Thicker than Blood

Orphans of Cambodia’s AIDS epidemic form their own loving family

| July-August 2008

The Wat Opot community is in rural Cambodia, tucked amid rice fields and villages, about an hour south of Phnom Penh. I am going there to join a group of children and adults who came together to find the safety, love, and acceptance that many of us long for in our natural families.

I’ve come as a volunteer from the United States to live with children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic that has raged in the country since the 1990s. The infection rate here is among the highest in Asia: some 130,000 out of a population of 14 million. Approximately one-third of new cases are among children born to HIV-infected mothers. Interventions that can virtually eliminate transmission to newborns exist, but only some 30 percent of mothers deliver in health care facilities.

Arriving at Wat Opot, dusty from my travels and apprehensive, I am greeted first by Mr. Tia. He is 8 years old. He runs out from the crowd of children, with an enormous toothless grin, and throws his arms around my knees. My heart is his. My uneasiness vanishes. The children help me unpack and settle in, fascinated by my First World necessities, searching my bundles and pockets for toys and candy.

After dinner, everyone walks slowly toward the pa cha, the crematorium, for the brief memorial service that is held there every evening. Back in Phnom Penh, I visited Tuol Sleng, the prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured thousands during the Cambodian genocide. The faces of the lost stared back at me from walls covered in grainy prison photographs. Here, the walls also are covered with portraits, but instead of prison numbers, there are people’s names and the dates they perished of AIDS. And here are stories, remembered and retold, because the dead are family to the living.

Wayne Dale Matthysse, cofounder of Wat Opot, can tell you the story of each portrait, such as that of Mr. Phoung Sokha, the village carpenter who built the crematorium, not yet knowing he had AIDS, and became one of the first cremated here. Wayne nursed all of these people during the last days of their illness. After they die, he salvages whatever image is available, sometimes only a tiny photo from an identity card, and creates a memorial portrait to hang in the crematorium’s family room. He says the work gives him time to meditate on the life of each patient who dies. It is his final loving service to those he has tended in life and in death.

The photos on the wall of the pa cha are only some of the faces of the AIDS epidemic. All around me are the others: children either orphaned or infected by the virus. My new friend, Mr. Tia, sits close. He arrived four years ago, a stowaway in the ambulance that carried his mother. She had been bound and beaten nearly to death. When the attendants opened the doors, out jumped a skinny little boy with no front teeth. The ambulance was gone before Wayne could find out what village they came from. The boy’s mother died the next day, so Mr. Tia came to live at Wat Opot.