Empty Nets Syndrome: How young fishing families on Cambodia’s Mekong are struggling to survive

Global Voices

Two weeks ago, shortly after it turned 2am, Sami’s boat rolled over on the waves of the Mekong river and tipped all of her possessions into the water—including Lydie, her newborn daughter. ‘Just like that, she was gone,’ the 16-year-old remembers.

Unable to sleep as the wind tore at the tarpaulin that served as a meagre shelter from the elements, Sami had spent the previous two hours sitting with her knees pulled against her stomach, wishing they were back on shore. While the storm raged around them her 25-year-old husband Luc, face fixed in a frown, was busy spreading his weight across the hand-carved boat’s wooden hull in an attempt to stop their little home from capsizing. All the while, their daughter had slept peacefully in her dark green cotton hammock. “I didn’t even have to rock her,” Sami says now. “The wind was strong enough to do that for me.” As the storm gathered force, she thought about taking Lydie into her arms for safety. “But I didn’t know whether it was better just to let her be. And when the boat fell, I couldn’t grab her in time. Suddenly I was just under the water, and everything was cold and black.”

Luc reached Lydie first. Diving deeper under the water, he pushed the rapidly sinking pots and pans and clothes out of the way to disentangle his daughter from the swathes of material that kept her in place. When the six-week-old began screaming after reaching the surface, Sami burst into tears. “I thought she was dead. Babies die all the time here. You never know if you’re going to get to keep yours for life or just for a little while.”

Sami and Luc both grew up on the water. As members of the Cham community – a minority group of approximately 288,000 Cambodian Muslims who largely live along the Mekong river and around the edges of the Tonle Sap lake in the Kompong Chhnang and Kompong Cham provinces, their families can trace an oral history of fishing and seafaring that dates back 4000 years—a history that includes migrating across South East Asia and surviving the Khmer Rouge genocide of 1975-1979.

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