Family’s Life Was Shattered Only Seconds From Escape

Her Niece Dead and Son Wounded, Thoughts of July 5 Make Woman ‘Want to Cry’

Sitha’s family was minutes, maybe only seconds from successfully fleeing the fighting last July near Olympic Stadium.

It was mid-afternoon on July 5. They had collected their critical belongings—clothes, a mosquito net, a bag containing $6,000 of savings. They had locked their wood-framed house and had reached the front gate. They were starting to board motorcycles.

Then a mortar shell hit, and their lives, like dozens in Phnom Penh, were changed in the in­stant it took for the shrapnel to spray through their bodies.

Sitha’s 24-year-old niece, who had arrived just two days before from Kompong Cham province for a visit, was struck in the kidney and soon died in front of the house.

Sitha, 46, lay helpless with a shattered leg. Her 18-year-old son Sathya lay bloodied from about a dozen pieces of shrapnel pierced his leg and chest.

In the panic to get Sitha and Sathya to the hospital, the bag of money was forgotten. The mon­ey and other possessions in their middle-class home about a kilometer from the Hotel Inter-Con­tinental were later looted by soldiers.

Nearly a year later, the family of four is still suffering.

The mother and son bear the physical scars. Sathya has purple boil-like blotches on his chest and leg. A piece of shrapnel remains embedded in his kneecap. Sitha walks with a limp, her leg held in place by a metal plate drilled to the bone.

But the emotional scars may be worse.

Sitha talks painfully about her niece, her older sister’s child. “We’re very sorry for her death. She was lovable and beautiful.”

Tears well up in the eyes of Sitha’s 47-year-old husband Vuthy, who works for the Phnom Penh Port. He explains that his wife no longer has her fabric business at the Olympic Stadium market. He sold the inventory and rented out the shop.

“I sold the clothes for medical bills,” he says with a pained look on his face. The standard compensation—about $150 at the time for two people injured— couldn’t begin to offset an estimated $13,000 in losses, including looted property and medical expenses.

Vuthy gets up from the living room couch as if to leave in frustration. But he reappears a couple of minutes later, carrying three plastic-wrapped bundles of fabric. He drops them on the floor, the remnants of his wife’s past business.

“It’s very hard for me,” he says of the challenge of supporting two teen-agers and a wife on his income and the shop rent money. The television has been replaced, but several doors in the house still are damaged and are missing locks.

Both Vuthy and Sitha become animated when asked who was to blame for the fighting. The two say that there were no warnings to leave, and that neither CPP commune nor district officials came to offer their sympathy afterwards.

“I felt disappointed,” says Sitha. “No one came to us. Only the neighbors took care of us.”

But they blame both sides for the fighting, and wish only for peace after the elections.

“I will vote for any leader who loves the people and doesn’t regard the people as their tool,” Sitha says.

They asked that their family names not be used, because they are still afraid.

Outside their home on a recent day, it is sunny. Children can be heard playing in the street. The family’s patio is lush with plants prospering from the recent rains.

But inside, the tears still come too easily and prosperity seems far away. Says Sitha: “We want to cry when we recall the past.”

 

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