Peace, Justice and Human Rights.

Friday, October 23, 2015


In scenic southern Sweden, the global city of Malmö is just across the Øresund bridge from Copenhagen, Denmark.
It's a lovely, bicycle-friendly place with a great beach, lush green parks and romantic waterways.

Historic buildings contrast with modern architectural developments.
The landmark 'Turning Torso' is the tallest building in Scandinavia.
But look a bit deeper.
Malmö is a connection point for refugees arriving at the harbor and central train station, displaced from war-torn countries like Iraq and Syria. The Swedish Migration Agency is registering nearly a thousand new asylum seekers every day.

Tolerant, liberal Sweden took in many refugees from Sarajevo.
The Swedish Red Cross "White Buses" rescued Jews from Nazi concentration camps.

Some Jews say they are leaving Malmö because they no longer feel safe.
More Swedes are becoming uneasy about the rapid increase in refugees.
There has been a rise in racially motivated violence, including arson attacks on shelters. 
The Migration Board has announced that as many as 190,000 refugees will arrive in 2015.

About 20 percent of Malmö is now Muslim, many settling in the neighborhood of Rosengard.
Sweden grants asylum to Syrians.
Despite concerns about integrating refugees, people have rallied to help the new arrivals.
Reading news stories on the radio about refugees from Syria risking their lives to escape the fighting is one thing, but seeing it first hand at a check-in station deeply affected me.
I met a group traveling from the Syrian city of Kobani, where civilians are being massacred.
We had a language barrier, but just looking into the shell-shocked eyes of a young woman with two small children, bundled up, and heading out into the cold night, and on to an unknown future said much more than words.
That is what I will remember most about my trip to Malmö.
 I wonder where that young woman is now.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


Interview with author Molyda Szymusiak

By Karen Harlow

The Cambodian genocide took the lives of two million people. In 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge forced everyone in the country into labor camps. Starvation, torture and execution followed. The inward scars suffered by the victims have kept many from speaking out. Now that the UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal is bringing senior leaders of Pol Pot’s murderous regime to trial, it is a time to shine a light on the atrocities committed in the “killing fields.” A member of the royal family, Molyda Szymusiak lost all of her loved ones. She shares some difficult memories in this edited interview.

HARLOW: Molyda, I am inspired by your memoir, ‘The Stones Cry Out.’ You are so brave. Why did you write a book?

SZYMUSIAK: I made a promise to my Aunt Vathana before her death. If I lived, I would tell the world about all of the evil that happened to us. I am alive and I faithfully told everything, all the horrors of our history, forever engraved on my memory. Aunt Vathana died in the killing fields at the age of sixteen. I was by her side when she took her last breath. She will always be with me. I wrote my book in her name, and I felt her take me by the hand to describe our tragic fate. Before the Khmer Rouge, she was a brilliant student and a gifted writer. She read her stories to me and they brought tears to my eyes.

I escaped Cambodia, and after much time and effort, a French couple adopted me. They gave their lives to me. My father, Jan Szymusiak taught at the Sorbonne in Paris.

I learned to live a happy life. I married an Italian doctor and I am a mother of two boys, Francesco and Roberto.

HARLOW: When your family in Cambodia was starving, you gathered lotus flowers along with the seeds. Your mother praised you, saying you always bring back something for its beauty alone. I suppose that even in the darkest of times, good things can be found.

SZYMUSIAK: I was a member of the Cambodian royal family. But I never talk about that because our family did not manage the country well and I prefer to avoid politics. I was surrounded by actors and professional musicians. I found the world to be a wonderful place with a lot of light, and full of people. What joy! I remember the wedding of my uncle, King Vong. The celebration took place in a beautiful garden, with a concert by singer Huy Meas. Her divine melodies filled the air. I spent such fine days at the Royal Palace, with boat races in the daytime and explosions of fireworks at night. They are some of my best memories.

