Love in the Dirt – Harry Hogg
(Warning: upsetting material)
Some stories are never finished, they simply begin again in a different setting, with new characters, but the story is always the same; the one about man’s stupidity.
Can someone tell me, where is found the wisdom in a war?
Five weeks after leaving Bangkok, having driven the length of Thailand, we entered into Cambodia at the beginning of the rainy season. In the 1950s, in Cambodia, French colonialism had given way to a period of political instability and civil conflict, exacerbated in the 1960s and 1970s by the spill over of the war in Viet Nam and before my personal experience. Cities had been decimated of their populations and the general mass of people were subjected to harsh labor and political re-education. History reflects that over one million people died in a brutal process of social reconstruction.
We pulled the body from the undergrowth, each taking an ankle of the rebel fighter, his chest ripped open by the hail of ammunition, arms flailing behind him and entangled around those arms a leather strap to which is attached a Kalashnikov 74 assault rifle. He was a young Khmer Rouge rebel, a child, a boy you might ordinarily spank and send to his room for misbehaving.
In 1979, driving for an advance U.N. relief column, I’d reached that point where all reason was lost. I was thirty years old, a failed songwriter, looking for another purpose in life. So, what puts a thirty-year-old deep in hell? Children, in a word, but such an idealistic notion only got me into a pile of shit. The very children I had hoped to help were hell bent on making certain I didn’t see even one more day.
The reason for my anxiety was soon obvious, coming across several dead woman and four children lying scattered on the roadside, all with their throats cut. We stopped at the far edge of the town. Soldiers spanned out; machine guns trigger ready. The medical team checked bodies for signs life, but none was found. Thomas spoke to some of the onlookers and reported back that rebels had entered the town last night and cut the throats of two families whose relatives had fled the regime of Pol Pot, to Vietnam. Villagers spoke about rebels coming in on ponies, dressed in Mao caps, wearing black shirts with red and white scarves wrapped loosely round their necks. Two children, ten and twelve, were tied to ponies and dragged off into the jungle. (From my incomplete: When Dawn Never Comes.)
I was in a place where no mercy exists? During the last decade millions of people were forcibly evicted to the countryside and massacred. Every foundation of learning burned down, intelligence and money abolished, Buddhism prohibited.
I stepped down from the truck, wiped my brow clean of the sweat pouring from my scalp.
“You okay, mate?” It was Frank Rose, another relief truck driver with whom I’d become friends.
I nodded, wiping my neck with a cloth at the same time. “Anyone hurt d’you know?” I asked.
“Only that poor bastard, over there I reckon,” said Frank, hardly seeing how young the rebel soldier was, “bet he never felt a thing by the look of him. Something to tell our grand-kids, eh?”
I could only think of the word silence. Did I ever imagine a time when I would want to tell anyone what was going on here? The young man, his and head and torso shot through, brown skin covered in red, was circled by the soldiers who had killed him. I doubt he had ever known a life before Pol Pot, never played or sang a song.
Two days passed, we made good progress through the jungle. We would make the camp sometime the following day, if all continued well and the rains stayed away.
“Frank…com’on Frank, don’t you do this.” I pulled his arms free of Olga. She was dead, her back ripped open by bullets and he’d taken her bullets in the chest. I heard a breath, a sigh, and the faintest mumble. “Olga — Olga.” I held his head, wiping the blood from his mouth that looked like it might choke him. “The medics are coming, Frank,” but another splatter of machine gun fire whizzed off the trees and I dropped my head to the ground. A body dropped down beside me, it was a medic. “Hold this,” he yelled. I grabbed whatever it was he gave me while he searched for a pulse in Frank’s neck. He looked at me and shook his head. “He’s gone..” My stomach absorbed the punch. I was holding an AK 47 in my hands. He checked out Olga but I knew. I don’t remember anything after that until I felt myself being dragged across the floor by my arms, my feet trailing out behind me. I remember being forced to stand up, and Thomas yelling into my face. “ Drive the truck, okay,” I must have not understood as he screamed into my ears, “listen up, drive the fucking truck, do you hear me?” I must have nodded because I felt two men pushing me up into the cab. I saw both men running back to truck one. I looked over to where Frank and Olga lay, legs entwined. I wanted my mother, my wife, my God, my life; I wanted it more than anything, just to live and get out of this fucking insanity. (From my incomplete: When Dawn Never Comes.)
