Siem Reap military wife Chea Soly and child.
The Phnom Penh Post
Written by Peter Olszewski
Thursday, 23 April 2009
With their men at the front, the women of Mondul 3 village struggle to care for their children with meagre incomes and few means of support.
WHILE their husbands serve the nation on the front lines of a months-long border dispute in Preah Vihear, a group of army wives in Siem Reap city have been waging their own war against the grinding poverty and squalid conditions of one of the most desperate parts of the city.
They live less than a kilometre from the lush acres of five-star hotels that line the road to Angkor Wat. But tourists never venture down their dusty road, lined with seedy karaoke shacks, that leads to the scrubby village of Mondul 3.
About 500 army wives eke out a lonely existence here, almost 100 of them under the care of the New Hope Community Centre.
On the Thursday prior to Khmer New Year, a black Camry pulled up in a cloud of dust, disgorging half a dozen troops that had returned home from Preah Vihear for the holiday.
Spotting the troops, Chea Soly squealed with delight and, waving her arms in the air, ran down the road thinking her husband Nuon Sea would be among the lucky ones on leave. But her husband hadn't come home. Her shoulders sagged, she began to sob and she trudged back to her shanty.
"The lives of these poor army wives are extremely tough," said former Australian real estate agent Kerry Huntly, now New Hope's director. "As well as having many children - they seem to be forever pregnant, for a start - they're forced to provide an income for themselves and their children, as well as coping with all the loneliness, the health problems, the emotional upheavals of being soldiers' wives.
"The soldiers earn about US$25 a month and some of the chief soldiers earn $40 a month. But they will, in fact, be lucky to receive that pay each month, and even so, the husbands use some money at Preah Vihear. So out of a wage of $25 a month, a wife will have to feed herself and maybe four or six children on $15 a month.
"They can't afford to repair their homes or buy anything for shelter or clothing for their kids - absolutely nothing."
To supplement their diet, the wives and children forage in the Angkor Park forest for fruits, berries and wild lemongrass, and at night they hunt for frogs, snakes and vermin.
Sometimes their incomes can be supplemented by doing laundry for the nearby karaoke shacks.
To add to the everyday burdens these women must confront, some of their husbands will return home from the front much altered from when they left. Mental health issues, an increase in violent behaviour or varying levels of physical impairment are just some of the problems soldiers' wives must contend with when their men come home.
"It's so sad for these army wives because without a shadow of doubt, this [is] the poorest village in Siem Reap itself," said New Hope's Huntly.
"The only other village I have seen as poor, if not poorer, would be at Tonle Sap among the Vietnamese [community]."