"There are countless untold stories of witness after a genocide. Few can summon the stamina to tell them. What is it like to work in a refugee camp of 100,000 traumatized people, to be part of an international community trying to respond to war, to atrocity? What does it mean to try to make sense of such human tragedy thirty years later? Elaine Harvey's Encounters on the Front Line is the compelling answer to these questions, her story well and passionately told. To read this book is also to witness to our times."

--Kim Echlin, author of The Disappeared, a Giller Prize finalist

 

“Cambodia is a country that punches you in the face”, a friend tells her. And Elaine Harvey delivers her own resolution. Encounters on the Front Line is a narrative rooted in the filth and depression of refugee camps; yet, like the wild lotus that I saw growing in culverts outside Phnom Penh, there is a blossoming of understanding, compassion, wisdom. This is a book to read in small measures to understand the vast magnitude of the human heart.

--Terry Ann Carter, author of Day Moon Rising, president of Haiku Canada.

Powerful and poignant, intimate and insightful. Encounters is a very powerful and a very personal book about a Canadian nurse’s experiences working among Cambodian refugees at the Thai-Cambodian border in 1980, and on two subsequent visits to Cambodia as a volunteer and tourist.The first section deals with Harvey’s work as a Canadian Red Cross nurse in Cambodian refugee camps on the Thai border. Surrounded by mud and mayhem, with inadequate supplies, colleagues who often didn’t share a common language, and eager but untrained staff made up of volunteers from among the refugees themselves, Harvey found herself dealing with everything from malaria to broken bones to traumatic battlefield injuries caused by artillery shells or land mines. People died. Some died in Harvey’s care or in her arms while she comforted them as their lives slipped away. Her very personal accounts of these incidents are wrenching, riveting, and very human. Harvey is no detached observer here, but a deeply involved participant who survived, but was forever transformed.

 

The rest of this remarkable book deals with her subsequent visits to post-war Cambodia itself in 2007 and in 2009. She traveled around the country, but also volunteered at the Wat Opat orphanage for children living with HIV and worked for a bit with the American Buddhist nun Beth Goldring at hospices and homes for those living with terminal conditions such as cancer or AIDS. Harvey practiced “healing touch,” a method of giving comfort and renewed strength of spirit to the dying.In this intimate account, Harvey pulls no punches. She details personal relationships that were sometimes wonderful and enriching and sometimes confusing, complicated and painfully unresolved or broken.This book is a useful introduction, on a very personal level, to Cambodia today. The careful reader will learn a great deal about Cambodia’s recent history and current culture as the Khmer people struggle to deal with the unfathomable trauma that continues to shape them. This is also an account of what it means to be of service and to be fully exposed to the people around us.

 

[Full Disclosure: Elaine is a personal friend and I am mentioned briefly in the chapter on her visit to Mondulkiri, where I live in retirement after working in support of humanitarian projects in Cambodia for more than thirty years.]

--Bill Herod, Human Rights Worker, Cambodia

"This book offers a first-hand account of Harvey's experience with the Canadian Red Cross after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1980. She worked in refuge camps with 100,000 displaced and traumatized people. You learn about the extreme risks and rewards of this work, and what it's like to be in war-torn and post-war Cambodia. There are tragic tales of loss and grief as well as touching accounts of healing, friendship and bonding. Harvey also profiles other inspiring people who have found different, meaningful ways to provide relief to Cambodians. I found this book riveting, enlightening, and brimming with perspective on what life is like in the trenches, literally. Harvey writes with great honesty, passion and clarity. She is a brave, compassionate soul."

--Woody Wheeler, author of Look Up 

 

"Wow!!! I have just finished Encounters On The Front Line and it is a captivating piece. The story is divided into three sections and I will comment on each. 

Book I is powerful in all respects—emotion and language, societal and personal, poetic yet factual—the suffering, the evil, the efforts at counter balance. It is at once, depressing and uplifting. People have become aware of the Pol Pot regime’s butchery in Cambodia and many have heard of the Killing Fields, but do people understand the extent of the danger and the sorrow which followed?

In Book II the pace changes, which is a good thing as the first part keeps the reader on the edge of a knife. It is about the writer’s going back. Life unfolded as it normally does and there was a time between the first and second encounter. Events that truly mark us require assimilation and this, generally, is not an overnight process. It shows us the war might seemingly be won, but things are far from stable, that there remains a surfeit of poverty and inadequate health care and politicians bereft of compassion. The Front Line has simply shifted. There are more encounters. There is so much healing required.

