He is the first patient I see and he has the eyes of death. It’s my initial foray with Brahmavihara, the small Buddhist NGO who’s invited me here to help them raise awareness about the Cambodian AIDS crisis, the worst and least funded in South East Asia. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m in it now, flung into the orbit of this man’s suffering, almost ashamed to be holding a camera. There is a nagging unseemliness about photographing suffering — the Vulture Effect — despite knowing you’re there to help. By showing suffering, by showing the compassionate action of selfless individuals working tirelessly to alleviate it, perhaps it will move others to compassionate actions of their own.

I’m here at the Maryknoll hospice with two remarkable women. Lok Yay, (‘revered grandmother’ in Khmer), a 75-year old wisp of a Buddhist nun who is well known around the AIDS wards of Phnom Penh. Beth Goldring is an American Buddhist nun and founding director of Brahmavihara. She began her AIDS project chaplaincy in 2000 on the most frayed of shoestrings, before anti-retroviral (ARVs) medications had made it into the country and the death rate was virtually 100%.

Unique in Cambodia, Beth and her Khmer staff, came at first to offer love, comfort, compassion and spiritual sustenance to the dying. Then as ARVs began to become available and more people started surviving, (40,000 deaths per year has been reduced to about 12,000), Brahmavihara’s purview expanded to include a host of necessarily elastic social services and facilitations for destitute AIDS patients and their families.

Barely five feet tall with a ready smile, shaved head and eyeglasses, the 62-year old former waitress, college professor, journalist and author, is a powerhouse of loving energy. There is a certain magic flowing through Beth and her entire Cambodian staff that is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. When she walks into a suffering AIDS ward it instantly transforms into a roomful of smiles and hugs. When she works her healing techniques on terminal patients, it is extraordinary the way the suffering seems to fade, giving way to a visibly deep peacefulness. This “magic” Beth brings to her patients — patients whose pain is often compounded by feelings of shame and abandonment — is the infusion of a love that can only be described as utterly selfless, pure and unconditional.

Lok Yay has a different style and utilizes some different techniques, but does so with the same expansive heart. Beth recounts occasions where Lok Yay has brought patients with insurvivable CD4 counts (immunity levels as low as 1 on a scale of 1500) back from the edge, and eventually back to levels strong enough to take ARVs and survive.

Now, more than two months later, I find my work here in its final hours. For the last week we’ve been re-visiting surviving patients and giving them promised copies of their photographs, still something of a rarity amongst Cambodia’s poor. They are as fascinated with their images — even in such dire straits — as I am with their warmth and courage in the face of it. The gratitude they express both surprises and humbles me. I try through interpretation to express my own warmth towards them, my own gratitude, but it feels awkward and woefully inadequate. But one of the many things I have learned here, is that cultural divides are more easily crossed, complex feelings more meaningfully expressed, with something as simple as a heartfelt gaze.

In an unplanned bookend, I find myself again with Lok Yay standing in the same room in the same Maryknoll hospice with the same man from the first day. I should be surprised to see him still alive, but somehow I’m not. The eyes are still sunken from his long illness, but they no longer speak of death. One cannot help but think that this wisp of a nun with the healing hands and the loving presence might have had a little something to do with it.

— Bennett Stevens 

More of the "facts" about AIDS in Cambodia, as I've gathered them:

The great tragedy of Cambodia has been long and well documented, but is far from over. Genocides and the physical and psychological scars they leave behind take generations to overcome. Nearly 30 years after the end of Pol Pot’s murderous reign, even though a good measure of stability has returned, life is still cheap for too many.

Too many doctors make a practice of extorting money from AIDS patients, leaving them to die if they cannot pay. Too many corrupt government officials make a practice of skimming relief money earmarked for AIDS victims, even going so far as to force long disbursement delays of anti-retroviral medication (ARVs), in order to cover their crimes in red tape. One is incredulous as to how they can rationalize their actions, actions that leave people suffering and dying just so they can pad their bank accounts.

Perhaps they would point to what happens all too often on the street. Some patients will gamble away their ARVs. Some will sell them on the black market. Some HIV-positive sex workers will knowingly have sex without condoms.

But why? The obvious answers must be willfully ignored for the corrupt officials to look themselves in the mirror. A person gambles their ARVs because they live in ignorance and desperate poverty. A mother sells her ARVs on the black market because she is desperate to feed her children. A low-end sex worker sells her diseased body for 1,500 riel (about 38 cents) because she is desperate for a bowl of rice, or a cheap high to dull the pain of her tragic life.

Government officials are apparently too busy looking down their noses at such acts of desperation to consider the fact that it is their own cruel corruption that is a major contributor.

— Bennett Stevens