In 2012, New Zealander Marnie Walters was working in Cambodia managing communications for the Cambodian Children’s Trust. Returning to Battambang City after visiting isolated families in Prey Veng province, her vehicle was involved in a terrible accident. This is the second part of her story about what happened. It continues from Part One, which you can read here.
Glowing in the centre of the scene, the two crushed cars illuminated each other with their headlights, but the surrounding countryside was vast and dark. There were no flashing lights of salvation, no emergency services to call. I examined my phone again and could now make some sense of it. I must have made over fifty calls sitting there, first to New Zealand, then to nearby Battambang, but it was late and for so, so long, nobody answered. When one of our social workers finally picked up, my tongue turned heavy and clumsy in my mouth.
“Bub-bub-bub-bub-bub-” I burbled. “Bub-bub-bub.”
As hard as I tried, I could not convert thoughts into recognisable sounds. I had to hang up. Eventually, I managed to send a text to my friend Erin, a message that I would take back if I could. We had a horrible car crash. People are dead. Please call me. After reading that text, Erin rushed to find help and nearly came off her motorbike in panic.
After an immeasurable amount of time, a familiar face appeared in the darkness. Mia (one of our team) walked towards us, frowning at the limp baby. My incoherent babbling had somehow got through to him. Knowing our route home, and realising that something terrible had happened, Mia had jumped in a van and driven thirty kilometres until he found the crash site. Some local police also arrived. The surly officers who swaggered over to ask a few mumbled questions and to scrawl our details in a notebook seemed to frighten Buffalo and Jedtha. There was nothing reassuring about their presence.
To get to Mia’s van we had to walk around the crumpled cars and past bodies lined up on the grass verge. I hadn’t seen dead people before and baulked at the sight of them, arms stiff in front of their faces, hands outstretched, mouths agape, frozen in their final moments of fear. The grass was wet with blood and one woman’s brain was visible. That night and in the following days five people died. The other car had contained a Cambodian family on their way home from a wedding. Their heavily intoxicated driver had veered off the road, over-corrected and swung into our path. We had collided head on. Both vehicles had been travelling around 80 km/h. In their small, cheap car and without seatbelts on, they didn’t stand a chance. I didn’t see it happen, but their driver, with both legs badly broken, dragged himself up the road and was whisked away in another car, avoiding a potential lynching.
“Buffalo,” I said. “I can’t – I don’t want to – I can’t walk past them, I don’t want to look at them…”
“It’s okay. I’ll take you. Close your eyes.”
Shattered glass was sprayed across the road.
“I haven’t got my shoes, Buff,” I whimpered.
“Me neither,” he replied and he took my hands. “Close your eyes.”
Then, barefoot, Buffalo walked me through the carnage, over the broken glass and past the bodies, carefully leading me to the waiting van. We clambered in and set off in a rush toward Battambang City. With my useless arm limp at my side I struggled with my seatbelt, a loose lap belt which I couldn’t tighten with one hand. My stomach throbbed harder now. We sped through the dark. My heart beat faster and faster until I felt it might burst.
“Please,” I whispered, “please can we slow down?”
To my relief everyone in the van cried out in agreement and we slowed. As we made our way in silence into Battambang City, the baby began a loud, beautiful, living cry.
Battambang Province had no adequate public hospital equipped to treat serious trauma. The nearest real hospital was in Phnom Penh, over a six hour drive away. So we drove to a small, scruffy medical clinic where we found almost our entire team waiting to wrap us in their arms. The medical attendants X-rayed and examined us cursorily in damp shabby rooms. Then they informed us that they didn’t have the keys to the medicine cupboard at night but they could offer injections of morphine. With little faith in the clinic’s hygiene practices, we politely declined. It seemed there was nowhere to go but home.
Erin took me back to her apartment. We had no painkillers until the pharmacy opened in the morning but she made me as comfortable as possible on her bed. The adrenaline began to wear off and was replaced with pain the likes of which I had never known. Sharp chest and shoulder pain. Blinding neck pain that lit up the room a hot white colour. A deep, pulsing ache within my rapidly purpling lower abdomen. The seatbelt had torn skin from my hips and my tailbone had been crushed against the seat. Terrified I had a spinal injury, organ damage or internal bleeding, I didn’t sleep that night. By the morning I was unable to sit up, turn or use my arms. My entire body was wrenched, swollen and bruised. Erin nursed and comforted me with a soothing voice and good humour, though I could see through her cheerful front.