Book III is about another effort. While maintaining its focus on need and those who strive to meet these requirements in the most tenuous of circumstances, it also dangles the possibility that spiritual gains can be made even in such a difficult environment—it's conclusion being the pebble in the pond and the ripple effect.

Encounters On The Front Line is important. Words are carefully chosen, poetic insights (which are astoundingly beautiful) demand introspection. Many sentences which tie together sentiment are poignant. Encounters On The Front Line will not soon leave me."

-- Randy Kaneen, author of In Search of Sticks

"This book offers a first-hand account of Harvey's experience with the Canadian Red Cross after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1980. She worked in refuge camps with 100,000 displaced and traumatized people. You learn about the extreme risks and rewards of this work, and what it's like to be in war-torn and post-war Cambodia. There are tragic tales of loss and grief as well as touching accounts of healing, friendship and bonding. Harvey also profiles other inspiring people who have found different, meaningful ways to provide relief to Cambodians. I found this book riveting, enlightening, and brimming with perspective on what life is like in the trenches, literally. Harvey writes with great honesty, passion and clarity. She is a brave, compassionate soul."

--Woody Wheeler, author of Look Up 

 

"Wow!!! I have just finished Encounters On The Front Line and it is a captivating piece. The story is divided into three sections and I will comment on each. 

Book I is powerful in all respects—emotion and language, societal and personal, poetic yet factual—the suffering, the evil, the efforts at counter balance. It is at once, depressing and uplifting. People have become aware of the Pol Pot regime’s butchery in Cambodia and many have heard of the Killing Fields, but do people understand the extent of the danger and the sorrow which followed?

In Book II the pace changes, which is a good thing as the first part keeps the reader on the edge of a knife. It is about the writer’s going back. Life unfolded as it normally does and there was a time between the first and second encounter. Events that truly mark us require assimilation and this, generally, is not an overnight process. It shows us the war might seemingly be won, but things are far from stable, that there remains a surfeit of poverty and inadequate health care and politicians bereft of compassion. The Front Line has simply shifted. There are more encounters. There is so much healing required.

Book III is about another effort. While maintaining its focus on need and those who strive to meet these requirements in the most tenuous of circumstances, it also dangles the possibility that spiritual gains can be made even in such a difficult environment—it's conclusion being the pebble in the pond and the ripple effect.

Encounters On The Front Line is important. Words are carefully chosen, poetic insights (which are astoundingly beautiful) demand introspection. Many sentences which tie together sentiment are poignant. Encounters On The Front Line will not soon leave me."

-- Randy Kaneen, author of In Search of Sticks

This honest and poignant memoir is Elaine Harvey's testament to the beguiling and tragic Cambodia. Her first experience in a refugee camp with the beleaguered Khmer people is in 1980, as a nurse for the Red Cross after the Khmer Rouge uprisings in the time of the infamous Pol Pot. In the border camps she treats unspeakable injuries and illness, working under conditions that can only be imagined.

 

In spite of the best medical efforts of their team, the aid workers watch, heartbroken, as people die-- a beautiful young woman, an old man, victims of a cruel regime. Saddened, shell shocked and exhausted, Harvey perseveres through love and loss, watching mothers without children, children who are starving and deteriorating working conditions. Her group is evacuated from their clinic that they had been working in as it was burnt down by warring factions.

 

But there are bright spots: working relationships with her colleagues, cherished friendships and even love are forged in this crucible. “A girl, about four years old, her bare feet crusted with red mud, spills the milk down her tattered pink dress, attracting flies. I lift her on my lap and we rock back and forth. She doesn’t smile but her little heart beats against my breast. She is nameless, maybe motherless; all I know is I want to take her to Canada, give her a home, food, safety, and most of all, love…she is swept into the arms of the French doctor, over and up into the truck, on her way, her heart still beating next to mine.” (p. 64)

 

Like this little girl whose heart beats next to her, Cambodia’s heart beats next to Elaine Harvey’s, even when she has returned home. 25 years later, Cambodia calls her back. Harvey hears about Partners in Compassion, which runs an orphanage. She goes to help as a nurse, but her efforts are challenged. These things are complicated and so is Cambodia. In a way, this is the soul of the book.

