Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 5

A serialised story of the judicial system and its processes in Cambodia. A work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to people alive, dead or locked up is purely coincidental.

We walk into the hospital, through the front door, in the middle of the building. To the left and right, there are corridors leading to wards, straight ahead a ramp, rather than stairs, lead to the upper floors. There is nobody around. The hospital looks new, but dated. A little worn, a little dirty with age rather than use – certainly not the normal filthy, stinking, piss-stained, run down and broken public buildings that you would normally see.

We walk up the ramp which has a gentle gradient, up a third of a floor then turn 90 degrees right, another third then turn right, another third and we are on the first floor – empty corridors, nobody. Silence. We climb two more floors to the third floor and then take the corridor to the right. We walk between hospital wards to the left and the right, each ward is full of brand new equipment – but no patients. Through glass doors I can see empty hospital beds, trolleys, chairs, screens and all kinds of stainless steel equipment – all wrapped in plastic, all unused.

Rendition, they are going to torture me, electrodes on the testicles or perhaps they will surf-board me before they double-tap me with a stainless steel hammer. I should have made the vig.

Towards the end of the corridor we finally find signs of life, prison officers standing guard, or in this case playing cards, outside a door built across the last 30m of the corridor. I finally figure out that this must be one of the UNTAC hospitals that had been built and staffed in the early 90’s but never used.

The wards used by the prison are a simple layout; on the right is a ward of women prisoners, mostly with young babies – born into captivity. To the left, a ward for male prisoners. Just off the central corridor, showers and toilets. I am escorted into the male section and showed to a bed. The ward is around 20m x 5m with a space of a meter between each bed. Through the window, there is a partial view of a red temple and a statue. I can see the city but it’s a strange angle.

The patients are a curious bunch, a very old Chinese or Taiwanese man, I guess in his 90’s. Old but healthy and lucid. Next to me, a Vietnamese man is the only prisoner sleeping on the floor, I quickly realise that he is blind and unable to walk. Beside him he has three small water bottles, one used as an ash-tray, one with drinking water and the last, half full of urine. Being blind, he uses his sense of smell to tell them apart.

In the bed opposite is a friendly looking Khmer, he has a surgical scar on his belly and everything below that point has wasted away to skin and bone. Next to him is a Bangladesh man, I had already heard of him, a terrorist, yet he is elderly and weak, his body half crippled by a stroke, he has friendly eyes. Certainly no Bin Laden.

These are the sick and the old. The other prisoners, around seven more, are healthy looking; perhaps slightly overweight but nothing that couldn’t be dealt with at the Prey Sar hospital – curious.

Apart from the spacious ward, one other benefit is immediately clear. There are visitors in the room, wives, girlfriends, family. It all seems very relaxed, most families have brought meals in metal containers plus fruit and drinks. Through the remainder of the day, I learn that the ward has a mixture of genuine sick people, plus some very rich people. If I am considered a VIP, these guys are the high rollers; whales.

The first problem I encounter is that there is no food or drinking water provided – your family is expected to bring that. The alternative is to ask a guard to bring food from a nearby restaurant. This is a nice change but sounds expensive. The problem however resolves itself as my girlfriend walks in with most of her family behind, each is carrying a small water bottle with a couple of sips taken and the drinking straw fallen back inside. This normally means one thing – vodka. I feel better already.

Over the next hour, my girlfriend arranges food and drinking water before she is told that she must go, it is 5:00PM and the sick people need to rest. Not knowing if my heart will see me through the night, I get hugs from the family and my girlfriend promises to return the next morning.

At 6:00PM the guards lock the door to the ward and the corridor, which also means that there is no access to the showers or the toilets until 6:00AM. I had already had a shower which means that the only problem is the toilet. The terrorist tells me that everyone uses water bottles – nice.

Then at 6:30PM, I hear the doors unlock and a guard arrives with a case of Angkor beer, he is followed by another man with three girls- average age 19, who stand in a line for inspection. One of the healthier patients, a fat guy with a serpent tattoo on his back, chooses the younger looking of the three girls and the other two are lead away. The first guard takes payment and leaves, locking the door.

The other healthy looking patients immediately start what looks like a well established routine. Beds are shifted, screens are moved and bed sheets are hung from the window bars and the ceiling. This creates a private sleeping area at the end of the ward. The problem of intimate noises is negated using a TV and a DVD player, which features many of my favourite karaoke tunes from Prey Sar.

But first, four or five prisoners plus one taxi girl must drink the case of Angkor beer – in a UN hospital ward with no toilets. I start to wonder if I am hallucinating – I take a swig of vodka, just to be sure. The elderly Chinese man stands up, wobbles a bit and then takes a noisy shit into a small green bucket – nobody else seems to notice. The terrorist is praying to the East as the Vietnamese man is about to drink a bottle of dog ends. I take another large swig of vodka and hand the remaining quarter bottle to the blind man who gives a thankful smile – now he has four bottles.

As the evening progresses the case of beer is replaced by water bottles full of urine and the wealthy Khmers compete with the karaoke to see who can make the most noise. The girl is taken by the tattooed man, to the private sleeping area. Despite the karaoke, I hear complaints from the girl throughout the night.

At first light the next morning, the prisoners start work on cleaning up. The sheets are taken down, the screens and beds moved back to the original positions. The Angkor cans are crushed flat using a brick and the bottles of piss are dumped into the rubbish bin. The door opens at 6:00AM and, apart from a young woman leaving, everything looks normal.

At 7:00AM, a man claiming to be a doctor arrives, the first I have seen since my arrival. In the ward is a bunch of elderly and sick patients plus another group who are now fast asleep. The doctor does his rounds, handing out a few vitamin pills and some paracetamol. All is well and he leaves after only 5 minutes. “Hey! What about me, my ticker is on the fritz. Code blue. Bring the cart. Doctor, 200mg multi-vitamins – stat!” – yeh, I’ve seen House.

At 10:00AM my girlfriend returns, this time she brings food and soft drinks for lunch. She tells me that the guard outside has taken $20 from her so she can stay the night. Of course, this is quite acceptable in practice and who am I to disappoint my girlfriend – its my duty. But the principle is something else. Here I am, a man with a dodgy ticker, detained under the suppression of human trafficking law and I am being pimped out by a police guard in a UN prison “brothpital”.

Meanwhile the Don has put a contract out on my life, because I didn’t go to his wedding – but first I must repay my debt pulling tricks for $20 a pop. How on earth am I going to sleep with all of this on my mind. Charged under the law for the suppression of human trafficking, I have spent my first five months held on pre-trial detention in a small Prey Sar prison cell, along with a cross section of the criminal underworld and the complete Hugh Hefner (directors cut) DVD box set. A donation of 50 reil to the directors wedding party, has been taken as a sign of disrespect. As a VIP prisoner, I am expected to make the vig, on request.

To show his strength, the Don has ordered a hit. But these are changing times, it is 2011, there are human rights NGO sand the good old days of a knock on the head with a silver plated Pol Pot anniversary hammer are long gone. This needs a different approach.

First, misdirection. The prison doctor has diagnosed a weak heart, the prognosis is touch and go, 50:50 at best. My only chance of survival is a transfer to a specialist off-site hospital, built and equipped in the 1990s by the UN and then forgotten.

Step two, bondage. I am to be held in a secret prison ward, where I will be pimped out by police guards, to my girlfriend, for $20 a trick, until the Don considers the vig repaid.

Step three, the hit.

To be continued.