Sunday, May 4, 2014

Darkness Falls

 As we travel, we tend to visit the places that make us feel good.  We love the vast, mind numbing landscapes; gorgeous and unique animals; pristine or at least somewhat intact ecosystems; exotic cultures; and, most of all, warm, kind people.  But part of our journey and commitment to "learn with humility" occasionally takes us to the dark side of humanity, to places where unspeakable cruelty to others or the planet shakes us.  Gives us pause.  Makes us cry.

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
skulls while listening to the voices of the actual guards talk about how they would beat the prisoners to death since bullets were too valuable to "waste" on such things.  And we broke down a bit when we saw the tree against which infants' heads were smashed.  The Khmer Rouge was a brutal, ugly regime that targeted the educated in particular.  Even wearing glasses was a sign of being an intellectual and marked the person for certain death.  When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and subsequently ruled the country for over a decade, they chose one of the the defecting Khmer Rouge soldiers, Hun Sen, as the country's new leader.  Despite significant international and UN investment beginning in 1993 and continuing to this day, the same leader, Hun Sen, has been elected lord prime minister and supreme military commander in every election since 1993.  He has been the de facto ruler for more than three decades.  The Khmer Rouge was a functioning organization almost to the final day of the 20th century and its leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 at the age of 82 before he could be brought to trial.  Today, Cambodians lack educational opportunities, clean water, and basic health care as compared to their neighboring Southeast Asia countries.  Many of their current teachers have little education, never having attended more than primary school.  Some estimates suggest that over one quarter of the current population is still suffering from PTSD and that domestic violence is actually rising rather than declining.

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
orphanage.   As a child soldier, he laid thousands of land mines.  He has now created an organization to defuse and remove the mines, an educational museum for world travelers, and an orphanage to take care of children affected by land mines.  We also met people working for The Wildlife Alliance, an organization helping to provide for animal victims of land mines, such as the fortunate elephant we witnessed with its own prosthetic.  This organization is also dedicated to strengthening policy measures preventing the habitat deforestation, a practice that reached its heyday with Pol Pot's leaders as they sold timber to Thailand and elsewhere and still continues today.  The organization also has an anti-poaching militarized arm to stop the trade of endangered wildlife and pet species.  Many of our heroes are less obvious on the world stage.  Despite being in a country better known for corruption and bribes, we have experienced kind, caring individuals who have helped us, rather than cheated us, even when such would be easy.  We meet young people taking college classes.  And everywhere, NGO's are at work, trying to provide infrastructure that has yet to emerge from the government.

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.

1 comment:

  1. While we "know" of these cruel realities, the confrontation of the pain, pierces the heart, not just the mind. Thank you for sharing with us.