 

Harvey wants to reach out, now with nursing, next with healing touch “…to reach out, not just with touch but with words, is the bridge I want to cross.” But long term change and healing is not always possible as she navigates her way around the broken yet vibrant country.

 

In the author’s third visit she focuses more on travel and writing as she encounters people on the front lines and attempts to define her own front line. The writing is emotionally compelling. Cambodia is painted vividly and Harvey’s reactions, both joy and bewilderment are visceral. “…a land where sorrow falls like monsoon rain.” p. 163.

 

For this reader I would have liked to hear more of Harvey's reasons for going to Cambodia, the catalysts that drove her and her relationship with her own country. Aside from these questions, reading Encounters on the Front Line was to experience a little of the heartbeat of Cambodia next to mine. An intriguing read!

--Rose Seiler Scott, Author of Threaten to Undo Us

"This pilgrimage to Cambodia is a moving tale of intrigue, terror, amazement and humility! Harvey’s thoughtful, honest and insightful reflections are beautifully and poetically written."

--Bev Worbets, RN and Healing Touch Instructor

 

Encounters on the Front Line is a passionate, graceful book that stays with you over time. I highly recommend this book to people thinking of traveling to Cambodia or to people who seek a vicarious adventure to a vibrant land: Cambodia: the land of smiles and sorrows.

--Charlotte Harvey, Teacher

 

"Ernest Hemingway's great short story, "In Another Country," speaks in a very understated manner of the horrors of war, from the setting of a hospital near the front. There is a great deal of Hemingway's style in this same setting, in Encounters on the Front Line, as Elaine Harvey deftly and kindly understates much of what she saw in Cambodia, as she tended to the sick and injured both during the terrible border wars there at the time of the fall of Pol Pot and later when she returns to recapture what it was that compelled her to originally go to this country and its beautiful people. We are spared the details but her gentle prose evokes our sympathy and our imagination.

 

But perhaps the more soaring moments are when her personal voice breaks through and we hear the strains of her heart as she begins to let us know what might be the source of her sympathy and her compulsion to help and to heal. Perhaps there is something in her motivation that may be a sense of duty or of work more than a desire to change the world. It is touching in its simplicity and elegance.

 

As we begin to get a feel for this work, this woman and this place, it is the understated nature of her story that begins to open the larger, very human and humane, questions. Why do she and the best friend nurse companion of her first trip not remain in touch once they return to Canada? And, why upon her return do the successive healing missions she voluntarily undertakes, in order to establish a more meaningful connection, come to rather abrupt ends. What makes her attracted to the stoically private Italian doctor?

 

Again, we come back to that way in which Hemingway invites each of us as the reader to begin to find his or her own answers. This is one of the strengths of this remarkable book, that we are not given the author's excuses or explanations. We are left with our own humanity on these and other questions, just as we were in filling in the blanks of the story's horrors. This is simply very good writing. Read this book, not only as a description of a time and place that was very significant in the recent history of the world, but also as a touching and evocative memoir that never overstates or belabors."

-- Gerald Weaver, Author of Gospel Prism

"This is a very well written memoir and an intimate picture of a Cambodia and its people. Harvey’s poetry and photographs add both variety and depth to the work, as they further the reader’s connection to the memoir beyond the power of prose."

-- Chanticleer Book Review

 

The year is 1980. Years of civil war, the brutal regime of Pol Pot, the Vietnamese occupation, and starvation have claimed the lives of 2 million Khmer people - one of the greatest human tragedies of our time. Author Elaine Harvey’s book, Encounters on the front line Cambodia: A Memoir, is a historically accurate, thought provoking account of her front line experience as a young nurse working with the Canadian Red Cross in the Cambodian refugee camps.

 

Harvey holds nothing back. Her writing chronicles the formidable challenges of working in primitive conditions, lacking sanitation and basic supplies, often in life-threatening circumstances. Her feelings and reactions to witnessing such horrible suffering and despair is a testament to her compassion and dedication. Through the tragedy, Harvey sees glimmers of hope in the resilience of the Khmer people that she met and worked with. They truly give testament to the triumph of the human spirit. Thirty years later, Harvey returns to Cambodia. The country is still healing from the wounds of the past but dealing with present day enemies – poverty and Aids. She takes us inside an orphanage and a hospice and introduces some amazing young people. You won’t want to put this book down – and it’s not one that you will soon forget.

