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“Cambodia was my teacher”

In April of 1975, after five years of civil war, Cambodia fell to the brutal regime of the communist Khmer Rouge.

May 27th, 2016

From Killing Fields to healing camps--thousands of refugees fled Pol Pot's reign of terror in 1980.

Five years after that, Elaine Harvey was treating victims of the carnage on the Cambodia-Thailand border.

Democratic Kampuchea, as Cambodia was then called, had been cut off from the world when Pol Pot, the revolutionary leader of the Khmer Rouge, imposed his four-year reign of terror.

The death toll was close to two million people, one quarter of the country’s population, at that time.

Elaine Harvey knew little about these staggering events until the autumn of 1979 when tens of thousands of Cambodians were fleeing to the border of Thailand, escaping widespread famine and the conflict between the defeated Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese forces occupying the country.

Humanitarian organizations poured in to the border areas, mounting one of the largest international relief operations of the twentieth century.

And that’s how she came to write her memoir, Encounters on the Front Line, Cambodia: A Memoir (Promontory Press $19.99).

Harvey had always been interested in world affairs, particularly in the developing countries. She’d been to Asia before and, as a nurse, she wanted to contribute to a better world, so without hesitation she signed up with the Canadian Red Cross for service on the war-torn Cambodian border, arriving for a six-month tour of nursing duty in February of 1980.

It was a distressing and disturbing time,” she recalls at the outset of Encounters on the Front Line, “but also a time of inspiration and awe.

“Face to face with the aftermath of genocide, famine, torture and terror, I met a people as gracious as the lotus blooming in muddy waters.”

Harvey, Elaine Cambodia 1 nurse

Elaine Harvey, 1980

Less than three months after returning to Canada, the Canadian Red Cross recruited her for another six-month mission, this time providing disaster relief for the nomadic population in the Horn of Africa. There she worked in the desert of Djibouti, a country of rock and sand, its people suffering from a severe drought.

“Witnessing the trauma of the Cambodian refugees,” she writes, “as well as the rapid cultural transition to another disaster zone in the same year, resulted in my own emotional upheaval. A year of restless days and sleepless nights ensued.

“The insomnia eventually subsided and life resumed its course: marriage, family, studies, travel and work. Nursing continued to bring me close to the bone—working with poverty, trauma and suffering, in my own country, in my own small town.

Harvey, Elaine Cambodia 3 water truck“Why did I go to Cambodia? Was I playing out a childhood dream of exotic escape attached to a noble cause? Was I seeking some deeper meaning to life? Was I simply responding to a heart-breaking humanitarian crisis, hoping to make a difference?

“I did not fully understand the impact of the year in Asia and Africa until later in my life. I was not a victim of war, starvation or environmental disaster, but I was a witness. As a witness, I came to understand that front lines take a toll in our lives. They test how far we will go, how much we will give and how deep we will travel.”

Harvey felt the haunting call of the refugee pleading not to be forgotten. The passion of her involvement remained etched on her heart. So nearly three decades later, she returned to Cambodia.

“I travelled many roads,” she says, “volunteering in an orphanage and at an AIDS hospice…

“Cambodia was my teacher; my encounter as hard as shrapnel embedded in flesh, as soft as the fragrance of jasmine, and as perplexing as the beguiling smile of its people, the Khmer, offered so freely to foreigners, that seemed to say ‘I am fine, sok sabay, despite all that befell our cherished land.’

“My journey was a pilgrimage, a quest of the heart, a longing: to meet the new face of Cambodia and honour the one that I left behind.”

Harvey, Elaine Cambodia 2 campShe plans a second non-fiction book about her experiences as a nurse in Djibouti further exploring the concerns of our common humanity and connections made in a disconnected world. “I was not a victim of war, poverty, or starvation,” she writes, “but I was a witness. As a witness, I came to understand that front lines test how far we will go, how much we will give and how deep we will travel.”


