pailin – In this former Khmer Rouge stronghold—now an isolated autonomous jungle state—old habits die hard. Reung Seun, a 28-year-old former Khmer Rouge guerrilla, spent many years moving through the jungle sleeping only with his hammock and an old net. He still does.
But while a hammock makes a ready-made bed for a soldier on the move, it also makes a great target for hungry mosquitoes. And that makes fertile ground for malaria.
“Sleeping in the mosquito netting or sleeping out of the mosquito netting makes no difference,” said Reung Seun, who has watched two of his children, both toddlers, die from the mosquito-borne parasite. Now, “I’ve got malaria too,” he said.
Reung Seun and his wife, Yorn Nom, 23, live together now in Thmei village, Pailin, where he carries wood for a logging company and she farms while taking care of their 3-year-old child.
Until a distribution of some 70 nets to two villages from the European Commission’s malaria program, Reung Seun said he had never known of a malaria program in his village.
The best offense against the malaria parasite, then, becomes a good defense—meaning at least new nets. But this is a defense that is difficult to mount in this isolated region, where entire families, perhaps as many as eight people, will try to sleep under one ragged mosquito net.
Pailin is an autonomous zone, granted to former Khmer Rouge hard-liners by the government in a peace settlement. It is one of the hardest hit areas in Cambodia when it comes to diseases like malaria.
“My mother died of malaria two months ago,” said Srey Phan, whose father collects wood in the forest, a prime site for malaria .
When her father isn’t in the forest, he sleeps in his hammock outside the home, exposing himself to potential malarial infection.
But the rest of the family, which lives in a stilt-house in Selapik village, is not necessarily protected either.
“Sometimes my youngest sister sleeps outside of the mosquito net,” Srey Phan said, “because it is crowded, and she tosses a lot in her sleep.”
He lives far from a hospital—and it is an expensive hospital at that, for these poor farmers, gem miners and wood cutters.
Village chief Yem Yao, 48, said it is difficult for any of the 472 people living in his village to go to a hospital, even if the high fever and other symptoms of a potentially fatal case of malaria appear.
The hospital charges around $10 a night for a bed and around $2.50 for a blood test.
Sok Thy, a housewife and farmer in Thmei village, said she has not taken her 15-year-old daughter Mom to the hospital, despite a high fever. “I have no money to go,” she said.
Many of the residents were given land for their loyalty to the Khmer Rouge but it is considered one of the regions of Cambodia most isolated from outside help.
According to Khmer custom, it is improper for a father to sleep next to his daughter once she is 14- or 15 years old. Srey Phan’s family is no different.