-- John Paterson author The White Limousine

This is a very engaging book and I could hardly put it down. Having recently visited Cambodia it filled in many gaps dealing with the recent history of the country, and provided very interesting insights into volunteer efforts to help the Cambodian people get back on their feet.

--John Ward

 

A moving portrait of one woman's experience contextualized in, and across, time and place. Harvey's voice soars as she negotiates the challenges of her work, heart and what it means to do front line work. She captures the relationships, communities and isolation with strength and honesty and her ability to locate herself in such a challenging global moment is astounding. A highly recommended engrossing read.

--Keeley Nixon   

 

I marvel at Elaine's experiences on the front line. I can imagine but at the same time, just can’t imagine the tragic circumstances of the refugees in the camps and also the work she was doing there. Her brief interludes with Roberto were a welcome respite for both me as a reader and so necessary for both of them at the time. Wow…again…I am amazed. A very well written account of her experiences in Cambodia.

--Eve Whitehead, Owner Crofton B&B

This book is an amazing travel story in Cambodia in the 80's and beyond. If you want to know more about Cambodia's history read this fascinating account of Harvey’s experience as a young nurse on the front lines and her return many years later. Her adventure opened my eyes because I was in Cambodia in 2000 but not long enough to understand the country’s tragic history and the strength of the people to survive. It’s a tough and a tender story, not a travelogue but a multilayered personal journey.

-- Pamela Gutrath, Photographer

 

I just finished this book and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest either in Cambodia, or humanitarian work in general. I have been to Cambodia recently, so the interest for me was in the details of the country and its people. From eating morning glory to the tuk-tuk drivers' methods of navigating oncoming traffic, Elaine's descriptions were spot on! The first part of the book, about working in a refugee hospital on the border in 1980 was riveting, but not always pleasant to read. The author's experiences left me full of admiration for her stamina for hard work in extreme circumstances. The later parts of the book about her return to Cambodia in more recent years was fascinating, and written from the heart. I found the book hard to put down, and it left me with a much better picture of how Cambodia has recovered, and is still recovering from its tragic past.

-- Veronica

 

Ayant moi même travaillé dans les camps en même temps que l'auteur, je me suis replongée, non seulement dans l'horreur qu'on vécu les réfugiés cambodgiens, mais aussi dans toute la beauté et le courage de ce peuple.

 

Elaine nous les décrit avec beaucoup de profondeur et de poésie. J'aime la franchise avec laquelle elle raconte ses expériences, ses échecs et frustrations, surtout dans la deuxième et troisième partie. Un livre que toute personne intéressée au travail humanitaire et au Cambodge devrait lire.

 

Merci Élaine pour ce beau témoignage.
-- Élisabeth Carrier

A gripping book. The first half is the account of the author's experiences as a Red Cross nurse in a refugee hospital on the war-torn border of Cambodia, shortly after the horrendous carnage that the world came to know about in the chilling accounts of the killing fields. The telling is so matter-of-fact and simply stated that it takes a while before the stark reality of the tale sinks in. And it does. You follow the emotional arc the author traveled as a young nurse, unaware of what stood ahead, toward growing personal involvement with the displaced people, until she formed bonds that would last a lifetime. The tale is not overwrought; the emotions come at you in the gentle reflections, the conversations, and the snippets of lyrical poetry that are sprinkled throughout. Above all, the reader can see the tears, feel the stress of uprooted lives, hear the rains pounding on the hospital roof and the distant guns, share in the hopes of the people. In short, you are there. And through it all, the author is there with you, but does not take over the narrative.

 

The second part is the author's account of her return to Cambodia three decades later. It is a marked contrast to the blood and mud-spattered experience of her earlier tour of duty. The stories of the people she meets give hope that a country and a people can recover from such tragedy and regain their lives. There is still some sadness and, above all, remembrance. But the tale does not dwell on those, merely offers them as material for your own pondering of life. After the excitement of the war story, I first felt the second part to be moving slowly. But then I realized that the story-telling paralleled the story itself, and it was perfect. The author closes the loop with this section. I enjoyed this book immensely, and look forward to more from her.

Jeff Dwyer, Writer: The Rebirth of Tonio Herrera

© 2019  Elaine Harvey | Writer

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