HARLOW: I am sorry that you ended up losing so much of your childhood.  
SZYMUSIAK: After the war and everything that happened in Cambodia, I became sensitive. I get sad for no reason at all. Fear takes over, and I am no longer myself. The smallest thing, just a word, or some bad news, or a song, brings back my fear of abandonment. Sometimes I ruin moments of happiness just because I am so aware of being irrevocably alone. I am the sole survivor of a large family.

HARLOW: Do you think that sharing your stories about the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge can help others?

SZYMUSIAK: I hope so. There are many things that I should tell about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge against the Khmer themselves. It is hard to understand how civilized people can fall into barbarism. To prevent it from ever happening again, we must tell the truth about the torture. I do not want younger generations to ever face such horrors.

       I worked in a labor camp under the Khmer Rouge in the town of Mong Russei. I did road construction in group number one, with twelve girls. The famous singer, Huy Meas, happened to be there with us. One of our fellow workers asked her to sing a song from another time, before the war, like we listened to on “Radio Phnom Penh.” Hearing her beautiful song again gave me strength to dig the earth.
       A soldier called out to the singer, “Oh, I’m glad to see you sing well, comrade. What a surprise! You have stirred up some feelings.” She was so frightened, walking toward those soldiers. I lowered my eyes, not daring to look. When I did, I saw them beating her with a big stick, as she hung from a branch of a mango tree. They cut her breasts off with a palm branch and raped her with a bamboo stick until she died.

      My second encounter with torture involves my uncle, the king. Soldiers arrested him during a torrential rain, saying they needed him for an important job. The next day, at about four o’clock in the morning, hundreds of us workers passed by a barn where Khmer Rouge kept pigs for their families. I saw my uncle there, in the pig pen. Two Khmer Rouge soldiers beat him with a large palm branch, cutting his flesh. My uncle cried out in pain. The soldiers laughed. My Uncle Vong said, “The enemies of heaven, the spirit of evil, you are heartless, without justice.” 
     I went to work in another village about three kilometers away. I saw my uncle, again. A vivid memory. Two soldiers beat him, again. They bound his hands behind his back, hung a pot from his neck and tied another smaller pot to his wrist. The soldiers laughed like crazy, chiding him because he was a king. My uncle cried out, “kill me now, wild men!” The sound of his hoarse voice…
Karen, I do not want to tell the rest of that story.
       The years passed. I felt so alone without my family. A pretty seven year old girl picked up an orange off the ground. Soldiers came to arrest her. A young Khmer Rouge soldier, comrade Yeap, led her to her death. He forced the girl to dig a ditch, in impossibly dry ground. She could not make a big hole, even under the threat of torture. I saw this, hidden from view behind some banana trees. I saw the murder of that innocent little girl. Partially buried in the dirt, she was still able to breathe, slowly dying. She tried to get up, her eyes bloody, she was in shock. Comrade Yeap hit her head with a pickaxe and blood gushed out. She cried, and called for her mother. That evening, her mother stood before the grave, weeping. She screamed and dug up the dirt to find her daughter.

       My best friend suffered a similar fate. Koeun and I passed through a field of sugar cane, where she found a piece of abandoned cane. Koeun picked it up and sucked on it for a bit of fresh juice. She broke it in two, to give me half. I said, “it’s forbidden to collect things, and if they see you they will kill you!” It was too late. Two young Khmer Rouge soldiers hidden behind some trees mistook her for a thief. They brought her to the communal kitchen and beat her. They shaved her head, cut her clothes, and kicked her. Handcuffed, they took her into the shed. Then the Khmer Rouge suspended her from a tamarind tree, head down, naked, tearing off both breasts, stabbing her in the face, and forcing cane sugar into her esophagus.

       All photos of my family were destroyed. We buried them under a tree. But I have one of my aunt, and my mother's cousin who died in the S-21 Tuol Sleng torture prison, murdered because she wore glasses.

