Cambodia has both....significant culture, beauty, and a dark history and challenging present. Most people fly in and visit the unequaled ruins of Angkor Wat, touring sites from what many say were the peak of Khmer civilization now centuries past. In doing so, they avoid the lands, especially those near the northwest and southeast borders, seeded with millions of unexploded bombs and land mines. Cambodia has the highest percentage of land mine amputees in the
world, and it is not just people who lose limbs. We watched an elephant amputee hobble on its prosthetic as well. Everywhere we visit within the country, limbless victims are seeking and needing help. Most of the land mines were laid by either the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970's or Vietnam soldiers during their decade of rule in the 1980's. Other unexploded bombs are legacies from the U.S. and other countries that carpet
bombed the country in the early 1970's during the Vietnam War. Three decades of war have left a legacy of fear and real danger. Many farmers are still afraid to enter their own agricultural land in small villages as most land mine victims meet their fate in fields.
This is a country that has experienced genocide during our lifetime. While we were in high school or getting our first jobs after college from 1975 to 1979, Cambodians experienced the massacre of between 20 to 30% of their population at the hands of an extremist Communist group of their own countrymen, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Can you imagine one out of every three or four people you know being brutally murdered in "Killing Fields" or dying of starvation or disease? Over one third of the country's population was expelled from homes in the cities and forced to work with little food and no medicine in the countryside. We visited one of the hundreds of mass graves, or killing fields, near Phnom Penh. As we listened to the audio tour, we stared at fragments of human bone and clothing still emerging from the ground. We stood before 9,000
Yet, there are heroes. There is light even in this dark place where people suffered so much in the past decades. We met one of the boy soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, Aki Ra, at his land mine museum and
Not all of our lessons are gentle as we travel the world. Sometimes, we venture to places that frighten us, disturb us, and make us want to turn away. Yet these are also places that most need global citizens to better understand them and, where appropriate, to give with grace.
Posted in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Images are of us listening to the horrors of the killing fields; a pile of used prosthetics at the orphanage; the tree used to kill infants near the mass graves of mothers; Aki Ra and his collection of defused land mines and other armaments.