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thai post Nursing on the Thai-Cambodian Border in 1979

Anne Watts trained as a nurse and midwife in the 1960's before joining the Save the Children Fund. Her chosen path took her on a journey of extremes. From war zones to refugee camps; burning deserts to frozen tundra; the stunning beauty of the Himalayas to tropical sunsets that take the breath away – Anne has learned lessons not taught in any classroom. Here, in an excerpt from her book, Always the Children, Anne shares a touching story from her time as a nurse based in Kampuchean Camp on the Thai-Cambodia border.

The Blue Dictionary - an excerpt from Always the Children by Anne Watts

1979, the Thai-Kampuchean border area - I was a nurse in a team sent out from London to provide help to the tens of thousands of displaced Cambodians. They were survivors of the 4 year Khmer Rouge regime, under the leadership of Pol Pot. To witness the ensuing degradation of torture, famine and mass murder was initially overwhelming. Thousands of people huddled in ragged, frightened groups, many dying on a patch of rough ground the size of St James’ Park. It became known as Sa Keao holding camp for displaced Khmer. As the scale of the tragedy became clearer, the level of logistical planning required seemed staggering. It was here that I learned how the major charities, working together, could restore order from chaos.

Sa Keao Refugee camp, 1979

The Thai Army cleared ground for dirt roads; vast rolls of blue plastic were distributed providing temporary shelter from the unrelenting sun that was further dehydrating people with dysenteries; the omnipresent threat of cholera and typhoid loomed.

Convoys of trucks ferried water from a source 20 miles away, latrines were dug; donations from all over the world of medical and basic food supplies were trucked in from the airport. Order was restored and within 10 days a bamboo and thatch hospital with attendant clinics were ready for occupation. People counted into this camp numbered 42,000 – and there were many more tens of thousands strung out in other camps along the border area.

Slowly emerging from this man made tragedy came extraordinary stories of survival.

This is where I met 14 year old Vichuta (Vic). An undernourished child whose bright, intelligent eyes belied her poor physical condition. Aged only 10 when the Khmer Rouge took power, most of her immediate family had been executed. The child, like so many, survived brutality and famine, scavenging for food to keep herself alive. With medical care, safe water and extra food rations she quickly gained strength and became a lively member of our team. Her fluent French and English was enormously valuable. After serving for 1 year in Sa Keao, I returned home to Wales.

Vichuta pictured in 1979

2004, Pnom Penh - 24 years after leaving the camp, I returned to Pnom Penh to meet up with a few Cambodians I had kept in touch with. Quite unexpectedly, I was reunited with Vic – now 38 years of age. Over lunch she told me what had happened to her. Given asylum in Canada, she completed her schooling in Montreal, gained a law degree at university and returned to Cambodia to see how she could help.

Vichuta pictured in 2004

Setting up her own charity, she now provides free legal aid to those rescued from human traffickers who sell children and women into lucrative trade of sexual and labour exploitation; into servile marriage; into black market organ removal and those suffering domestic abuse and rape. Vic told me her father had been Chief Justice of Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over the country. He and her immediate family were executed.

She asked me if I remembered giving her a dictionary one day in the early days of the camp. At first I was perplexed. As a camp moves on from being a medical emergency it becomes a social dilemma. No child should be raised in such conditions, behind barbed wire – thinking this is the norm. In an attempt to structure the days, playgroups and school classes need to start happening. With the help of British volunteers in Bangkok – they kept us supplied with pens, exercise books, crayons, paints and games. Vic reminded me of a box of multicoloured dictionaries that I brought in one day. How I had given her a blue dictionary.

To my amazement she said “I still have that dictionary. As you handed it to me that day, I took it as a sign from my father. He always used to tell us children to focus on our education. That is what would give us a good life. I knew it was time to begin studying again. That dictionary gave me back my life. Thank you Anne.”

2010, London - Busy in London with the launch of my first book, I sent an email to Vic in Pnom Penh. I told her how at long last the story of Sa Keao would be told; that the launch party was on June 10th and how I would think of her and others on that evening. Three days later Vic replied “Do you know a station called St Pancras? We will arrive on Eurostar at 1.15pm. We would not miss this for anything.”

I was deeply touched. Standing at St Pancras arrivals I wondered if I would recognise Vic, - would she recognise me? I need not have worried. As the doors slid back and the first wave of Eurostar passengers flooded through, I saw an arm raised high toward the back of the crowd – and clutched in the hand was the blue dictionary.

Inside a Thai Refugee Camp >

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6 Oct 2014, 14:18 PM

Josie, reading your post has brought back so many memories for me from when I vo…
By Penny Iamsamang
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Brilliant informative. And pictures! I shall definitely do my Christmas shopping…
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