A song of reconciliation.

It’s difficult for an outsider to fathom the profound repercussions of the genocide in Cambodia, or how pervasively it has affected that country.

Even Keo Keang, Heifer Cambodia’s adorable country director, was not spared; her father was murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1977, and her 15-year old sister taken from their house and killed in 1978 – for the crime of being educated.

Heifer Cambodia’s Country Director, Keo Keang, in now happier days.

After those murders, KK was separated from her mother at the age of 8 and placed in a children’s camp, working 20 hours a day digging irrigation canals, with the clothes on her back and not a blanket or piece of soap to her name. That lasted 2 years. As she told me about the grief and deprivation of that time, her sweet face contorted into a mask of agony … in this land that is 90% Buddhist, she saw people slaughtered in the pagoda temples and monks being shot. KK’s personal stories are not unique; almost everyone in Cambodia over the age of 30 shares those same terrible memories of beloved family murdered, unbearable violence, and unrelenting terror.

Some scars you can see, like this one from a landmine; other scars are hidden.

But beyond the fear is the way of life Cambodian people learned over years of oppression: to trust no one and talk to no one, to care only about yourself, and to put your head down and simply endure. Which is why Heifer’s projects in Cambodia can be so transformative; one of the cornerstones of all Heifer programs is Sharing & Caring for others, something people in Cambodia have to relearn in the face of so much betrayal.

Chin Chhil & Seng Som.

We traveled to Pursat Province – over a river that was choked with bodies during the genocide- to meet two former soldiers who’d lost limbs in the conflict (which lasted here in the nearby mountains until the bitter end in 1998). Chin Chhil, a former government soldier and devoted father of 11, lost his leg above the knee in 1987 and can’t wear a prosthesis, greatly impairing his ability to provide for himself and his family.  Seng Som, former Khmer Rouge, is father of 5 and lost his leg below the knee. In 2010, Chhil received a water buffalo from Som in a passing on the gift ceremony (an asset worth about $1000) and now the two are close as brothers.

Both men went to war in their teens. Chhil’s father and two brothers had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge and he wanted revenge, so at 18, he joined the government forces. Som joined the Khmer Rouge in 1979 at the age of 17 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, fearing his family would be slaughtered by the government in retaliation. Som fled to the mountainous borders with the Khmer Rouge, dug in, and fought for 19 long years before amnesty was finally declared in this area. When Som returned home, he learned that all six of his brothers and sisters had been killed –whether at the hands of the government or the Khmer Rouge, he never knew.

Both men are farmers and fathers now – and eager to leave the past behind. Heifer’s project, in conjunction with a local Disability Development Service Program, is helping them do just that. Working in Pteah Rong, one of the poorest communities in Pursat, the program includes almost all 200 families in the village, and already over 100 water buffalo and cattle have been given to farmers organized in Self Help Groups, and passed on to other disabled members.

49 year-old Kuhl Samon, mother of 11 (!!) and her husband Chhil.

With 11 children to feed (only 7 still live at home), Chhil and his wife Samon work the fields with the help of their sons and their Heifer water buffalo (Chhil is not strong enough to farm alone). They raise rice and peanuts, have a flock of 100 chickens, and use income from their animals to send their beautiful children to school.

The next generations – free of war! (Chhil’s youngest daughter and grandson)

Som’s children are mostly grown but he farms and raises animals, still plays volleyball, and as Chhil was quick to tell me, is “very strong” and came in third in the town races.

If the only way to deal with a traumatic past is to create a hopeful future, these two men who may well have looked across a battlefield at each other now have a different vision. They break bread with each other, their children play together, and they work side by side to care for the animals that sustain them.

A beautiful lunch we shared.

“The advantage of working together is that we can forget the past,” Som says. “If you have a problem, I will help you. If you have a need, I will share with you. We’ve learned a new way to live.”

Categories: Agriculture, Cambodia, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

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21 thoughts on “A song of reconciliation.

  1. cranberry99

    Betty, what a beautiful quote at the end of this edition. i think I will use it for my status today (attributed of course)!!!

    Charis Hanberry OU ’88

  2. Oh, Bettty, this stories are so, so tragic, and then equally triumphant. The painis enorous but then equally huge is the gift of healing. I so wish we had made it to Cambodia! Thanks for sharing these stories and news of what Heifer is doing there. By the way, so nice to see the country director is Cambodian and not an ex-pat!

    • Kathryn — I’m happy to report that about 95% of Heifer staff is native to the country they work in – it’s what makes them particularly effective, I think! And as painful as it was to even imagine the horror of the stories I heard, I was totally moved by how much the people want to move on and to learn a better way of being … sharing and caring!!

  3. Deb Morrow Palmer

    Again Kathryn says it so well. Another incredible story showing so much horror and good will in one story. Our country has so much to learn from these amazing corners of the earth!!

    • Yeah, I’ll bet you won’t hear much in the debate tonight about sharing & caring or the need for us to live together in harmony. I wish that we could talk about what REALLY matters in our foreign policy .. and p.s. it’s not “strength.”