The following day every truck became swamped with people, yet there was no scrambling for the food onboard, no crying, no pleading, just people standing, waiting, too tired and too weak to even think about forcing the issue of their hunger.
Food supplies at the camp had been depleted months before. Medical supplies were non-existent. The resident relief teams were exhausted, happy to see new supplies and new faces having made the long road trip down through Thailand from Hong Kong.
By nightfall, the food from six trucks had been distributed, then stored, and medical supplies replenished.
The medical tent was re-opened, and hundreds lined up in orderly fashion, as if all they needed was a flu injection. But truthfully, they were more tired than death could satisfy, so they lined up.
I sat under the stars and in a moment of relief felt the tears of loneliness sweep over me. Here is shame. Here is where the devil resides openly. Anger is fearfully stupid in such a place. It is impossible for me to grasp the truth. A world without justice; where sane and sound are strange words and hardly effective in any language.
My wife was close to five months pregnant with our first child. Nevertheless, as the days went by, I felt right about my presence in the camp. I wanted to help at the ‘sharp’ end, to see and be with those children who most needed the supplies and through contacts had earned a place help transport relief supplies. I had no qualifications to be there, save the ability to drive a vehicle in a place ravaged with genocide by a regime supported by supposedly legitimate governments, The United States being one of them. Nixon order the secret carpet-bombing of Cambodia, a direct result of which was the rise of Pol Pot. Nixon had not sought the permission of Congress. Is there something to learn here?
On the second night Sister McMahon appeared at the truck.
“I have a job for you.”
I followed her to a tent on the far side of the camp. On it was a huge Red Cross. She told me to wait outside. When she came out, she was carrying a bundle of cloth. Inside was a child, its eyes barely open, fleshless and feeble.
She placed the child in my arms. “Take this child in your arms. Just be sure to hold the child in your arms for the night.”
She directed me to a place, touched my shoulder, and kissed the covers which covered the child before pulling a mosquito net over us.
While I sat huddling the child, everything of my future was now in my arms, and my expectant wife was at home. It seemed awfully ironic. I did not know whether the child was a boy or a girl. I sat there for a few hours through the night, nursing the child, thinking about home, about my darling wife, the child they we were soon to have, until, under the desperately beautiful Cambodian skies, I fell asleep.
I was roused by Sister McMahon. She lightly brushed my head and brought her hands down to a prayer position. Gently she took the child from him.
“The child is at peace with God Almighty.”
I was overtaken with shame. I had allowed myself to fall asleep and, in my guilt, wanted to blame anyone. “Did you know — did you know this child would not live, and me exhausted, and you give me a dying child!” My cries were agonized and painful. “Why — why would you do such a thing?”
“Yes, Sister said, “the doctor had determined the child had only hours to live. Even with all the medication brought by the convoy, it was hopeless. The child would have died lying in the dirt. If this were your child, would you rather it dies on the floor? Or in the arms of someone who cares?”
“It’s not right — you gave me a child knowing it was close to death and said nothing.”
“Out here everyone is close to death. You nursed a child as though it was your own and for its last hours you were that child’s comfort.”
“No, you gave me a child to nurse to its death and told me nothing — nothing! I came here to help children live, not to help them die!”
“The last thing this child knew was the comfort of your arms, not the hardness of sun-dried soil, the emptiness of a place without comfort. Your arms.”
I turned from her and ran away. I never spoke to Sister McMahon before leaving, nor forgave her; not until the birth of my first child.
Two years later, we met again in Dublin. I greeted her with a hug.
I asked about the Cambodian child and learned it was a boy.
There is no telling what courage is. There is no telling what compassion is. There IS a time when both will leave you. There is a time when God and the idea of right and wrong are so confusing all you can do is weep and be humbled by those of us who have the strength to see the goodness in bad.
Years ahead I lost my youngest son and his mother in a tragedy. Lost him without ever being able to hold him or cradle him in death. What had once scared me; terrified me, disappointed me so bitterly, was to become the thing I most prayed for in my life; to have cradled my son in death.