Back and Busy in Battambang

What is International Bridges to Justice?

At this point I've realized that I haven't laid out exactly what IBJ does, so here is a quick synopsis. IBJ's founder, Karen Tse, created this organization with a big but imperative goal: to eradicate torture, and specifically its use as an investigative tool in pre-trial detention. During the Khmer Rouge just a few decades ago, Pol Pot's regime systematically killed millions of Cambodian people, and he focused specifically on those of higher learning. Thus, entire generations of lawyers were killed  leaving Cambodian people with little to no legal aid in the years that followed. On the ground, IBJ functions mainly as a provider of free legal aid to those accused of crimes, and more specifically those who have been tortured while being detained. We often find clients by visiting the prisons, but over the years IBJ has also built up a significant relationship with the court clerks, who will refer clients to our office. Aside from these methods, IBJ maintains a hotline for potential clients to call, produces radio ads, and conducts Street Law sessions in rural communes to increase legal awareness and acquaint people with our services should they ever be in need of legal defense. It is clear to me that the work Karen Tse started here in 2006 has had tangible benefits, as torture appears to be on a steady decline in this country and more and more accused are aware of their rights to legal defense and know to come to IBJ when they need it. Hopefully, that gave you a better understanding of what exactly IBJ's purpose is, but if you would like more information please visit this link: or watch Karen Tse's Ted Talk below:

As for work this week, I've been spending time on one of my main tasks as a legal intern here, which is gathering Success Stories from clients who IBJ has helped, either by acquiring an acquittal, a sentence reduction, a dismissal, or bail. (To see why a successful bail application can be vital for a detainee, check out this article on IBJ's Blog: 0/%E2%80%9Cso-now-my-family-can-eat%E2%80%9D-the-impact-of-a-bail-application/).  I've taken two trips this week to visit Sopheak*, a 17-year-old boy who was falsely accused of rape after a night out with friends. Because Sopheak was referred to IBJ early on by both a court clerk and a neighborhood friend who attended one of IBJ's Street Law programs, he was not detained longer than the 6-month period mandated by the Cambodian Criminal Code (unlike many other detainees). However, for the 3 to 4 months that he was detained, he was kept in a 4 by 4 meter cell with twenty other minors where both food and sleep were hard to come by. In my conversations with Sopheak and his family, this detail shocked me the most. While the prison system in the U.S. is far from perfect to say the least, it is hard to imagine twenty children being locked up in such conditions for months while they await trial. After my meetings with Sopheak, I spent the rest of the week working on writing up my case report and blog post for IBJ's HQ in Geneva (full story here), and attended Kalyan's (the lawyer assistant's) birthday dinner on the riverside.

Finally, this weekend I decided to  take a tuk-tuk tour around Battambang - which ended up leaving me even more in love with Battambang than I am with Siem Reap. It started off with a visit to the Bamboo Train. Basically the "train" is an engine-powered bamboo platform on two barbells that flies down some tracks left over by the French colonial period. Probably not the safest thing I've ever done (sorry Mom) but definitely a must-do if you come to Battambang.(I included some video I took while on the train in the clip below!) Following that, I toured an old Khmai house which was used by the Khmer Rouge, walked over a very high suspension bridge, and visited Cambodia's first winery for a tour and a wine tasting. Next, my tuk-tuk driver Odom and I had a quick lunch of fried rice, during which he told me that he had lived in a Thai refugee camp for 13 years during and after the Khmer Rouge. Upon his arrival back in Cambodia with his mother, they searched for his father and siblings but were never able to find them. Sometimes it is easy to forget just how recently the Cambodian people endured this tragedy, but speaking to any middle-aged or older person about those years will quickly provide you with a stark reminder. 

After lunch, Odom informed me that I had to climb the 358 steps we were sitting by in order to reach Wat Banan, an 11th century temple even older than Angkor Wat, that is nonetheless known as its miniature version. Trekking up those steps  was pretty difficult, and it did hurt my pride slightly as kids kept surpassing me, but once I was at the top I was blown away. Personally, I found this temple even more fascinating than Angkor Wat, and the view from the mountaintop was nothing less than amazing. Following this, Odom took me to another mountain to visit a pagoda covered in beautiful paintings, which was used as a prison during the Khmer Rouge. A little farther up the mountain we arrived at the Killing Cave, where prisoners were killed by being pushed into the cave through a hole in the top. Yet another stark reminder of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. I did not take any photos inside of the cave as it just didn't feel appropriate, but outside of the cave is a painting depicting the killings which I have included below. 

Killing Cave Painting

The day continued with a visit to some ornate temples on the top of the mountain accompanied by some more spectacular views. Finally, my tour ended with the "Flight of the Bats." After you descend from the mountain, you are able to see a giant cave with 2-3 million fruit bats flying around. Once 4:30pm rolls around the bats begin to fly out on their hunt for fruit, and Odom took me out onto an open road so that I could see them flying over the fields. As cliche as it sounds, the only was to describe their flight is like a ribbon in the wind. They fly together in one long chain floating through the sky - and while my trusty 8-year-old camera was unable to capture it, I've tried to include a few photos in the slideshow of my day exploring Battambang below to give you a sense of what it looks like. (Or, you can always see more photos here:

Sorry for the long post, but I had so many great experiences this week that I wanted to share! I'll try to keep next week's post shorter.

*Name changed for client's privacy.