Posts Tagged With: Khmer Rouge

A look back at Cambodia.

wowThe first time I was in Cambodia, in 2005, I disliked it intensely. It was the end of the dry season and the land was parched and brown, as if nothing had ever lived there. My friend Martha and I stayed in a fancy tourist hotel and went outside the resort only to visit the famous temples of Angkor Wat. The heat was so intense, and the beggars & cripples in the streets so aggressive, it sapped my interest in seeing the countryside or meeting the people. Despite the wonders of the temples, it was an unpleasant experience overall, and I never wanted to go back.

Pretty much my tourista view of Cambodia, the first time.

Pretty much my tourista view of Cambodia, the first time.

However, when I went to Cambodia with Heifer last year, it was an entirely different experience. (And this is why you should never hold on to prejudices about countries you’ve only visited briefly — or in an utterly touristy fashion.)

For starters, I met the people I really wanted to get to know.mother & childAnd then there was the fact that everything – and I mean EVERY single living thing– in the countryside was bathed in green. And water. greenCambodia is geographically shaped like a bowl, so in the rainy season, water collects in the center and seeps out everywhere. The rice paddies were swollen with their watery harvest…rice field

…and children everywhere along the road were splashing happily and joyfully in the ubiquitous ponds.picking lotusI got to really talk to the people I met in the villages, and understand some of their tragic history on a deeply personal level.

Pream Sui, survivor of a forced marriage to a Khmer Rouge soldier - and beautiful grandmother.

Pream Sui, survivor of a forced marriage to a Khmer Rouge soldier – and beautiful grandmother.

I saw the work Heifer was doing to mend communities, bring people together to work alongside each other, and heal ancient rivalries with the amazing gift of animals . water buffalo

mom & chickies

pigs

A brood of guinea fowls.

A flock of guinea fowl.

And I came to adore Heifer’s country director, Keo Keang, who traveled with me every day to the villages and towns where Heifer works – and had her own horrific tale of tragedy from the Khmer Rouge days, when her father and sister were murdered. Keo Keang

Despite the severe difficulties this country faces in overcoming its genocidal past, poverty-ridden present, and dubious future, I met so many people filled with a gorgeous spirit of optimism and hope.fisherman

Kuhl Samon, mother of 11, and wife of Chin Chhil, an amputee in the war.

Kuhl Samon, mother of 11, and wife of Chin Chhil, an amputee in the Khmer Rouge civil war.

girls in temple

sweet namasteAnd believe me when I tell you, nothing can make you love a country more than that.lotusFor a look back at my Cambodia posts (and they’re really GOOD!) ..

https://heifer12x12.com/2012/10/16/haunting-cambodia/

https://heifer12x12.com/2012/10/22/a-song-of-reconciliation/

https://heifer12x12.com/2012/10/25/under-water-but-not-overcome/

https://heifer12x12.com/2012/10/29/i-was-married-to-the-khmer-rouge/

watery road

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Cambodia, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

“I was married to the Khmer Rouge.”

A rare shot of Pream allowing her sorrow to show.

In 1976, Pream Sui was 19 years old, living in Anlong Sar, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Because she was one of the “old people” –uneducated rural villagers who weren’t a threat—she wasn’t killed but placed in a youth group working in the fields. One of the guards noticed her, decided he wanted her for his own, and married her.

The “wedding” took place at the end of a workday with 12 other couples composed of guards and the village girls they’d chosen. The girls had no idea whom they were marrying but dared not refuse their captors. The ceremony lasted less than 5 minutes.

After her marriage, Sui continued to work in the fields, under the gun of her husband, but like all the other “wives,” she went to his cabin at night. In short order, she had 2 children but when Vietnam invaded Cambodia to drive out Pol Pot, her husband disappeared into the resistance and moved away. He came back a few times to visit Sui and the children, but by then he had another wife and when Sui got pregnant with her third baby, he left for good.

Now a happy grandmother, Sui’s bad memories are in the past.

