Cashing in by Doing Good in Cambodia
|Our Correspondent||Jan 23, 2009|
A Canadian humanitarian group that launched a media and fundraising campaign claiming one of its members had been bludgeoned, robbed, stripped of his clothes and left to die in a Cambodian ditch is now asking that his family be left to "grieve in private" following complaints that nothing of the sort happened.
The death of the man described in the Canadian media as "Smiling Jiri" has become a potent fundraising tool for the charity in a story that has rolled across both Cambodia and Canada, generating huge publicity and controversy, and apparently money for the charity. But the dead man, Jiri Zivny, may have died as a result of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident after a night on the town in the coastal resort of Sihanoukville, a magnet for sex tourists.
Zivny, who died at the age of 43 in the neurological ward of Cambodia's best hospital, had no bruises or lacerations that would have indicated blunt force trauma inflicted by an assailant, doctors say. Traffic police in Sihanoukville reported that he crashed his bike into another motorcycle in the early hours of January 9. The driver of the other bike remains unconscious, police reports say.
Hospital records show Zivny arrived at the emergency ward of Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh, at 11.35pm on January 10 via an ambulance from Sihanoukville. According to records, the ambulance driver wrote that the patient had been in a motorcycle accident. Zivny was immediately transferred to the intensive care unit and by 12.30pm he had been shifted to the neurological ward. There was no information on whether he had valuables or money on him when he was admitted.
"I do not wish to carry on a dialogue about this situation. I have enough information to draw my own conclusions. So we will just leave it alone and the evidence of Jiri's injuries will be left alone so the family can grieve in private," Evelyn Picklyk, the founder and president of the Kamloops, British Columbia-based International Humanitarian Hope Society (IHHS) wrote in an email Wednesday morning.
"I know you are trying to protect your country, but this story is going global and it will reflect very badly on your country," she said by telephone earlier in the morning, despite being informed repeatedly that she was speaking to a Canadian reporter.
She was responding to an email and telephone call advising her that she and her group – which launched a campaign to raise C$100,000 to fly a comatose "aid worker" back to Canada for treatment – may have been misinformed about the care Zivny received at Calmette Hospital as well as the cause of his death. The email also requested detailed information about the individuals who had been supplying her with information from Cambodia.
During a previous phone call Monday night, she acknowledged that the group's claims were based on "circumstantial evidence". "There were no eyewitnesses," she said. "We really don't know what happened," she added before requesting that further discussion be conducted via email because, among other reasons, her "phone might be tapped."
However, on Wednesday morning she said she had photographic evidence that Zivny had been brutally assaulted in Sihanoukville. "The photos tell the story," she said. They show he had suffered blows to the side of his head as well as his face, she explained, although she declined to say who took the photos, when they were taken or how she obtained them. "Why do you want to know that?" she asked.
During four interviews with doctors at Calmette Hospital between January 15 and 20, the doctors said that there were no physical signs that Zivny had been struck on the head. During the first interview, on the afternoon of January 15, doctors treating the patient allowed me to see him. If he had been struck on the face the wound had healed by then. Zivny died in VIP room No.3 of the neurological ward of the hospital later that day, at 5.15pm.
Brain scans taken during the six days Zivny was in the ward show that his condition deteriorated steadily. At the same time, the description of Calmette Hospital in the Canadian media also deteriorated – to the point where it was being described as being infested with rats.
"His injuries were not unlike those of other motorbike accident victims," said Dr. Phak Dararith, one of three doctors treating Zivny. "The swelling was internal," he said. There were no bruises or lacerations on his head that would indicate he had been struck by an assailant, he and other doctors at the hospital said. "I can't say whether or not he was robbed before he died, but there are no signs that he had been struck on the head [by an assailant]," Dr. Phak Dararith said.
Five doctors at the hospital on Tuesday expressed bewilderment at the media reports about the patient, as well as the fact that these reports included no information from the doctors treating him. "Why haven't they contacted us?" asked Dr. Yit Sinarong.
Two individuals, one of whom has carefully guarded his anonymity, are the primary sources of the reports from Cambodia in the Canadian media – after being filtered through the Kamloops, British Columbia charity. One is an American surgeon, Dr. Reid Sheftall from the American Medical Center. The other had been Zivny's traveling companion. The latter visited him every day to consult with doctors and pay his bill (US$100 per day plus the cost of medicine), but declined to identify himself by name or provide doctors with contact information.
The hospital wanted to be able to contact him immediately if the patient came out of his coma (a possibility considered very remote due to the severity of the trauma) so that Zivny would have a friend present, doctors said. However, the traveling companion "would not tell us his name and said that he had no phone and that he switched guesthouses every night," Dr. Phak Dararith said.
Dr. Sheftall and Picklyk have identified the traveling companion as a Vancouver resident named Lauren. Pikclyk said she did not know his family name because "it's one of those names that you can't recall offhand". Lauren had been a member of the group touring orphanages in Southeast Asia with her. When the rest of the group returned to Canada from Vietnam in late November, he and Zivny decided to travel overland to "do orphanage work" in Thailand, Picklyk said on Monday night. "They were not working at orphanages in Cambodia," she said, but could not explain why they spent about five weeks in Sihanoukville.
Sheftall has been the sole source of the medical information. He has been reported as saying Zivny's injuries were not consistent with a motorcycle accident, but said Wednesday that "sometimes I'm wrong."
When informed that Picklyk had said that her group had based its conclusion that Zivny had been attacked primarily on his examination of the patient, Sheftall replied, "Tell her to stop saying that. I was not in Sihanoukville. I did not see what happened. I did not examine the patient. I just looked in on him and checked on him so that I could update Evelyn and his family on his condition."
The story that spread across Canada from Kamloops is that Zivny was struck on the head by an assailant who had followed him from an ATM machine in the early hours of January 9 (media reports range from either 2am or 4am), after he withdrew $500 in cash. On her website, Picklyk said that he was also robbed of his watch and clothing. Since then, she has added that he was robbed of his camera as well.
The International Humanitarian Hope Society functions like a tourism business. Clients sign up and pay for tours that mix sight-seeing with visits to orphanages throughout Southeast Asia. The trips cost about $2,500 per person for airfare and accommodations. Health insurance is not included in the cost of the tours, but the society assists its clients in arranging health insurance before departure.
When the tour ended so did Zivny's health insurance. His tour in November was his second with the group, and media reports quote a close friend as saying the first had had a transformative effect on his life. He also remarked that Zivny had led a "wayward life" before meeting the missionary group linked to the orphanage work.
The mystery of what happened in Sihanoukville may boil down to a single comment made by an anonymous source (possibly Lauren) to the Cambodia Daily on January 20. The source said Zivny had spent the night before his death barhopping with a Cambodian woman. The report did not say, however, how much he had been drinking that night, or why he needed to go to an ATM machine well after midnight.
Picklyk insists that "Jiri was a true humanitarian who was trying to do good in Cambodia". She is now appealing for donations in his memory, but declines to answer any questions about how much was spent on his medical bills, or how much she raised to fly him back to Canada.