Srey Mao's story: The life of a mother in Phnom Penh

Srey Mao has been living in Phnom Penh since the age of 19 when she came from her mother’s house in the Cambodian Province of Svay Reang. Her father left the family when she was just four years old, forcing her mother to support them by herself. One year after coming to Phnom Penh, Srey Mao got married. Two years later she gave birth to a baby girl. Two years after that she began using heroin.

Srey Mao was introduced to heroin by a group of friends in Phnom Penh. Srey Mao says she uses heroin to forget her pain about her family. At around the same time, she also began using yama, a form of methamphetamine diluted or “cut” with a variety of other chemicals, which is very common in Southeast Asia. Soon after Srey Mao started using drugs, she sent her daughter to live with her mother in Svay Reang. That same year Srey Mao gave birth to her second child, a son.

Srey Mao became homeless as a result of forced eviction when the government decided to claim the land she was living on.This happened shortly after the birth of her son, but she was determined to keep him with her despite the circumstances. They began living in a temple, Wat Koh, where many of Phnom Penh’s drug users lived at the time.

Her husband was absent most of the time, showing up only sporadically. Srey Mao realized that was not the life she wanted for her son. She felt she was unable to give him the care he required and decided to give temporary custody of him to the orphanage Mith Samlanh.

She felt that with her son entrusted to the care of Mith Samlanh, she would be able to stop using drugs and transform her chaotic lifestyle into one that would better suit her children.

Subsequent to this decision, Srey Mao remained homeless. She relocated to Boeung Tra Bek. Boeung Tra Bek is a district of Phnom Penh now known for its widely available heroin, and the open-air injection of drugs that takes place there. Boeung Tra Bek also has a strong police presence. Srey Mao reports that arrests are common if the police feel they can get a large sum ($25USD) of money in exchange for release. The police also frequently extort money from Boeung Tra Bek’s residents, generally asking for 5,000 riel ($1.25USD) or demanding liters of gas to be bought for them, which are approximately the same price.

Srey Mao has been arrested by both the police and the Department of Social Affairs in the past. In four out of five arrests she was released to the care of an NGO. Her fifth arrest took place during a holiday and she did not have the option to call an NGO, as they were all closed. Srey Mao was brought to Oksas Knyom (“My Chance”), a drug treatment center operated by the military police. En route to Oksas Knyom, Srey Mao asked the reason for her arrest. She was told it was for “sleeping on the streets before a holiday.” Upon her arrival to Oksas Knyom, Srey Mao looked in terror at the 18-room compound. She was brought inside and locked in a room with 29 other people, no beds, no mosquito nets, and no toilet.

While there she received food twice daily, once at 10 a.m. and once at 4 p.m. These were also the times she was released from the locked room to bathe, use the bathroom, and get

Srey Mao did not receive any medication to lessen the physical discomfort of her heroin withdrawal. She also did not ask for medication, for fear of being beaten by the guards.

Srey Mao reports being beaten with sticks regularly during her time at Oksas Knyom. She states that the guards told her that their reason for beating inmates was so that they “learn not to use drugs and that being an injection drug user is disgusting and bad.”

Srey Mao said that an inmate was attacked by four or five guards and beaten for requesting medication. He was beaten to the point of unconsciousness and then dragged from the room and placed in a solitary confinement cell. Srey Mao explains that if the beating is severe enough to be fatal, the guards often remove the victim’s nearly lifeless body and dump it on the side of the road. This is done in an attempt to disconnect the guards from the murder.

On Srey Mao’s third day at Oksas Knyom she decided she had seen enough. Srey Mao escaped during the earlier of the twice-daily releases. She returned to Boeung Tra Bek a few hours later. Srey Mao says she would never consider returning to Oksas Knyom because she is terrified of being beaten, and the living conditions were horrendous. She feels Oksas Knyom is beyond the point of redemption, even with international assistance, and that it should be shut down for good.

Srey Mao expresses a strong desire to maintain abstinence from heroin, but feels without help she will be unable to stop. She has recently reduced her injection use by half, citing as reasons the latest increase in the price of drugs and her hopes for her children’s return to her care.

Srey Mao missed her son and decided to go to Mith Samlanh orphanage for a visit. Her agreement with Mith Samlanh had been that her son would remain at their Phnom Penh center and she would have the option to visit or regain custody of him at any time.

She arrived at Mith Samlanh and was unable to find her son. When she asked the center’s staff about his whereabouts they did not provide her with an answer. Staff told her they would send someone to Boeung Tra Bek the following day to speak with her. Two weeks passed with no word about her son.

Srey Mao returned to Mith Samlanh demanding answers. Staff told her that her son had been given to her mother-in-law in Battambang, a city four hours north of Phnom Penh. Srey Mao did not authorize this decision; in fact she was unaware of it until that moment. Srey Mao told the staff she wanted her child immediately returned to her so she could take him to live with her mother and daughter in Svay Reang. They refused. It has now been eight months since that conversation and all that Mith Samlanh has been able to show Srey Mao are three very out-of-date photographs of her son. She continues to actively pursue the issue and now has free legal representation provided by a local NGO.

Srey Mao still lives on the streets of Boeung Tra Bek and plans to discontinue her drug use, find employment and housing, and have her children returned to her care. Until then Srey Mao proves her determination and will in the case of her son, and continues to be an influential voice for drug users. Srey Mao is recognized among her peers as a natural leader who is able to maintain her pride and dignity, even in the most difficult times.

This story is taken from AT WHAT COST?: HIV AND HUMAN RIGHTS CONSEQUENCES OF THE GLOBAL “WAR ON DRUGS”

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