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COMPASSION ATTACK

Today was a generosity day.

Today was a day to ease our collective conscience and give to the meek, the mild, the poor, the unfortunate, the homeless, the crippled et al; today was the day for the orphans – any orphans would do as long as they were poor and sweet and cute and bashed out some sweet, cute Cambodian songs with sweet, cute smiles on the poor, sweet, cute faces. They were orphans; tragic, maimed, unfortunate – or none of the above – actually, all that mattered was that they were children.

A compassion attack was upon us.

The passengers stumbled up the slope to the car park laden with plastic bags full of stuff. Orange racquets bulged out, soccer balls, pencils, erasers, exercise books, sweeties, toys, toothpaste, all bought in readiness for the great event. To greet us at the top, a pod of singing children. Quite where the singing children had come from was anybody’s guess. A school, an orphanage, a home – nobody cared. They less, the unemployed, the sick, the maimed and anybody else with their hand held out.

The children clanged out some Cambodian dirge while little orphan girls waved their arms around limply. A couple of the Australians were already in tears. Clang clang dance dance – ah-h-h-h-h went the foreigners, damply reaching for their wallets. Pol Pot’s orphan children dancing for their dreams. Ah-h-h-h. More than one soggy infidel trod that public path to genuflect before the altar box, bowing before those tragic babies. Clang clang, animated waving as the dollars dropped into that little hole.

‘Thank You!’ said the guilty box brightly.

‘Thank you,’ said all of the kids.

‘Thank you,’ said the man who scooped up the box, ‘thank you, thank you, ‘thank you!’

The day of conspicuous generosity had begun.

*

There’s an orphanage in Kampong Cham that I’ve become all-too familiar with; I’ve been watching it change for the last five years. Or rather, I’ve been watching it stay exactly the same. Only the children are different – in more ways than one.

As the bus rolled in through the gates it was evident our schedule was slightly askew. The children were hard at work hauling baskets of dirt from a huge pile just dumped by a truck, Tiny children wielded mattocks and shovels bigger than themselves, hacking away at the dirt, spreading it around a water-logged lawn, looking for all the world like Pol Pot’s peasant army.

The earth-moving detail rapidly dispersed, the tools disappeared and the child-laborers transformed instantly into sweet little orphan children, waving brightly at the incoming loot.

Tourists and their booty unloaded, the children assembled in front of a small auditorium of red plastic chairs, conveniently already laid out in rows. They look looking blankly at the enormous, smiling white things that had just appeared. Their director was hastily summoned. He arrived breathless and made the customary speech, translated dutifully by our Cambodian guide.

‘Our children are either orphans or have poor parents. Some are too stupid to work.’ The guide tapped his head. ‘Stupid…’ I think he meant retarded, backward, kids with learning difficulties.

‘We feed them and give them a home, send them to school and give them clothes…’

I could hear the collective ‘ah-h-h-h’ from the visitors.

Out came the shopping. Bags of bounty were piled high on a table in front of the children. Soon they almost covered the big white box with DONATIONS written in big blue letters on every side. The moment of conspicuous generosity had arrived.

*

Our Cambodian guide had seen it all before. He was professional, dutiful, but there was something about the blank look in his eyes that spoke volumes. He had been at pains, repeatedly, to tell the group that they could give their presents directly to the children. Beyond that, he was mute.

Taking their cue from the guide, some of the group broke into the booty, distributing cheap trinkets to the children. I watched as they thrust pencils into orphan hands, shoved little key rings with koalas, erasers, colored plastic balls at blank-faced children. It was an odd scene. There was no excitement in the kids, indeed, rather a lot of them seemed unenthusiastic, strangely unwilling to take anything. They were bored with it all, acting out their roles as unfortunates with stoic pride.

Strangely enough, I had a few questions. It wasn’t appropriate to ask them in front of the group so I’d arranged a private chat with the Director, accompanied by my translator, our guide. The guide was oddly enthusiastic about the meeting. He knew what I was doing. While we wandered and chatted the rest of the group were visiting the art room. Only two of them explored further than that. If they had, they would have seen exactly what I had seen, five years before. Nothing had changed. Nothing. There was not a toy in sight, not a soccer ball, not a bat; everything was clean, everything tidy – but there was no sign of life – just listless children, waiting for the next intrusion.