  4. I weep for humanity. We repeat these cycles of hate, extermination and reconciliation. We do not learn from the past. We live nicely with each other until times get tough, then we start looking for someone to blame …


  5. I was in HS when Vietnam was raging. Vietnam, Cambodia ,Laos, were broadcast into my livingroom every night withthe body counts being recorded as if they were scores of a football game,
    It was never personal, it was on TV thousands of miles away. It became personal when friends got drafted and some never came home. Even then I could wake up the next morning fet in my VW and go to school.
    Reading this reinforces that the wars we see reported on TV, the rise in taxes and the deficeits to pay for these wars are minor problems in the grand scope of things.
    This story about two friends, who lived and overcame the atrocities of war is truly inspiring. That two men from different sides of this bloody conflict and now live in peace is a lesson for all the world to heed.
    Thanks Betty for showing the world that there is hope now where once the idea was unfathomable

    ps I may repost on my blog

  6. Dear Bob – thanks SO much for the re-post! I remember the Vietnam war well, too – and will be writing about it soon. It touched my family’s life since both my older brothers were draft age – but at least ALL young men were subject to go to war … we’d have a lot fewer wars, I reckon, if everybody’s son was on the line. Like Romney’s 5 for instance. Is he willing to send THEM to Iran when he talks tough about invading?? I find the human cost of war so horrific, I think it should be the very very VERY last option – and I don’t think Chhel and Som would disagree. It all seems so pointless in retrospect, and forgiveness is everything. THANKS for your comment!

  7. Jodi Baier

    Thank you for the important work and photo-journalism that you are doing. I just spent the week at the World Food Prize and personally told Pierre Ferrari & Jo Luck how much you have touched me and others with your beautiful country reports. We will continue to raise awareness and fundraise for Heifer International because it works- you have shown us that over and over throughout your travels!

    • Thanks SO much for that vote of confidence, Jodi — and how wonderful for you to be at the World Food Prize conference with Pierre & Jo! I’ve been so honored to have this work to do, Jodi, and I’m really happy that you think it’s been useful and moving. REALLY appreciate that!!!

  8. Betty…I just lost my reply, my long reply. So here goes, unbelievable these men, but now they are smiling! I remember the war n bracelets of MIAS, pics of endless rice patties n prisoners n bombs n on n on. Are you missing home? Are you gone all month? Thanks again. I remember bell bottoms, incense, peace signs and music and other people losing family members!

    • Dearest Kim — Sorry about losing your reply — but yes, the Vietnam war (and the Cambodian bombing) are certainly not long distant memories for me, either. Why we were there or what we accomplished is really hard to fathom … but at the very least, I think we need to take from this a VERY strong reluctance to interfere in other countries’ self-determination — and to let them find their own way to democracy or whatever system they choose, because these are sovereign nations, and have to evolve according to their own values, dictates and the passage of time. Chhel and Som were amazing — and such beautiful families — really REALLY sweet people!

  9. The images of limbless men smiling ear to ear make me feel embarrassed about my own “problems” that I allow to keep me from enjoying my day. Funny how we’re conditioned to see people in these parts of the world as somehow a notch below us and less “developed”, but at the same time they seem to have a better handle on enjoying life and being appreciative for what they have. I have to say I truly envy that.

    • FF — Such a perceptive comment, and I have to say – I’ve found the same to be true in almost every developing country I’ve visited. Chhel’s family, with whom I spent the most time, was really sweet — the girls were adorable (the eldest three cooked the meal for us) and raced up and down bringing the dishes down, smiling, clearing … while the younger boy rode off on the water buffalo to water and graze it, and the baby was adored by all. You could just tell it was a happy family — poor yes, but very happy. I simply couldn’t get over the forgiveness it takes to move beyond a civil war but both here and in Rwanda, it was palpable and enormously moving.

  10. Does Heifer partner with any women’s groups in Cambodia to discuss birth control? I ask because I was concerned to read this family has eleven children and the son has five. Does their religion prohibit use of any birth control or is it a matter of cultural pride to have so many? As for the gorgeous children – is there any school education or are they raised singularly to work on the farm?

  11. Heifer’s work is largely with women around the world, but here in Pursat this was one of the few male-based programs — probably because it dealt with disability that primarily affects men (due to war wounds and landmines). It’s very traditional in Cambodia to have very large families – probably because they needed the hands to work the rice fields (but they’re Buddhist so there is no stricture against birth control) … and obviously, it’s necessary to control the population. The best way to influence that is education — specifically, girls getting an education. That’s been shown time and time again globally. Chhel and his wife are adamant about getting all their children an education, and I think in one generation, that will have a significant impact. Som’s 5 children also went to school, though I’m not sure whether they went through secondary school or not. The Cambodian government is completely inept and corrupt — but that’s where both encouragement for education, birth control education and better (free) schools should come from … but don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, gender equality, family focus and family planning are ALL Heifer initiatives that are part of all trainings.

  12. Betty – I just wanted to you to know how much I enjoy reading your posts! Of course I feel for the people you write about, although as mentioned in a comment above, seem overall to be more grateful and joyous in their lives than many who live with much more. Buy beyond that, you tell their story. A story that we wouldn’t hear without you! Also, I see how you’ve become a world class writer! xoxoxo

  13. These two men (what lovely faces) show by their amazing example how nothing is ever gained by stewing in anger and hatred. Life is “richer” if you can forgive and forget.

  14. I’m not really sure who else is writing a blog like this — I was too busy traveling & writing my own! — but I am glad you liked the post!! Thanks for your comment!

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