The year 1980 holds a deep significance for Saanich writer Elaine Harvey – one that comes out in her gripping, page-turning memoir about her work as a Red Cross nurse in war-torn Cambodia.
In Encounters on the Front Line, Harvey details her time in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodia border in 1980, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, which had orchestrated the Cambodian genocide. An estimated 1.5 to three million people died under leader Pol Pot, with 100,000 more displaced and traumatized in the Third World country.
“All Cambodian people – anyone over the age of 40 – have experienced a profound tragedy in their country,” said Harvey. “Genocide, war, starvation. It’s a country that was devastated in the late ’70s. It’s a country still dealing with its fairly recent past.”
The title of the book uses the term “front line” in reference to the humanitarian workers at the camp, rather than its traditional military connotation, because they were also in the thick of conflict at the time.
“I see ‘front line’ in the much broader sense,” she said. “Nurses work on the front line, aid workers work on the front line. Medical workers, social workers, counsellors, they all work on the front line.”
For six months, Harvey worked in the emergency room of a field hospital, tending to the needs of Cambodians who fled their homes seeking refuge. Their resources were limited, which led to numerous challenges as they dealt with the influx of injured people.
“There was no running water, no electricity, no modern equipment,” she recalled. “It was more like First Aid and basic triage, and then we sent the critically wounded or ill people to another larger hospital.
“It was a very intense, very powerful experience in my life.”
At the time, Harvey kept a diary, chronicling her personal and professional experience. Though the memory of her time there slipped away over time, she found the diary some 25 years later and felt a need to tell her story – and a need to go back.
“It brought up a lot,” she said of reading her diary entries. “It’s more than a glimpse back into your past – ‘Oh, I actually lived this 27 years ago.’ I think it was a fairly intense experience, rereading the diary.
“In that way, the story is very authentic. It’s straight from the real, lived experience I had.”
The book is told in three parts, beginning with her six months of work in 1980, followed by her return to the country in 2007 and 2009, volunteering at a rural orphanage and an AIDS hospice. By her second return trip, she had already started writing what would become her 318-page autobiographical retelling.
The book covers a range of themes, including social inequality, the desire to help others, finding our common humanity in people of different cultures.
“There’s a little bit of everything in the book: love and loss and conflict and happiness,” said Harvey. “The challenges and the good times – there’s sort of a mix of emotions and experiences that I have.
“I end the book on a somewhat philosophical note. There’s no absolutes, there’s no answers to any of these questions – it’s a journey.”
Encounters on the Front Line is available in paperback at Amazon, Chapters Indigo and Barnes and Noble, as well as available digitally for Kobo, Kindle and Nook. Additionally, Harvey is available to do book readings.
For more information or to contact Harvey, visit elaine-harvey.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.