It's evening, and I'm sitting at a long table somewhat participating in an English class while waiting for the principal to arrive. I ask the students how old they are. The girls across the table are 16, 15, and 16. The girls to my right are both 17. I receive a phone call from the principal, who can't make it due to the heavy rain. I decide to stay for a little bit longer anyway. After all, this is more fun than sitting on my hotel's balcony and performing yoga positions to try to pick up the faint Wi-Fi signal on my laptop. I look at the 5 girls sitting around the table, giggling at the question posed by the teacher, "If you had a friend who was a boy and you spent a lot of time with him, what would people think?" The girls squeal except for one, who matter-of-factly says, "Well people would think I have a boyfriend, of course.'' The conversation is a warm-up to the topic of the day's reading: socioeconomic relationships.
The next morning, Sophoes tells me we will go to the Ratanakiri provincial prison in the afternoon to speak to a new client. When we arrive at the prison, I ask why we never go in the mornings. I'm told that the prisoners don't have toilets in their cells, only bottles, and when they shower in the morning and empty their bottles it smells bad. I look around the prison yard. This is my third time here and it somehow always seems smaller in person than how I remember it. There are some chain link buildings with roofs, a little bar that looks like it sells toiletries, and people in blue uniforms using hammers to break bricks. It's hard to imagine that 200 people live here. Sophoes and I go into the wooden shack to talk to our client. He shows up as a silhouette against the blaring sun in the doorway and takes a seat behind the chicken wire. He looks scared. I am struck by how young he looks. As Mr. Sophoes writes down his information in Khmer, I notice the number ''17.'' "How old is he?"' ''He is 17.'' ''Why isn't he at the juvenile facility?'' ''There is only 1 prison.'' ''How old is the youngest prisoner here?'' ''15.''
I think about the girls at the school in the English class—giggling about boys, teasing each other, reading advanced English. I look at the boy in front of me. He is very tan, a sign of working on a farm all day. I wonder about his family. In Khmer culture, people will typically get married in their early to mid-twenties and move into the family home of the wife. If this boy is 17, he must still be an important source of labor for his mother and father and potentially sister and brother-in-law as well. I feel pity for him.
Later in the day, I hop on the back of Sophoes's moto for a 30 minute drive on the highway into the countryside to interview the boy's family about what happened. I'm glad Sokley, the administrative assistant at the office, suggested I wear long sleeves and pants because the wind on the highway is actually quite chilly. Sophoes is wearing his helmet because the red dirt gets kicked up by traffic on the highway, so I'm in my bicycle helmet. I'm not even sure it would do anything to protect my head if I fell off, but it's all I have. We both have our iPods in, but we still hear the ear-splitting blares of the horns from the vans and industrial vehicles as they pass us on the two-lane highway. The landscape is mostly rubber plantations and fields of charred stumps that will soon become rubber plantations. However, every once in a while there's a bit of undisturbed neon green landscape and it's breath-takingly beautiful.
We stop in front of a wooden house on stilts that looks like every other house we've passed since leaving Banlung. I get off the moto to allow Sophoes to guide it over the muddy trenches in the driveway. Walking forward, I am greeted by the pungent odor of pig sty. Sophoes and I take off our shoes and go up the steep staircase to sit on a mat on the balcony which has been laid out with 4 bottled waters and 4 straws for us. Sitting across the mat are a middle-aged woman who does most of the talking, an old man who keeps opening and closing a worn-out notebook, a younger woman who is breast-feeding, another young woman, and a young girl with one milky white eye. Two restless young men keep walking up and down the stairs. I notice the girl looking at me so I smile at her, and she smiles back. Sophoes explains who he is and what IBJ is and then asks the family to explain what happened. They talk. Sophoes translates. They are all very worried about their son and brother.
Some neighbors come over to offer support and their version of the story, including a woman who looks older than time itself. A young man carries her up the stairs and carefully places her on the mat. She wears the traditional Cambodian red and white checkered scarf around her weightless body. She opens her mouth filled with tar-black teeth to talk, occasionally stuffing more of a green leaf inside which she rolls around in her cheek. Her skin looks like paper and I try to picture her experience during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Was she a solider? Was she a victim? Short grey stubble adorns her head. I believe a shaved head is a sign of piety in the Buddhist tradition. Sophoes translates the facts of the case to me, but says that the family and neighbors say that they don't want to testify to the investigating judge because they are scared of retaliation from the police. I think back to the boy in the prison. I hope that his family and neighbors can find strength in each other to tell the judge the truth, despite the repercussions they anticipate from the police.
Seeing the 17- year-old girls giggling in the comfort and safety of their private school less than 24 hours before seeing the 17-year-old client looking lost in the prison made the experience all the more poignant. I cannot discuss the facts of the case, but I can tell that this boy and his family care very deeply about each other. I will follow the development of the investigation with rapt attention.