Existing Member?

Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

Cambodia: Some stories just can't be digested (ive)

CAMBODIA | Saturday, 23 January 2010 | Views [2571]

Men, women, and children... each person with her own story, her own life.  We looked at them in these, their mug shots.  And for some, we looked at them in photos that recorded their torture, their killing.

Men, women, and children... each person with her own story, her own life. We looked at them in these, their mug shots. And for some, we looked at them in photos that recorded their torture, their killing.

I vaguely remember hearing reports about Cambodian Boat People on Good Morning, America during my childhood in the 1970s – and from my mother about how these children were increasingly appearing in her first-grade classroom in Brooklyn. And, growing up, I knew one or two people who had visited the Angkor temples and I was told about the extreme poverty and utter lack of infrastructure in Cambodia. In my professional work in Washington State I had a few young Cambodian-American clients over the years and began to become familiar with a pattern of struggles that seemed to include withdrawn fathers, over-protective mothers, intense pressures toward family cohesion, identity struggles with their Cambodian and Buddhist heritage -- and an attraction to violent gang life.

And at some point along the way I learned that a horrific genocide had been committed in Cambodia in the name of extreme communist ideals. A genocide that had spawned the refugee crisis and Boat People I remembered from my childhood. So it wasn't like we entered Cambodia without awareness that visiting here would deepen our understanding of the Khmer Rouge regime and its after-effects. But, when we arrived, I was way too over-focused on my mission of getting to the Angkor temples within two days for my birthday. I wasn't thinking about “the Years of Trauma,” as some here call them. I wasn’t ready for how they would define our first weeks in the country – and how the continuing day-in, day-out anguished trials and tribulations of this otherwise joyful country would hit me. I wasn't ready for Cambodia. But as Stephen Asma writes in his book The Gods Drink Whiskey, “...you can never really be ready for Cambodia. It's sort of like seeing a really good punch coming at your face, bracing yourself as best you can, but getting knocked senseless anyway.”

But it is a different book, not Asma's, that began the process of waking us up – that began helping us to piece together the deeper layers of meaning in our daily interactions and observations in Cambodia. At every tourist book-shop here – staring out at customers from a patchwork of black and red covers with names like Pol Pot's Regime, The Killing Fields, and The S-21 Torture Prison is a book sporting a black-and-white photograph of the befuddled and clearly numbed eyes of what appears to be a six-year-old girl (but is actually a chronically malnourished ten-year-old), holding her name in front of her chest as she is processed into a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand in February 1980. Obscuring her face to various extents, depending on the version of the book, is the title of her story -- First They Killed My Father. I realized that I would not understand this country until I better understood the look in those eyes.

The story is of Loung Ung's descent from a post-colonial middle-class Phnom Penh family – one that eerily resembles many average American families today – into a hell of enslavement, illness, starvation, torture, and murder. Along with the rest of the nation, her family was forced to leave the city and march into the countryside, subjected to endless days of forced agrarian labor in communal concentration camps, provided only rice gruel and no medical care, and exposed to a terrifying propaganda machine violently re-training allegiance away from one's family and toward the central government of The Angkar, offering empty promises of a return to the glories of Cambodia's agrarian past. Over a few short years, this hell brutally stole the lives of several beloved members of her family...the lives of so many beloved members of so many families. 1.7 million people in all. 25% of the population of Cambodia. Loung Ung's stunningly child-like story is simply an excruciating and unthinkable nightmare. There is no other way to say it. Her story leaves searing and scarring images bubbling in the mind. The kind of images that are most familiar to us in the West from films and stories about Nazi concentration camps. Between our time attending the Rwanda Genocide Tribunals in Tanzania and, now, here in Cambodia, this year has included a harsh reminder that, despite a tendency to think otherwise, genocide most definitely did not end with the Holocaust. If for no other reason, this book should be read by Westerners at least as often as the Diary of Anne Frank and Ellie Weisel's Night.

We did what we could to add further layers to our understanding of the Years of Trauma. We visited the S-21 prison -- known as Tuol Svay Prey High School in earlier, more innocent days -- where the Khmer Rouge brutally tortured its “political prisoners,” that included people with any history of education, intellectualism, or urban living, or with ties to nations other than Cambodia. Their blood still stains the mustard-yellow and white tiles of the place. Much harder to stomach, though, are their faces, in the form of black and white mug shots satanically cataloged by the Khmer Rouge, that fill bulletin boards that line the rooms. Faces of everyday people like those walking the streets of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap today. Faces of people whose last days of life were filled with the absolute worst of what humanity can do, often inflicted by people forced against their will to do the harm. Men. Women. Small children. Hollow ghosts with eyes that look directly into yours asking, “How can this be happening?” leaving you staring back through watering eyes and gasping for an answer that, photo after photo, never comes.

We visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where an average of 100 S-21 prisoners were sent each day to be unceremoniously murdered – using blunt force to the head to save precious bullets -- and dumped into mass graves. Seventeen thousand in all. Scraps of their clothing still lay buried in the earthen walkway around the now-excavated pits. We touch pieces of bone still blending in with the dusty dirt to which they have returned. Rising up more than 200-feet above that dirt is a stupa – a traditional monument to the teachings of the Buddha. A stupa not unlike the ones we have now seen throughout our time in Asia. Except for the fact that this one encases in glass nearly 9000 human skulls piled atop one another. That this one is a place for Khmer (Cambodian) people to come and silently contemplate what no mind should ever have to contemplate. That this one was specially blessed by Buddhist monks to help comfort survivors wrenched by the competing need to give these remains a proper Buddhist cremation and the need to have these remains preserved to cry out to humanity. That this one, just weeks before we visited, was the site of a traditional water-sprinkling ceremony to honor the dignity and utter bravery of a group of survivors who dredged up their nightmares – thirty years after the fact – to be witnesses at tribunals finally now just beginning with hopes of bringing some of the Khmer Rouge to some form of justice.

Since neither of us had ever seen it, we borrowed a copy of the film The Killing Fields and sat at a Siem Reap internet cafe watching it. Ignorantly, it wasn't until the empty cafe began to fill with young customers – some foreign, but some Khmer -- that I wondered what they would make of the images on our screen and these two foreigners so publicly digesting them. We found out when we stopped the film to deal with a skipping DVD and a Khmer teenager sitting next to us admitted he was watching along with us. With a shaky voice emanating from a clearly warm heart, he told us a little about himself and explained that he grew up hearing horrible stories from his mother who had survived the Khmer Rouge. Shaking his head and averting his eyes, he told us that he has never been able to fully understand what happened. And he told us that seeing the images we were watching made him very sad. But he sat staring at our screen almost until the end of the film – somewhat glazed and occasionally letting out loud sighs – before hiding behind a wide smile as he waved good-bye to us.

And that is what is most haunting about the Years of Trauma now. Not S-21 or the Killing Fields. Not even Loung Ung's story. But the fact that every Cambodian face we see that is older than 35 is a face that witnessed what happened – a body that starved for adequate nutrition, a mind that became beset with images of death, a set of nerves forced to rattle with worry about survival and by mistrust of everyone and everything, and a heart crushed by the sudden and violent disappearance of loved ones. And the fact that most every Cambodian face we see that is younger than 35 was raised by someone – whether it be parents or relatives or neighbors or orphanage workers – with a face that witnessed what happened. As a research study we later review details, this next generation responds to the stories told by the Khmer Rouge survivors with painful feelings of responsibility and their own pathological levels of anxiety. Whether first-hand or second-hand, Cambodia is a nation of collective Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. In one way or another, every face we see – every Cambodian we meet – suffers from what happened.

At dinner one evening, a Jewish-American we have just met expressed surprise that the scars of the Khmer Rouge have not yet healed. After all, he said, it was over thirty years ago. As Mi explained the havoc that a generation of traumatized people can wreak on their children, he began to nod. “Oh, it's like the children of Survivors,” -- referencing Holocaust survivors. Yes, those of us who are Jews know all too well how the Holocaust has affected, now, four generations of Jews. How painfully difficult it has been for us, as a people, to recover a healthy sense of self, healthy sense of purpose, and healthy sense of security. And our recovery included a new homeland to escape to and from which to begin again. Our recovery was helped by a Western world (finally) extending open and compassionate arms – and a huge amount of financial and military support. With Nuremberg trials that brought Nazis to justice. With the backing of world opinion that what happened to the Jews should never happen again. With centuries of virulent antisemitism showing signs of ebbing.