       Thinking about these atrocities conjures up all of the bad things in my head. It hurts so much that I might like to die just to no longer feel anything. I have a wonderful life, but the old familiar loneliness still comes back. The metal chains of awful remembrance hold me captive. How does one erase memories?

HARLOW: I do believe that facing our past is good for spiritual healing. How do you feel about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal now bringing the perpetrators of the killing fields to justice?

SZYMUSIAK: I think judging those responsible for the massacres is good because it means acknowledging their existence. A lot of the process is questionable. So much time has passed and there is not enough international attention. All of the real culprits are not being recognized, and a few old survivors are being made the icons of evil. They are not investigating collusion, and responsibilities at an international level.

HARLOW: The victims must be heard. Molyda, you have fought hard for your life, enjoy it. I am sure your Aunt Vathana would be proud of your story.

SZYMUSIAK: That sweet and generous girl wanted children everywhere to know that war is the worst kind of tragedy. I want to say to those who have never experienced war, that humans are made to love and help each other. This applies to all of the little things of everyday life, and also to the great events of history.

HARLOW: I hope more people read 'The Stones Cry Out.' I look forward to your next book. You are a survivor.

SZYMUSIAK: I believe it is fortune that saved me. I am lucky to be alive and still finding beauty in the world.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

In the Shadow of the Banyan

"There will remain only so many of us as rest in the shadow of a banyan tree..." ~Grandmother Queen

Vaddey Ratner inherits her father's poetic soul, and keeps his memory alive in her novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan. She writes with an imaginative style, giving us a childlike view of the world in the character of Raami. Just like her papa, Raami helps us find the beauty in a life darkened with inexplicable evil. We feel the monsoon rains and discover the joy in simple things like watching a butterfly. We hate the Khmer Rouge as a horribly ruthless regime, but see many of them as child victims of the insanity as well. We come face to face with death and the guilt that comes with it. Raami's will to live is inspiring. Her mama is a survivor too. She tells Raami, "Remember who you are." In the Shadow of the Banyan is a moving tribute to the two million Cambodians who lost their lives in the killing fields.

Interview with Vaddey Ratner:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

November, 1974. Battambang, Cambodia.

In November, at the end of the rainy season, we celebrated the reversing of the currents of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap River. The country had no king to command the Tonle Sap to reverse direction, but Mai assured me that the waters would subside, thanks to the tidal pull of the full moon. The Bon Om Tuk water festival was not the usual grand ceremony. But people converged on the banks of the Sangker River to see the arrival of the dragon boats to Battambang. Small orchestras of gongs and drums played rhythmically, accompanied by singers and royal dancers, as the boats sailed up and down the chocolate brown river waters.
     A glowing ball of a moon rose behind the tall, green trees that grew on the riverbank. Most of our family gathered there, and I sat wedged in a comfortable spot between Mai and Tha. I was concentrating on digging my toes into the cool grass, when to my surprise, I saw the boy musician, Nary! He walked hurriedly by, toting two baskets filled with coconuts; balanced on each end of a piece of bamboo resting on his broad shoulders. Even with his big straw hat on, I was sure it was Nary. Without thinking, I called out his name.
     He looked over in our direction as I waved. My hand seemed to have a mind of its own. He stared my way but he did not recognize me. I clicked my fingers in the air as if I was playing imaginary finger cymbals, and his face lit up. He remembered our music under the old house back home.         
     "Oh, hello there, you, from Koas Krala!" he called out, stopping to bow his head in our direction.
     I placed my palms together and bowed my head in return. Nary smiled, then turned and continued on his way. I felt my face flush and hoped that no one noticed.
     "Chanra!" said Tha, bringing me back to the real world. "Here come the apsaras!"

