Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Real Cambodia: Rising from the Ashes

The Cambodian people we have met so far have been unimaginably kind, friendly, and gracious — with big generous hearts and broad friendly smiles. There is however a sadness that comes through when speaking with our two guides. Both Ta and Banat lost family during the Khmer Rouge purges of the 1970's. Ta lost his older brother during the Pol Pot regime, was given a gun to use when he was 13, and sent to the fields to work every day. He was forbidden to go to school, so he went to a secret school at 4:30am each morning — one run by the elders. Banat's father was killed because he was a mathematician.

During the Khmer Rouge's three-year, eight-month, and 21-day rule of Cambodia, the KR committed some of the most heinous crimes in modern history. The entire population of Cambodia's urban areas was evacuated from their homes and forced to march into rural areas to work the fields. Every man, woman, and child was forced into slave labor for 12-15 hours each day. An estimated two million people — 21% of Cambodia's population — lost their lives. Many of these victims were brutally executed. Many more died of starvation, exhaustion, and disease.

That these crimes were committed so recently — 1975-197— makes them all the more sickening. The country's scars are still plainly visible. The population is suspiciously youthful, with 50% under the age of 15! The economy is in a shambles. This is partially thanks to the Khmer Rouge's execution of the upper and educated classes. It's hard to comprehend the motivations behind an atrocity like the Cambodian genocide. What could have been going through the minds of the Khmer Rouge officers and their leader Pol Pot? About 2 million Cambodians are estimated to have died in waves of murder, torture, and starvation, aimed particularly at the educated and intellectual elite.

Both Ta and Banat now have families of their own, and Ta gives his free time to dig wells, contributes money to a local school for for free english lessons for all the students wishing to learn. And he's just a regular guy, sort of...part angel too I believe. But if history has proven anything, it has also proven that people can be extraordinarily resilient. Pol Pot cast a heavy shadow over Cambodia, but the people have managed to persevere, begin anew, and find joy in life again. That to me is a recipe worth having: that despite all the pain that Cambodia has undergone, that they have found the courage to smile and start again, from the ashes of the 'hard times'.