After many talks, many home visits and a lot of encouragement, Loat Choat's family agreed to let her live with OBV. She was 10, but was no taller or bigger than a child of 6. Four months ago, she had bravely reported her father had been sexually abusing her for a year, and was now living with her uncle and aunt.
Like all other pieces of gossip, this event exploded across their whole district, and with the constant stream of officers and investigators prodding into her life, she started to retreat further and further. Her teachers and her friends worried for her. She looked more mature these days, the but her eyes remained filled with sadness. They ran back and forth across the pages of the books and notebooks we had given her while we spoke to her aunt. Her mother had passed away quite along time ago, leaving her and her father in squalid conditions.
Her father would get drunk all the time, and would beat her up. But he was not the only one to keep her oppressed. We tried to find out if she really was as loved and cared for, as her uncle and aunt had claimed. She started plucking at herbs, twirling them between her fingers, not looking at anyone. Through tears she told us how she was bulled by her cousins at home, had no friends at school, and was using outdated textbooks given by her cousins. She didn't have the English textbook because her uncle couldn't afford it, and was kicked out of class as punishment. I couldn't fathom how they could treat such a miserable in such a manner. What would her future be like?
Her grand-aunt sat with us and complained how much harder everyone had to work to raise her. Her uncle loved her, but was a full time drunk. Actually, raising her probably gave them more benefits, since she didn't eat much, had free schooling, took care of her younger cousins and household chores, and was given a bit of welfare money. Because of the welfare money they received, they denied any monetary gifts we wanted to contribute, saying they already had everything they needed. Mind, they paid careful attention to us, to see if we would give money to the child (and if we did, the money would be in their purses in the next minute), or to persuade her to leave her family.
We all went to her school to place deposits for her text books, after her grand aunt and aunt separated her from us by asking her to move to another room.
And that image of Loat Choat, a studious little girl, lonely in the wild mountainous village, haunted us the entire trip back to the city.
Jan 22, 2017
Translated by Jacqueline Huynh and Mr. Phung. The orignal version in Vietnamese entitled "Lỡ Một Chuyến Xe Có Khi Nào Là Lỡ Một Cuộc Đời"