The following day Erin’s phone rang. An Italian medical NGO had offered to assess us. I was taken to Handa World Mate Emergency Hospital, the only hospital in the province equipped to treat serious trauma. Treating half of Cambodia’s landmine victims, HANDA’s purpose is to provide free care for the poor, while training Cambodian health care professionals.
I was admitted for further X-rays and was privileged to spend a week in their intensive care ward. A huge clot of blood filled my swollen lower stomach. Although I had cracked my sternum, dislocated my tailbone and torn muscles in my shoulder and neck, I have never felt my health and good fortune more acutely than during my time in that hospital.
On the first day, I needed to contact my family and friends overseas so I asked a nurse if it would be all right to use use my laptop to access the internet. “Will that interfere with any equipment?” The nurse responded shyly that they didn’t really have any equipment.
It took me days to fall asleep after the crash despite heavy doses of pain relief and sedatives. Out in the hallway, a door to outside swung in the breeze. It would creak slowly open, then every few minutes crash shut with a metal bang that sent a wave of twitches though my body. Every crash echoed the car accident. Again and again: creak … creak … BANG! After hours of this, a young Khmer nurse came to check on me.
“Is it possible please,” I asked. “Could the door could be propped open to stop it banging?”
“I’m very sorry, but the door is not allowed to be kept open.”
He kindly closed the door properly. Five minutes later somebody came through the door and left it open again. The creak … creak … BANG resumed. I put my sheet over my head and for the first time since the accident I cried. I cried fat, hot tears. I sobbed with insane howls. My cheeks burned. Here I was, surrounded by people who had faced some of the hardest challenges imaginable and I was bawling my eyes out over a creaky door. Later that afternoon I was given an injection of tranquiliser and finally I slept.
Over the following days I drifted in and out of a heavily sedated sleep, but received many lovely visitors. I would blurrily wake to find my friends and colleagues watching me, stroking my face, brushing my hair. Once, after they’d gone, I noticed with a lump in my throat that they’d left me a bag of apples. Apples were a costly import, and I smiled at their consideration of what a foreigner might most want to eat.
It was a rare occurrence for a foreigner to be a patient in the hospital. I was deeply aware of this. Every few hours, kind strangers would come to see me: staff of the hospital, other patients. Some came just to peer shyly into the ward, others offered a brief hello, and some stayed longer. An elderly security guard sat with me for hours after his shift had finished. He told me of his life and his family, and asked me many questions about the work our organisation was doing with poor communities. Before leaving he looked at me, his eyes watering.
“Thank you for coming here to help my country.” His voice cracked.
The guard pressed his palms together and bowed deeply before leaving. My chest ached unbearably and it was not my fractured sternum.
Across from me in the ward was a wee boy about five years old, his little leg in a cast from hip to toe. His father never left his side. Days passed without a cry or complaint from the boy. One long afternoon I set the two of them up watching Disney’s Fantasia on my laptop. Father and son sat captivated by the film while I drifted away on my next dose of tranquilisers. The nurse later told me that neither had ever seen a computer before.
Once I was recovered enough to move, my travel insurance arranged for my return to New Zealand. Before I left, I sat with Buffalo on Erin’s balcony. We shared a final beer and reflected on what we had survived together. We whispered the horrors. We sang the praises of the seatbelts which had saved us. We marvelled that the baby from our car had survived with only severe bruising. Nobody had thought she would make it through the night.
Badly bruised, and nursing broken ribs and a damaged shoulder, Buff’s heart was breaking for the little girl he’d held in her final moments; he had a daughter almost the same age.
“I want to give you something Buff, I want to thank you for looking after me in the crash. Where I come from it’s something very special and I hope it will keep you safe.”
I slipped the greenstone from around my neck. It glowed bright in the strong Cambodian sun. Buffalo pressed the stone between his hands in gratitude and immediately put it on, blushing with respect for the gesture. We bowed our heads to each other, smiled through our tears and finished our drinks – sore but alive.
Marnie Walters is a Dunedin-based writer whose work focuses on creative non-fiction and memoir. She completed a BA in English, minoring in Writing, at the University of Otago in 2010 and has since worked in communications in the not-for-profit sector. Marnie is compelled by the power of storytelling to connect worlds, foster empathy and create change.