To be a woman in Cambodia in the countryside raising three children alone was shameful and indescribably hard. “It’s difficult to tell you how I felt because I cried every day,” Sui says with an incongruous big smile. Somehow, she managed to farm her 3 hectares of land, raise her three children, marry off two daughters (and pay for the weddings) and is now a happy grandmother living with her eldest daughter, Chen Soueb.

“Now I appreciate all my mother’s hard work and the strength it took to raise us,” Soueb says.

Caught between poverty & family.

Soueb, 30, has four children—12, 11, 10 and 7 –and a story of abandonment of her own. About 4 years ago, her husband Heng Ha began illegally immigrating to nearby Thailand, like 75% of all the men in Anlong Sar village, Banteay Meanchey province. Disastrous floods had ruined the rice crop and drowned most of the animals, and the village men were desperate for an income. Ha decided to risk illegally going over the border to earn money working construction.

It takes 1 ½ days to make the trip into Thailand from Banteay, working through an underground network to avoid capture and getting thrown into a detention center. Once in Thailand, Ha had no way to contact his family and could only send money home through a money train that skimmed off 25%. Ha made his way home just twice a year, and every trip was laden with the risk of  being thrown in jail. Soueb gave birth to her fourth child while Ha was in Thailand, and she feared that he would never come home – much like her own dad.

So when Soeub encountered Heifer’s “Community Empowerment Program” in her village – and attended the Family Focus cornerstone training with Ha– the couple figured that if they worked very hard at home, maybe they could make it together as a family.

Together at last – Ha & Soueb & their children.

For two years now, Ha has stayed home with the family and they’ve managed to make the same amount of money as when he worked in Thailand. Despite the devastating floods of last year, the 2 pigs they received from Heifer in 2011 have reproduced and provided them with income. They attended all Heifer’s animal husbandry courses and are also raising ducks and chickens, growing rice and grasses for income and feed, eating from their home garden, and most importantly, staying together.

Heifer’s impact in the whole village of Anlong Sar has been profound: increasing the number of home latrines from 10% to over 90%; boosting family income by 30%; improving food security with animals and home gardens; decreasing the incidence of malaria by 80%; and building solidarity among these women who are so warm and affectionate, they competed to hold my hand the entire time I was there (how much did I love that??)

Women from one of the four Self-Help Groups in Anlong Sar village with KK, Heifer’s country director.

Devoted teacher Eath Korm.

I saw more evidence of the strength of the community when we met Eath Korm, a disabled 21-year old who loved school but was denied entrance past middle school because his parents couldn’t manage the transportation (Korm can’t walk). However, a member of Anlong Sar’s Self-Help Group knew of Korm’s desire to teach and encouraged him to set up a tutorial service – and with the help of Heifer’s curriculum guides, literacy packets and Teaching Technology courses (the town has no books for the children to read, so they practice with the literacy handbooks), Korm is now tutoring an after-school class of 20 enthusiastic kids.

It’s a tiny village, Anlong Sar. There’s a long way to go before there is real literacy or decent education here, and the government hasn’t made much headway in meeting its responsibilities to these poor provinces. And yet … when you see darling Soueb and her family, or Korm on crutches before his eager students in the classroom, it’s hard not to see this as a leap forward in hope.

I’m feeling it. Are you?

Categories: Cambodia, Education, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments

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

Haunting Cambodia.

Cambodia is not easy to understand, and even harder to forget.

For starters, it’s the scene of one of the most horrendous genocides in the last century when, from 1975-1979, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government slaughtered 25% of its people 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 Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In fact, from 1979, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and deposed Pol Pot, until 1994, the country was not truly free of the threat of the Khmer Rouge.  And since then, the country has been ruled by a political party known as the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) — to whom the international community has donated $18 billion in international aid. Unfortunately,   precious little of that money can be seen in this tragic country’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.

67% of the population (or more) is illiterate and bribery, and corruption begin at Grade 1, with many students forced to pay their teachers for their lessons and grades.

Almost 80% of people in rural areas live in primitive thatched houses, many without running water or electricity.

Given the country’s history of unleashed violence under the Khmer Rouge, it is also 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!

Stay tuned!

Categories: Cambodia, Children, Hunger, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

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