Encounters on the Front Line, Cambodia: A Memoir (Promontory Press 2015) 978-1-927559-66-6

[BCBW 2016]



A soldier wearing torn jeans, his runners with both toes missing and a gun slung over his shoulder, hobbles into the room. His eyes are gentle and his smile warm as I wash his body, which is covered with cuts, filth and blood. Sweat runs down my face, drips onto his chest, drop by drop, mingling with his. He’s my age and a soldier, a refugee, an insurgent, a hero, a casualty, his life a catastrophe. What does he dream of? Peace? Killing the enemy? Growing rice?

Boom! Another shell falls, perhaps five hundred feet away. Sick mothers and their skinny children jump up from their cots on the ward and peer through the bamboo slats into the forest beyond. Old men with hairless legs barely supporting them look out too, perhaps contemplating the folly of war, having been soldiers once. They are now dying, but for other reasons: malaria, tuberculosis and typhoid.

Harvey, ElaineAnother casualty is carried in. Blood is spurting from a bullet wound, and the young man’s eyes are frantic. I apply pressure to his chest. Dr. Pierre looks at me and si­lently communicates, “This one won’t make it.” I nod in agreement. The boy, hardly a man, gasps his last breath. His body disappears, carried out by two men, as fast as it arrived. Pierre and I don’t say a prayer, don’t bow our heads in mourning but the losses of war land somewhere in our hidden hearts.

I monitor vital signs, listen to congested lungs, change dressings, start intravenous and give the daily medications. I pat the patients on their backs as if to say, “You look bet­ter today,” though most of them look deathly ill. The adults smile, no matter how sick they are, but the children, the severely malnourished ones who are skin and bones or with big bellies full of worms, don’t. They just stare with empty eyes.

The challenges in feeding the children are never-ending. Rice lunch is served from a bucket, like a slop pail, into plastic bowls. The boys and girls eat with their hands as there are no spoons. Flies hover over the food or land on the children’s sticky faces. Sometimes the workers don’t know how to prepare powdered milk or forget the children are too young to manage boiled eggs still in the shell.

We keep all our supplies under lock and key, as theft is a big problem too. Today, four of my very sick patients left and took their beds with them. I can’t blame them; the plank cots are highly sought after, and much better than sleeping on the wet ground.

Sary, Kano, Khen, and I sit in the cool warehouse for a short break on a hot day. We joke about the stealing that is hard to prevent and even harder to determine who is responsible. Kano wants to be the store manager, but he’s the least trustworthy of the bunch. Sary is too gentle, not tough enough to guard precious supplies, and Khen is too honest and anxious for the job. We eat oranges as conver­sation turns to the Pol Pot days, when they ate mice, bats, spiders and worms—anything that moved, anything to survive. They laugh, so I laugh too.

Vietnam invaded Thailand yesterday, June 23. We were told an attack would occur before the monsoon, but to our surprise it happened after the heavy rains began. This is undoubtedly international news; however, we on the front lines are not sure who is fighting whom.                     Twenty of us, in six vehicles, wait at the Khao I Dang turnoff to enter Nong Samet. Heat, tension, and uncertain­ty lie over us like a heavy cloak. Explosive rounds of mor­tar shots have fallen uncomfortably close twice in the last five minutes. They shake the ground we are sitting on. My heart sinks and pounds at the same time, yet I am strangely calm. We are not on safe ground, but I know I won’t die. Not young. Not now.


Cambodia was a front line that slipped away into the cluttered sidelines of my life. Years later, years changed, I read from my worn blue and gold journal, a faded Red Cross on its cover: “Do not forget us. Come back.” That was a half a lifetime ago; a hauntHarvey, Elaine book jacketing call, a subliminal message, an unresolved question of my heart.

In and out of memories, in and out of sleep on Dragon Air, I am flying over the South China Sea and Vietnam. My fatigue turns to wide-eyed anticipation as little patches of land, drowning in wide swampy waterways, come into view.

Inside Phnom Penh International Airport a dozen uni­formed men sit in a row, squeezed shoulder to shoulder. The first grim official inspects my passport and passes it down the line. Each of them looks like he was once Khmer Rouge—people I remember with their cold eyes and un­flinching stares. They may very well be; even Prime Min­ister Hun Sen was a former officer in the Khmer Rouge army. I am waved on, a cool entry into the Kingdom of Cambodia.


