Anne Watts, 70, grew up in north Wales and trained as a nurse and midwife. She joined Save the Children and was posted to Vietnam in 1967. Over the next 40 years, she has helped the victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, worked in Lebanon during the Israeli occupation, and Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm. She recently published her memoir, Always the Children. She lives in Devon
It was October 1979 when someone from Save the Children asked if I would fly out to Thailand, where hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees were pouring across the border. There was no camp at that stage – I was just dropped at the side of a road. As I walked across, I could see a huge area of black land. It wasn't until I saw an arm that I realised it was a mass of bodies dressed in black. I remember the silence – 42,000 people, but so quiet.
The first 10 days were horrendous, sorting out the dead from the dying, but we somehow managed to set up our clinic. We needed an interpreter, but people were frightened to let it be known that they spoke English or French because that would have got you executed under Pol Pot as a member of the bourgeoisie.
One day Solina came up to me and whispered, "I can speak some English." She was very sweet but very cowed. In the early days she didn't say much about herself, but as she began to trust me, she started telling me some of her story – how she had been tortured and lost most of her family.
She was my link to everything that went on in the camp. A public-health team came to the camp and I told them that I couldn't understand why, while everybody used the latrines in the day, when we arrived in the morning, there was human faeces on the walkways. So they put up lots of signs with stick men on loos and all that. Solina came to me, really angry and said, "Please tell your friends we are not dirty or stupid. When you go home at night, that's when the Thai soldiers grab the girls as they go to the latrines." Even when you are with people every day, you don't live in the same world.
I was at the camp for just over a year and Solina became very distressed when she heard my team was leaving, but I asked my sister Susan, a Norfolk housewife, to write letters to Solina and we heard each other's news via Susan for many years.
Canada took a quota of Cambodian refugees and Solina went to Ontario and ended up in a Bible college. We met up once in Paris in the mid-1980s and she only had 48 hours before she had to go back to Canada, but I managed to get her over to England to meet the people in the Save the Children office and to surprise Susan. When she saw her, Solina said, "My sister, my sister" – everyone was crying.
Later we began to email regularly and I visited her in Phnom Penh a couple of years ago. We met up with another girl who was in the camp, who is now a human-rights lawyer, and we all went for a lovely meal, barely able to believe we were together like that 25 years since we first met.
Solina Chy, 57, was 23 when Pol Pot became leader of Cambodia. She was forced to work in the rice fields for four years, until the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, when she was jailed on suspicion of spying. She escaped to Thailand and spent two years in transit camps before being given a new home in Canada. She has now returned to Cambodia and works for a Christian mission agency
When I arrived at the transit camp, my heart dropped to the floor – I could see lots of people dressed in black and I knew straight away they were Khmer Rouge. When we got to the border I thought we'd escaped them, but they had been driven out by the Vietnamese, so here they were again.
A girl living near me in the camp told me that the doctors needed people who could speak French and English to translate. I'd learnt a little bit of English in Cambodia before the Communists took over, so she dragged me to the clinic, which is where I met Anne. I volunteered to help, telling her what patients were saying, but it was hard at first as my English was very bad. I remember having to practise pronouncing "diarrhoea" a lot. Later, she bought me an English dictionary, which I still have, even though it is falling apart now.
Living in the camp was hard, but Anne was so kind and cheerful. There were lots of rumours that we were going to be sent back to Cambodia and back then I'd have rather killed myself than go back, but Anne would take my hand and tell me not to worry, that she would hide me in her trunk if she had to. When Anne went to Bangkok for her breaks from work, I really missed her, because she made me feel safe.
When I went to the next transit camp, Anne came to visit me – foreigners were supposed to leave at 3pm but she snuck in and stayed overnight. When she left Thailand, she got her sister to write to me, telling me news, and those letters kept me going. Even though Cambodia under Pol Pot was very bad, living in the camps for two years was worse in some ways, as we still had no freedom; it felt hopeless.
I know Anne is not religious, but I think her work is a lot like missionary work – putting other people's lives before her own. We have seen each other only a few times since, but she never changes. I was very proud to be able to show her where I live and work now in Cambodia. Anne has been a very special person to me and I have never forgotten her for a moment.
'Always the Children' by Anne Watts is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99Reuse content