In April of 1975, after five years of civil war, Cambodia fell to the brutal regime of the communist Khmer Rouge.

Democratic Kampuchea, as it was then called, was cut off from the world as Pol Pot, the revolutionary leader of the Khmer Rouge, imposed his four-year reign of terror.

The death toll was close to two million people, one quarter of the country's population, at that time.

Elaine Harvey knew little about these staggering events until the autumn of 1979 when tens of thousands of Cambodians were fleeing to the border of Thailand, escaping widespread famine and the conflict between the defeated Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese forces occupying the country.

Humanitarian organizations poured in to the border areas, mounting one of the largest international relief operations of the twentieth century.

And that's how she came to write her memoir, Encounters on the Front Line, Cambodia: A Memoir (Promontory Press 2015).

Harvey had always been interested in world affairs, particularly in the developing countries. She'd been to Asia before and, as a nurse, she wanted to contribute to a better world, so without hesitation she signed up with the Canadian Red Cross for service on the war-torn Cambodian border, arriving for a six-month tour of nursing duty in February of 1980.

It was a distressing and disturbing time," she recalls at the outset of Encounters on the Front Line, "but also a time of inspiration and awe.

"Face to face with the aftermath of genocide, famine, torture and terror, I met a people as gracious as the lotus blooming in muddy waters."

Less than three months after returning to Canada, the Canadian Red Cross recruited her for another six-month mission, this time providing disaster relief for the nomadic population in the Horn of Africa. There she worked in the desert of Djibouti, a country of rock and sand, its people suffering from a severe drought.

"Witnessing the trauma of the Cambodian refugees," she writes, "as well as the rapid cultural transition to another disaster zone in the same year, resulted in my own emotional upheaval. A year of restless days and sleepless nights ensued.

"The insomnia eventually subsided and life resumed its course: marriage, family, studies, travel and work. Nursing continued to bring me close to the bone-working with poverty, trauma and suffering, in my own country, in my own small town.

"Why did I go to Cambodia? Was I playing out a childhood dream of exotic escape attached to a noble cause? Was I seeking some deeper meaning to life? Was I simply responding to a heart-breaking humanitarian crisis, hoping to make a difference?

"I did not fully understand the impact of the year in Asia and Africa until later in my life. I was not a victim of war, starvation or environmental disaster, but I was a witness. As a witness, I came to understand that front lines take a toll in our lives. They test how far we will go, how much we will give and how deep we will travel."

Harvey felt the haunting call of the refugee pleading not to be forgotten. The passion of her involvement remained etched on her heart. So nearly three decades later, she returned to Cambodia.

"I travelled many roads," she says, "volunteering in an orphanage and at an AIDS hospice...

"Cambodia was my teacher; my encounter as hard as shrapnel embedded in flesh, as soft as the fragrance of jasmine, and as perplexing as the beguiling smile of its people, the Khmer, offered so freely to foreigners, that seemed to say 'I am fine, sok sabay, despite all that befell our cherished land.'

"My journey was a pilgrimage, a quest of the heart, a longing: to meet the new face of Cambodia and honour the one that I left behind."

She plans a second non-fiction book about her experiences as a nurse in Djibouti further exploring the concerns of our common humanity and connections made in a disconnected world. "I was not a victim of war, poverty, or starvation," she writes, "but I was a witness. As a witness, I came to understand that front lines test how far we will go, how much we will give and how deep we will travel."


Encounters on the Front Line, Cambodia: A Memoir (Promontory Press 2015) ISBN 978-1-927559-66-6 , $19.99

[BCBW 2016]