It happened when I was drinking in a bar one night in Sihanoukville. Seats emptied and expats, tourists, and Khmer staff descended into the street, attracted by the primordial sound of someone or something in pain. There were screams and boozy shrieks all the time on that road. But this was different somehow. They were in a tone that made the hairs stand up on the backs of our necks, and brought a fearful animal instinct into each and everyone one of us.
A Cambodian boy in his late teens was being viciously beaten by his mother and father. His father was screaming at him and punching him in the face. His mother was whipping his bare legs with a length of knotted rope.
The boy was hysterical, but for some reason barely flinched from the pain, which only spurred his parents on to more vicious assaults. The father kept grabbing him by the neck, screaming hate-filled words into his face, and then delivering spiteful, well-aimed jabs at his mouth and nose.
The crowd watched in a horrified, confused, but oddly fascinated silence. The boy kept shouting back the same words as he was hit. I asked Alin, the Khmer manager of the bar I was in, what he was saying.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He’s crazy.” She listened again. “He say something like you my mother and father, I cannot fight you…”
The boy stood there shouting and sobbing, holding his arms as far behind his back as the blows would allow. His mother whipped his legs again, leaving more red marks across his thighs. Not to be outdone, her husband throttled the boy and then punched him a few times in the face and stomach in quick succession.
Suddenly a Swiss expat called Eric – who was flying home the next morning after running a restaurant for five years in Cambodia, and had been drinking since 11am – brushed past us.
“I can’t see this,” he said.
He strolled across the road and put himself in front of the boy to protect him. The mother backed off slightly, but the father lunged again. Eric held his arms out to push the man back, and then gently nudged him up the street, shouting at him to stop.
There was movement from the house, and their largest son – a fat, acne-ridden manboy who must have weighed 100kg – sprinted towards the pair. He yelled as he ran towards them. It was like a war cry – high-pitched and filled with hate and evil intent, and a furious urge to restore the family’s loss of face at not being able to inflict more punishment on his younger brother.
He turned slightly, and I could see he was gripping a wooden truncheon, almost the width of a rolling pin. With the boy’s weight behind it, it was heavy enough to cave in a man’s skull and leave brain and foam on the gravel.
The crowd gasped in shock and utter horror at what they feared was about to happen. Well-thumbed phrases about time stopping still and slow motion replays don’t really do justice to terrible, stomach-gripping moments like that. The boy was now just a few yards from the back of Eric’s skull. It would be a horrible, cowardly blow. He raised the club and then stopped suddenly at the last second. The Belgian owner from the bar next door stepped forward, his hands clenched together as if praying.
“Eric, don’t get involved,” he pleaded. “This is Khmer…”
The father and son returned to the boy, who was still being whipped by his mother. Seeing them coming, he made a break for it and was chased into the house by his parents who looked hell-bent on inflicting further injury, but this time without prying eyes. The street fell silent, and the crowds eventually wandered back to their chairs to discuss what they’d seen.
“Only in Cambodia,” one retired English tutor was muttering.
Only the Khmer staff seemed unruffled by it. Alin said he was beaten in the street as a public humiliation so that everyone could see his punishment and to let people know his family had taken action over his undisclosed crimes.
But whatever he’d done, it was a dreadful thing to witness. I felt a sickness in my stomach, and a hollow feeling descended as I thought again about how violent human beings can be to each other. I’ll never know what the boy had done to deserve such punishment, and his family refused to discuss it, but his terror as he was being whipped and beaten by his own flesh and blood was awful to see.
Eric sat down at his bar stool, looking shocked and agitated, and slightly annoyed that no-one else had helped him. I don’t think he had any real notion how near he’d come to never leaving Cambodia.
The strength with which the son gripped that club a second before contact, and the madness in his eyes as he sought to restore the family honour, made me realise how easily Eric could have been killed, and the further bloodshed it would have sparked.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of physical punishment, let alone public punishment, there was something vile in the bullying savagery they inflicted on that boy, and the sheer terror they put in his heart. But for some reason it felt less terrible than the violence that so nearly came from stopping it.