Yes, some Cambodians escaped the country after the Khmer Rouge – either on rickety boats or with the help of Western sponsors – to begin anew. But most did not. And, yes, tribunals against the perpetrators are now beginning to be held. But this is after thirty years of wondering whether there would ever be any justice and after Pol Pot, the Hitler of the Khmer Rouge, died of apparent natural causes. And, yes, Cambodia seems to be showing signs of enough stability that it is beginning to be cast in a favorable light by the West. But this is after so many insults – like the fact that the United States, in its unending contempt for the Communist regime in Vietnam to which it lost its “police action,” disgracefully supported the Khmer Rouge with arms and money to fight the Vietnamese who invaded Cambodia and chased the Khmer Rouge out of power and into hiding. Like the fact that the United States also imposed devastating economic sanctions against this Vietnam-backed government despite knowledge that the infrastructure needed to feed the nation had been completely destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Even after it was clear that the Khmer Rouge had committed genocide, the United Nations insisted on seating Khmer Rouge representatives as Cambodia's delegation – and not members of the Vietnamese-backed government that had ousted them. (This is all, of course, not to mention the covert bombing of Cambodia by the United States from 1969 to 1973 that killed countless civilians and caused a refugee crisis that was part of the chaos that allowed the Khmer Rouge to come to power in the first place!)

Whereas Jewish healing was nurtured, at least to some extent, within its new-found Land of Milk and Honey, Cambodia's search for healing has literally occurred amidst a never-ending mine-field. The country was taken over by the Vietnamese – a people who compete with the Thai for the title of Most Hated in Cambodia due to a long history of land grabs and generations-old fears that Cambodia would be swallowed up into these countries. The Khmer Rouge regrouped, maintained a strong-hold in Northwestern Cambodia, and fought a Civil War that raged and ravaged the country until 1998, killing thousands. Having lost nearly all of its educated citizens in the genocide, there were no teachers to teach the next generation – and few doctors to heal the physical (not to mention mental) scars. People swarmed to the cities, which stood abandoned and decaying during the Khmer Rouge years, to escape the farming villages where they had been enslaved. With little in the way of infrastructure, the economy faltered – leaving most of the nation unemployed and impoverished. Those with jobs have been massively overworked and paid with great variability. Homelessness, wandering, and begging became rampant. An inept and corrupt government fed the rich at the expense of the poor. Democracy has struggled to get any sort of foothold. A corrupt and inept justice system bred lawlessness and terrifying street violence. Pollution of every kind choked the people. A country with no history of orphanages, was overwhelmed with the massive numbers of parentless children it needed to raise, leading to awful child-care conditions and ugly adoption scandals. The orphans contributed to the national plague of child sexual slavery. And, then there are the mine fields. Millions of land mines laid by various entities still dotting the countryside, rendering precious farmland unusable, maiming and killing sixty Cambodians every month, and causing a national epidemic of limblessness and sensory impairments. Our days in Cambodia are peppered with sadly awkward “No, thank you”s to land-mine victims trying to eke out an existence by selling books or flowers on the street. We find ourselves trying to digest these more recent elements of Cambodia's tragedy, too. We meet with counselors and representatives from Non-Governmental Organizations to hear about their work. And we wrestle with the complex web of struggles poignantly documented by Karen Coates in her book Cambodia Now. This is decidedly not the kind of conditions that assist recovery and healing.

But there may be some signs of improvement in Cambodia. There are NGOs abounding here trying to help with healing and with development (but probably creating a national dependency on outside entities and infusing the country with foreign values, good and bad). And there are more hopeful tourist-fueled opportunities and comforts growing in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (but limited appreciation for the problems this tourism also brings). But not unlike the absolutely radiant smiles the locals so famously wear, NGO-led programs and tourism opportunities are a thin veneer over what is still happening at deeper levels. The constant human struggle still palpably fills the air here. Thicker air than I felt in India. Throbbing feelings of unworthiness for the inexplicable blessings of my life still haunt me here. A more painful throb than I felt in Africa. The beginning of our journey into Cambodia unfolded into a time to digest the background story as preparation for the few weeks we will spend volunteering at a Siem Reap school. But some experiences just can't be prepared for. Some stories just can't be digested



Add your comments

(If you have a travel question, get your Answers here)

In order to avoid spam on these blogs, please enter the code you see in the image. Comments identified as spam will be deleted.

About ivan_miral

seahawks - caw!caw!

Follow Me

Where I've been

Photo Galleries


Near Misses

My trip journals

See all my tags 



Travel Answers about Cambodia

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.