Cafe Owner Struggles With Wife’s Memory

Since his wife was killed in a grenade attack two months ago, David Finch has traveled south of the city every day to Kien Svay district, where his 18-month-old son is staying at the home of the boy’s grandparents.

On a recent afternoon, he pushed his Suzuki scooter through afternoon traffic, revving the engine and cursing quietly to himself.

“You know, I used to make this trip every day when we were engaged,” the 33-year-old Briton said. “Now I go to see her ashes.”

On March 13, an argument broke out at a karaoke parlor up the street from Phnom Penh’s Peace Cafe on Street 86, a business Finch and his wife, Jeun Sokha, operated together.

The argument turned into a street brawl, and around midnight someone threw a grenade, police said at the time. Jeun Sokha and Finch were closing the metal security gates in front of their shop. A fragment from the explosion pierced the woman’s heart, and she died within minutes.

Two men, one believed to be an ex-military policeman from Ban­teay Meanchey province, are in police custody. Police said they believe the men brought several weapons, including a handgun and the grenade, with them on a visit to Phnom Penh.

“It’s not as if they kept a gre­nade in their sock drawer for special occasions,” said Finch, who has decided to open another cafe named for his wife, Sokha’s Peace Cafe, which will officially open Friday. “These guys carry it in their luggage.”

Finch has made a study of the kind of weapon that killed his wife, a Chinese model he said you can buy on the street for $3.

The grenade is filled with shrapnel and a tightly coiled ball of copper wire, like piano wire, he said. When the grenade is triggered, the wire vaporizes, uncoiling and sending out fragments at unimaginable speed.

“It goes through doors, it goes through windows, it goes through kids playing in the street,” he said. “It goes through everything.”

The fragment that killed 23-year-old Jeun Sokha was so small that when she lay dying in her husband’s arms, Finch didn’t spot the fatal wound on her chest.

Finch met Jeun Sokha the day he landed in Cambodia in 1996. She was working as a waitress at his guest house in the backpacker quarter near Boeung Kak lake. They struck up a cordial relationship, but neither of them thought much of it.

Finch had planned to stay in Cambodia only two weeks, but he was charmed by the place. He found a job teaching English, and “six months became a year, a year became two.”

He went to Taiwan for six months, and when he returned to Cambodia, he came to stay. He bought a motorbike and started learning Khmer. In the afternoons he would go to the guest house where Jeun Sokha worked to study his textbook, and when she had free time, she would let him practice with her.

“She started to take me seriously,” he said. “I was putting in the time, learning Khmer.”

Finch gave Jeun Sokha a watch, a traditional Cambodian gesture of romantic interest. He began going to her farm in Kien Svay in Kandal province for visits chaperoned by her large family.

In time Finch and Jeun Sokha decided to marry. Finch made a formal proposal to his fiancee’s parents. They accepted on the condition that the couple wait a year. Finch had to save money to pay for the wedding party, but it was also a way for him to prove the seriousness of his commitment to their daughter, he said.

Jeun Sokha was the eldest of seven children. She had a sister who died before she was born during the Pol Pot regime when the family was sent to Pursat province.

After the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, the family returned to their fruit farm in Kien Svay. Jeun Sokha grew up on the farm, commuting each day to the $30-a-month waitressing job that she had been offered by a family friend.

During the engagement, Finch visited Jeun Sokha every day. Kien Svay became Finch’s refuge from the city, he said, far away from the violence breaking out on Phnom Penh’s streets after the 1998 elections. It was the place where his wife was born, the place where Jeun Sokha would later be married, and later still, where she would be cremated.

Finch was also drawn to her family, who grew to accept him as a member of the clan, even after Jeun Sokha was dead.

As he pulled into the lane leading to the farm on his recent visit, neighbors called out to greet him by name. At the house, his mother-in-law swept him into her arms and sat him down with a cup of tea while she sent for his boy, Sokheng.

Finch had brought a motorcycle helmet for Sokheng, a gift from a friend. The boy put it on and wouldn’t take it off. He squirmed in his father’s lap, showering him with wet kisses before running off to play in the dirt.

Father and son later made their daily visit to Jeun Sokha’s shrine in the family garden. The boy took lighted incense from his father and planted it next to his mother’s ashes. Finch held up a snapshot of the dead woman. The boy said “Mummy” brightly and kissed the image.

When his wife was killed, Finch immediately thought of leaving Cambodia. “I would have gotten on a plane right away if it hadn’t been for my boy,” he said.

Later he decided to stay. He is afraid that people in England wouldn’t understand what had happened to him, that in the back of their minds they would think he’d brought the calamity on himself by choosing to live in a dangerous country. He is afraid he would forget his life here, that his “marriage to Sokha would become a dream.”

When construction is finished on the new cafe, his wife’s younger sister will come to help him run it and his son will come back to live with him.

Finch wants his son to grow up in Cambodia so he is near his grandparents, whom he feels he has deprived of a daughter. It’s his wife’s family who have helped him to cope with her death, he said, and it’s her death that’s brought him closer to them than if they were blood relatives.

“People respected us,” Finch said of his marriage. “I didn’t get a girl from a bar. I didn’t feel like a Western man with an Asian wife. And she didn’t marry me because she wanted to leave Cambodia….

“We did it right, and by doing it right, I have a family.” The party for the opening of Sokha’s Peace Cafe, at 234 St 63, on Friday is free, but donations to NGO the Working Group for Weapons Reduction will be gratefully accepted.

 

 

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