We were the third boat though that week.

*

Follow the money.

‘How much are the school fees?’ I asked with a broad smile on my face. I was intent on charming the Director. He was already wary of this alarming tourist. I knew he would clam up if he knew where my enquiries would lead. In this situation the technique is never to ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.

‘School is free,’ He mumbled, not very eagerly, then hastily added, ‘but we have to pay for books and uniforms…’

‘How many children?’

‘Ninety.’

I looked puzzled. There were a lot fewer than that in sight.

‘Some are at examinations,’ he added quickly, ‘some go to Phnom Penh, some go home…’

‘Where do they all sleep?’

‘Here,’ he said, pointing at a block of three rooms. Each room held twelve beds cramped hostage. Each bed was a raised white metal bed-frame, exactly the same as those at Tuol Sleng. On top of each bed was a timber platform in lieu of a mattress, each with a rolled up straw mat at the head and a wooden cupboard built into the base at the other end. Each cupboard was closed tight and padlocked. Each dormitory had that same chilling brown and grubby white tiled floor from Tuol Sleng. The rooms had open windows and a few scattered plastic chairs. A few scattered children not on show sat listlessly, staring at me staring in.

‘So what do the children do when they aren’t at school?’

‘They do art…’

‘You mean the art for sale over there?’

He nodded. In another block was a room hung with orphan paintings. Strangely, all the orphans painted exactly the same. The art-work was just like anything you might see in Saigon, mass-produced pictures of Asian houses, painted with a great deal more skill than one might expect from a group of children. Proceeds from the sales go ¼ to the artist, ¼ to the orphanage and half to a mysterious organization called ‘Global Children’.

‘And they make crafts.’

‘You mean the bags for sale in here?’

We were standing outside a dormitory, transformed into a gift-shop for the tourists. An array of bags and purses and bags and purses and bags and bags made from mass-produced cloth, doubtless from the silk-weaving village, jostled for space along a wooden table. It was exactly like everywhere, except it was sewn by orphans, somehow adding to its cachet.

He nodded enthusiastically.

‘And they do gardening,’

‘You mean the earth moving gardening just here?’

He nodded, explaining the problem with flooding at this time of year. As we talked another truck arrived and dumped a load of new dirt for Pol Pot’s army to ‘garden’ when we left.

‘So how many boats come every week?’

He hesitated. I jollied him along.

‘I hope many boats come, you are doing such good work. It must be very expensive.’

‘Five.’

‘Wow, that’s more than two hundred and fifty people a week. For forty-two weeks a year. Wow. How great!’ I smiled sweetly. ‘Do they all bring donations?’

He was loosening up. ‘

‘Not everybody,’

‘That’s a lot of pencils.’

He smiled.

‘And a lot of toys…’ I added, gesturing at the table groaning with today’s donations.

‘Yes, we get many things…’ He was looking stressed again.

I looked around. I still couldn’t sight a single toy.

‘You must have to look after everything very carefully. These children would break them…’

He nodded, relaxing slightly

‘What do you do with all of them?’

‘We keep them in the activity room.’

‘Oh, I’d love to see that.’

Glumly he led me across the quadrangle to a large house built on stilts.

‘Is this your house?’

‘Yes.’

‘It looks very nice. You should have a nice house. You are the boss. You are an important man.’

He led us under the house to a locked room. I continued the praise as he prised open the door.

‘My office,’ he said with a smile.

His desk was neat and clean, huddled in the one clear corner of the room; a large important red chair sat in front of closed blue curtains, a huge calendar taped to the wall, his pens and folders were arranged neatly on the glass-topped desk. He was a professional man.

‘How long have you been working here?’

‘A year.’

‘What happened to the last guy?’

‘I don’t know,’ he lied.

The rest of the room was piled high with treasure. The booty covered most of the available space and climbed in haphazard constructions toward the ceiling. Piles of exercise books four feet high filed one corner, around them thirty of so plastic bags crammed with magic markers, pencils, erasers, brightly colored picture books, plastic toys, balls, bats and god-only knows what else lay strewn across the floor.

