For starters, it’s the scene of the most horrendous genocide in the last century when, from 1975-1979, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government slaughtered ¼ of its citizens in a bewildering effort to wipe out all educated, urban and professional men, women and children. That carnage – and the 2.75 million tons of ordnance the U.S. rained down upon the country from 1970-73– left the remaining population with a profound fear that the murderous Khmer Rouge government would reappear and has afflicted approximately half the population with PTSD.
Almost as tragic, since 1979 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and deposed Pol Pot, the country has not been free of the threat of the Khmer Rouge until the mid/late 90s, and the country has been ruled by a political party known as the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party). During that time, the international community has donated $18 billion in international aid, but seemingly precious little of that money can be seen in Cambodia’s infrastructure, education system or economy. A full 30% of Cambodia’s population lives in poverty, 66% suffer from seasonal food shortages every year, and 40% of children under five are underweight.
Given the country’s history of unleashed violence under the Khmer Rouge (which I thought had been defeated in 1979, but who actually hid out in rural areas threatening to retake the country until 1994) it is not surprising that domestic violence is rife, afflicting almost one-third of Cambodian women.
You would think all of this would make Cambodia totally depressing, but somehow, it’s not. It’s enchanting. The people are beautiful, and show touching appreciation for any help they are given—while maintaining achingly low expectations of a government that has not exactly served them well.
I can’t say the countryside is unspoiled, because it’s been devastated by deforestation and neglect … but when you drive down the road and see riotously green fields of rice interrupted by languid pools of lotus blossoms, and watch sweet brown children thrashing about happily in the water that is everywhere in the rainy season, it is a notoriously easy place to lose your heart.
Since 1998, Heifer International has been working in some of the least served areas in Cambodia, developing Self-Help Groups (largely led by women) that are helping 12, 244 poor, marginalized families make the steep climb out of poverty. I can’t wait to tell you some of their stories!