A barefoot girl, maybe seven years old, walks into the restaurant, selling jasmine flower rings. She should be with her mother or father or playing with her brothers and sis­ters, but she is working the dark streets of Phnom Penh, selling yellowing day-old jasmine, flower of the setting sun.

This little girl is at high risk of exploitation and traf­ficking. She may already be targeted for the sex trade. She doesn’t smile; she doesn’t even look like a seven-year-old. Her eyes are hard, and her walk is a quick, determined streetwise walk. She has places to go; she has flowers to sell.                                         I don’t need a jasmine ring, but search in my bag for change. An American couple sits close by. He pulls out his wallet and gives her several riel bills. She leaves one of them in his hand. Does she think he’s made a mistake and over­paid her? The man looks puzzled.

For one second we catch each other’s eye, the Ameri­can, myself, and the child of the street, face to face with the complexities of the culture of begging. We’ve been told by seasoned ex-pats to give money not in the street but to the NGOs, who provide direct food, education, and shel­ter. There is no absolute right or wrong. Give up front, or donate to the organizations that care for the kids. We can do both.

After dinner I return to the safety of my hotel. Alone at night in Phnom Penh, it’s not wise to wander. But little girls and boys are still working the streets, going to places children shouldn’t go.


I need a day of rest, a day to contemplate, a day to sit with my life. I swim in the pool beside the sculptured Bayon head, the mysterious god-king overlooking the clear blue water. The deep currents of the world keep me afloat as the midday sun hovers above.

I bridge two worlds, as travelers often do. I see both sides, living on this beautiful broken planet, its oceans and earth in danger, its global citizens living lives as scattered as the stars. My anger is under cover, like watching the news with a glassy-eyed stare, my selective filter screening out what I don’t want to hear. I care; I’m indifferent. I’m concerned; I turn a blind eye. I give generously; I hardly give a dol­lar. I witness the disinherited of the earth and look right through their half-living, their half-dying lives.

My alliances vacillate from egocentric to world-centric, from maintaining a selfish grip on my sense of owner ship to acting for a better world. I need to protect myself, my home, my standard of living and my country—or so I say—but the obscene decadence of the rich and the gru­eling poverty of the poor distress me. The unsung heroes who work toward a more equitable and just planet inspire me: the front-line workers, the human rights activists, the caregivers, and the writers.                                              I am neither rich nor poor. I’m in-between, and reach out to people along the way. I hold Naom’s old brown hand, I touch Souet’s disfigured face, and I massage Punthea’s weary limbs. Mongkol Borei was a drop in the pond, but each drop, each action, is a stone that falls deep and rip­ples outward.


At the Russian Market the soft heat of late day wraps around me. I hold my last-minute purchases—a gold table­cloth embroidered with elephants, and silk scarves in all the colours of the rainbow—close to me in the narrow alleys. I could get lost in this crowded bazaar, known for its pick­pockets and petty crime, but I’m not afraid. I know my way around.

Outside, the mango man walks by with the cart he pulls through the streets. He grins at me as if he recognizes me. Have we met before or is he just selling mangoes? I greet him and ask him how his day is going: “Sok Sabay Te?”

Sok Sabay,” he replies with a twinkle in his eye. I’d like to stop for a while, pass the time of day, but he is the mango man and I am a traveler. Like all travels and all memories we are two solitudes, with only this moment in common. And we are more. We are everything we bring to our lives, our giving and taking, our reaching towards and our pull­ing away. This reciprocal acknowledgement is a momen­tary connection in the messy, noisy streets of Phnom Penh.


There are twelve poems in Elaine Harvey’s book. Here is Tonle Sap.

A barefoot boatman
tilting his craft
into the muddy waterways
of the great Tonle Sap
fish basket of Cambodia
whole villages afloat
entire lives afloat
lotus entangled lives
the deep tributaries of history
as I navigate
currents that carve
an uneven shore
having come so far
on this tributary                                                                                                                     floating
in my world.

One Response to ““Cambodia was my teacher””

  1. John R. Paterson says:

    A very compelling story.

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