of AIDS that has impacted on their young, impressionable lives. We brought fruits and juices to the patients because hospitals have very little food to give poor, dying patients. The volunteers sat with the patients, held their hands, and changed their soiled sheets, something that most of the staff would not do. I emphasize to all PeerCorps members that a person can’t get HIV/AIDS from touching as HIV is transmitted by blood-to-blood contact only. Two youth. Two great volunteers, Chavelith and Thi, took me to the homes of young people with full-blown AIDS. At one home, a young mother age 26, covered with sores and coughing deeply, held her listless HIV-positive daughter in her skinny arms. The mother’s only wish was that the child would die before her so she would not have to worry about her baby’s bleak future as an unwanted AIDS orphan. I took pen and paper and drew a portrait of the two for their keepsake.
Teen prostitution is thriving in Cambodia’s corrupt and violent society. Police and military personnel run many of the brothels or act as the protectors of the businesses – much like Mafia. I was allowed into some of these brothels and even was permitted to videotape. I told the owners that sex without condoms was a death sentence for their clients and workers. Privately, beautiful young teens told me that they could be killed if they refused clients who didn’t want to use condoms. Only then did I understand why the older girls in the brothels didn’t want the younger ones to hear me talk about condoms,
In the southern port city of Sihanoukville, in a small shanty brothel with a sign in English that read, “no condoms, no sex” provided by a UN-sponsored agency Dr. John videotaped a pretty, twelve-year old prostitute who sand a hauntingly lovely melody. Her friends, also in their young teens, waited for their customers, often teens and young men, under the watchful eye of the madam.
Sopha, a 19 year old volunteer from Phnom Penh translated for me and held the attention of the young sex workers as I told the girls about AIDS and how it’s growing fast in their country. They knew nothing about it and were not able to read the English sign. I told them they should go back home to their parents before they became infected, but they couldn’t. It was their parents who had sold them into prostitution like indentured servants. And many brothel owners employed thugs (including police) to brutally enforce the contracts. When the girls developed full-blown AIDS (and it is almost a certainty in the sex business), they are no longer desirable to clients and their income-potential is essentially finished. Many families in remote villages don’t want their sick children back because the community ostracizes the entire family, and they aren’t able to contribute to the family’s meager existence.
In an abandoned building in Phnom Penh once owned by a disowned prince of the royal family, CI met two young people living with HIV/AIDS (PWAs). Vannak had been an army sergeant fighting the Khmer Rouge; the other, Son Soth, had been a royal dancer in King Sihanouk’s court. After talking, Dr. John asked them to help in his outreach and they did willingly. Both had been growing sicker while living alone with little food, no work or money, and ashamed to tell their parents about having AIDS. As a result, they had no contact with their folks for years. I felt very sad for them — knowing how important my parents are to me. When I asked Vannak what I could do to “reward” him for helping me for a week, he softly said, “I want to go home to die.” I arranged transportation via a run-down taxi owned by a young guy who was intrigued by my volunteer work with his sick and dying countrymen. Traveling by day along horrible roads known for hijackings and robbery, we drove to his family homes in Takeo province with the trunk filled with bags of fresh fruits, meats and candy for the village children.
It took us six hours to journey in the daylight because nighttime driving was prohibited by the government. I like to sing and we all did. One thing I’ve noticed around the world is that everyone seems to know the tune, if not the broken words in English, of “You Are My Sunshine.” When we pulled up in the village unannounced, the car was immediately surrounded by perhaps 50 children. In Cambodia, where families often have six to twelve children, they are everywhere. I was the first white person (non combatant) to visit sine the days of the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia.
Vannak’s parents were overjoyed by his visit. It had been seven years since he had left his village as a 15 year old soldier to fight the Khmer Rouge. He was gaunt but otherwise was looking okay. We sat down to eat the food and as we talked, I ate from Vannak’s plate, shared his food and gave him a hug. Once they saw I was their son’s friend, we asked to speak to them privately. He had never told his parents that he had AIDS. I explained to his mother and father why I brought him home. Then I told them he had AIDS. They were shocked. I gave Vannak another hug and drank soda from his glass. I explained carefully that there was nothing to fear — that their son wanted to come home and be with his family before he died. His mother cried softly and said she wanted her son back. In a sign of love, his elderly father stood up and hugged him warmly. I was told later that a public sign of affection among parents and grown children was very rare. Vannak stayed in the village as we drove off before it got dark. I remember him waving and smiling while hugging his mother.
Three months later I got an email from the volunteers that Vannak had died. His wish had come true.