Pean spent her childhood in the midst of Vietnam’s war, and her adolescence as a witness to its aftermath. She came to Phnom Penh, Cambodia from Vietnam at the age of 18. She and her mother were in search of work and a better life. Pean was married that same year.
Two years later she gave birth to a baby girl. Two years after that she became pregnant again right before her husband left for a business trip to Thailand. Her husband was murdered by his business partner in a dispute over money on the trip. The partner told Pean that Thai locals had murdered her husband. She never saw the partner or her husband again.
Shortly after, Pean delivered their second daughter. Pean spent the next 11 years raising her girls in Kandal, a province near Phnom Penh. She remarried in 2004 to her current husband, a heroin user.
The beginning of their marriage was stressful for Pean. They were constantly short on rent, or going without food so her husband could maintain his drug use. After two years of marriage, the couple found themselves expecting a baby. Pean hoped that with a baby coming, her husband would change his ways.
Eight months into the pregnancy nothing had changed. Pean caught her husband stealing from her stash of money more than once and was extremely angry. Her husband had a plan of his own to make her understand. Pean says her husband forcibly injected her with heroin several times a day. By the time she delivered their son she was hooked. When asked how she feels about her husband, Pean tells me “I hate him more everyday. What he did is unforgivable, and now our relationship is totally based on drugs. As soon as I quit I am leaving him.”
Pean tells me that there is nothing she likes about heroin. She feels her lifestyle and addiction forced her into the decision to give up her son for adoption. Her eyes fill with tears as she says, “I had a lot of friends before I started using, but they don’t want anything to do with me now. They judge me based on my lifestyle, they won’t even look me in the eye.”
Pean and her family were evicted from her apartment shortly after the birth of her son. She was unable to pay rent since now all of her money was going to buy drugs. She and her family began living on the street in Boueng Tra Bek. Soon after this move, Pean was arrested while talking to a fellow drug user on the side of the road. They gave her no reason for her arrest. They took her to Toul Supee, also known as Prey Speu. Pean describes it as “the jail for beggars;” the Cambodian government describes the three-month program as a reeducation camp for the homeless. She says she did not receive any education while she was there.
Pean began experiencing withdrawal symptoms on her first day at Toul Supee. When asked if she got any medication to lessen it, she says “I would have asked, but there was no one there to ask.” No guards? “There were no guards. Only the cow people.” Cow people? “Yes, the people who made sure no one stole the cows they had on the property.”
Further questioning revealed that Toul Supee is a military camp from the Khmer Rouge era that the Cambodian government turned into a reeducation camp for the homeless.
Ten people were kept in each room and made to sleep on the floor. “There were a few orphans, about five or six years old, and the oldest person was probably about 70,” said Pean.
Inmates were made to bathe in and drink from the same troughs as the cows. They were let out of their rooms once per day to bathe, drink, and eat. Pean reports that their only daily meal consisted of a tiny portion of uncooked rice and a small serving of rotten vegetables, sometimes containing worms.
On Pean’s second day there she was bathing and took longer than the cow guards felt she needed. Two female and two male cow guards beat her with 2x4 boards and dragged her back inside and locked her in a room. Medical tests conducted when she returned to Phnom Penh revealed her hand was broken and she had a severe lower back injury that still causes her to limp; both results of the beating.
A mentally ill man lies covered in his own excrement at Koh Kor detention center. Detainees were not screened for physical or mental health issues and had no access to medication or health workers.
Pean was in her room when she witnessed an inmate in her 40s hitting the walls, screaming and yelling, and demanding food and water. Three of the cow guards burst into the room and began beating the woman with sticks; they continued beating her until she was unconscious. After she was unconscious for a few minutes the guards poured water over her to wake her up; when she came to, they began beating her into unconsciousness again, then dragged her from the room, telling the other inmates they were taking her to the hospital.
Pean was terrified after witnessing this; she knew she could easily be killed in Toul Supee. She made the decision to escape. The following morning she climbed out the window, across the roof and jumped from the roof of the two-story building to the other side of the fence surrounding the property. She made her way toward town where she caught a motorcycle taxi. It was the moto taxi driver who told her about the woman’s body that was found that morning, beaten beyond recognition and dumped on the side of the road near Toul Supee.
Pean reflected on this information during her two-and-a-half hour ride back to Phnom Penh. Then she went to find some heroin. That was one month prior to this interview.
Pean used her participant stipend to secure an apartment. She is not sure how she will pay the $40USD monthly rent beyond this month. She currently works as a recycler, collecting cans and bottles from the street and selling them for three cents each to the local recycling center. She also plans to purchase an abjie cart, a large wheelbarrow-like cart made from wood and chicken wire, with which she will be able to collect more cans at one time.
Pean is trying to quit using heroin and has cut back from injecting four times per day, to injecting twice a day. She says she would quit completely, but she can’t sleep unless she is high and she always gives in to the effects of withdrawal. She says she plans to quit completely in one month. She wants to go to detox, but is too traumatized from her experience at Toul Supee to trust any government-run programs to help her.
Pean feels that once she quits using drugs, her self-confidence will increase, and she will be able to start a career and maintain her housing. Until then, she says she wants people to accept her for who she is and not look down on her because of her lifestyle or her past.
This story is taken from AT WHAT COST?: HIV AND HUMAN RIGHTS CONSEQUENCES OF THE GLOBAL “WAR ON DRUGS”