We were only three weeks into the cruise-boat season and already the ‘activities room’ was close to bursting. So was my heart. Every single thing was taken away from these kids as soon as we left. Every toy, every pencil, every ball…

A table held two large globes of the world, hundreds and hundreds more pencils and pens, forty or fifty thick scrap-books in folders, containers of pencil sharpeners and erasers in clear plastic holders. A desk beside them groaned with more folders, another globe, fifty large boxes of Colgate toothpaste and more unopened plastic bags.

In the next corner I counted eleven soccer balls, a sack of plastic shoes, a large bag of sleeping mats and a pile of folded sheets of blue plastic laid on top of a mound of invisible generosity. Next to them were eight huge green sacks of rice.

‘Wow,’ I said, snapping as many pictures as I could, ‘you’re a very smart man. I see you rescue the toys from the children. Very smart…’

We left. I was silent as we drove back to the boat. I couldn’t bear to tell the other tourists just what would happen to their kindness.

As we headed down the road I whispered to the guide.

‘You know what I was doing back there…?’

He nodded sadly.

‘Someone has to know what is happening…’

*

In Kampong Tralach, a tiny village not all that far away, there’s a primary school Mr. Thomas once found. Heritage Line has established a ‘pro bono illiteracy project’ there. He intends to widen the project to a high school a few miles down the road.

Just three classrooms, just three teachers and, once a week, a boat-load of tourists.

There were a few presents left over from the farce the day before. I hung back, just as the group was clambering into ox-carts for a ridiculous hoof-parade through the countryside to a temple and a fruit-feast at one of the few temples left standing after Mr. Pot and his cronies had been through.

The teacher was opening the single plastic bag of goodies. One by one she took out each little packet of pencils, each eraser, each little book and held each item up for her class to see.

The squeals of delight brought tears to my eyes.

‘Whoaahhhh! went the children as five gaily decorated pencils in a packet were displayed.

‘Whaaa-a-a-h,’ they squealed as a picture book was opened out for everyone to see.

‘Wo-o-o-owwww!’ they shouted as a brightly colored pile of erasers fell onto her desk.

I couldn’t help but think we had our timing all wrong. Instead of sullen acceptance, here was joy – instead of cruel defeat, here was the power of giving. The conspicuous kindness was absent, the vulgar, self-serving charity was gone – all that was left was a classroom full of happy children and a tiny packet of pencils clasped in equally tiny hands.

The donor was nowhere in sight. He or she was trundling through town in an ox-cart, blissfully unaware of the joy their perfunctory gift had given, of the power of a pencil, the bliss of a book.

Can you hear it?

‘Wo-o-o-owwww!’

I still can.

*

Don’t spoil it. It’s a holiday, just a vacation. I loved going to that orphanage. All those little children, so sad. Did you see their little eyes when they saw that football on the table? Those boys couldn’t take their eyes off it. Did you get some good photos?’

‘So what if there’s a room full of toys? So they sell them and give the money to the kids. What’s the problem?

‘It looked like paradise to me. I’ve seen how these kids live at home. This is paradise.’

‘I just wanted to connect with those children…’

We see what we want to. Nobody ever does the sums – the fact is that they don’t want to. The issue is never what happens to the donation. The issue stops dead with the giving.

The act of charity is all that matters. It makes people feel good. It makes them feel even better if the recipients grovel and particularly if other people observe their magnificence.

This phenomenon is not restricted to tourists. The walls of Buddhist temples are lined with plaques detailing benefactors, Hindu temples have them painted on the wall. The buildings at the orphanage was decorated with plaques from the Republic of Korea Youth Volunteer Project, the art room graced with a huge sign; Global Children. People like to be recognized.

Pure ‘Christian’ charity, the kind that secretly helps and runs away, is notably absent. This is a show in which the donors are actors, the orphanage and children mere props. The audience is both here and not here – the real bonus is when you get back home.

‘Oh, yairs, we gave toys to the poor kiddies,’ Mr. Chris will tell his mates in a monotone, ‘brought ‘em a footy and a cricket bat, poor little bastards.’

‘Of course we made a donation,’ she said in a hushed, proper tone, ‘we like to give back…’

‘We’ve got it, why not give to the kiddies? We can afford it.’

But nobody ever says nothing.

Conspicuous generosity.

*

WHAT HAPPENED THEN?

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