The beautiful celestial dancers appeared and enacted their sacred stories, swaying in their bejeweled velvet and brocade costumes, and golden headdresses. A chorus sang about being surrounded by flowers in a garden. The apsaras’ poses and slow stylized movements expressed the wisdom of the ages. We celebrated, forgetting about our country’s problems, if only for one night.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Cambodia's Waters

The Bon Om Tuk Water Festival is one of Cambodia's most important celebrations. It’s a time of thanksgiving to the waters that fertilize the land and bring abundant fish. Bon Om Tuk marks the end of the rainy season. And it honors an amazing phenomenon. The Tonle Sap River is the only river to reverse its direction twice a year. The Tonle Sap River joins the Tonle Sap Lake with the Mekong River. Lake Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. The Mekong River enters Cambodia from Laos in the north, runs south across the Kingdom, into Vietnam and to the sea.

                                     wikipedia photos. author: Matti Kumu

The level of the Mekong rises during the rainy season, through October. This causes the Tonle Sap River to back up, and flow to the northwest and into Lake Tonle Sap. The lake quadruples in size. When the dry season comes, the water backs up into the Mekong once again.

                                         photo: Jennifer Phoon

During Bon Om Tuk, boat races are usually held on The Tonle Sap River and around Cambodia. The boat race water festival dates back to the 12th century, as decreed by King Jayavarman and depicted in bas reliefs at Angkor Wat. Crews of 40 or more oarsmen man hundreds of longboats. At night, illuminated dragon boats cruise the waterways under brilliant fireworks displays.

                                                                    photo: Werner Pauwels

At the climax of the festival, the King commands the Tonle Sap to reverse direction and flow to the sea. The river obeys. This coincides with the full moon in November. Sampeah Preah Khae is a ceremony where people gather at midnight to salute the moon.

                                                                                   photo: Frederick Noronha

"Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it." ~Lao Tzu

"Water is the driving force of all nature." ~Leonardo da Vinci

"Thousands have lived without love, not one without water."
~W.H. Auden 

Thursday, September 29, 2011


My mother dreamed about a black diamond, the strongest of gems. It was deep and shimmering, and in the shape of a heart. The black diamond has not always been considered beautiful, but forever rare and enduring, and a sign of good fortune.
          The dream foretold my birth in the small farming town of Koas Krala, in the western province of Battambang, Cambodia. It was the start of the monsoon season, when the rain clouds came in suddenly and the rice paddies in the flat and rich land swelled with water. The great expanses of green fields stretched out to meet the lush surrounding jungles, and the mountains loomed dark in the distance against a backdrop of blue-gray sky.

Our house was built on stilts, about eight feet off the ground and made of wood. A stairway ran up the middle and led to a balcony. The front door opened into the altar room decorated with serene Buddha statues, artwork on the walls and colorful pillows scattered on the floor. Behind that was the big kitchen and dining room, and on the other side, the living room and bedrooms, all divided by curtains. It was the finest house in the village, and so safe then, even as rain fell heavy on the red tile roof and thunder played like a drum roll for the event of my birth.
I came into the world looking to mother just like the black diamond, with dark skin, dark curly hair and a heart-shaped face. I was not a son, but the fourth daughter, seventh if you count my stepsisters.
“This baby is ‘ugly!’” my mother declared, loud enough for the spirits to hear, because superstition says that beautiful children may be taken away.
The midwife wrapped me snugly in a blanket and put me in my cradle that was delicately carved with lotus blossoms, a symbol of purity. Mother slept in a small bed, up off the ground, so my father could put hot coals from the fire underneath to warm her body, like all Cambodian women did after childbirth. Mother believed it would help to retain her beauty. She drank only hot water and wine with herbs that father had been gathering in the mountains.  Mother said I cried a lot, but she was right about the good spirits, because I was born into a happy life.
Mother was named Seoun; I called her Mai. She looked different than most Cambodian women, just a bit too tall, and striking in an unusual way, with wide cheekbones, dark skin and long black hair that she always kept tied up in a knot. She had been orphaned in Phnom Penh at the age of five, which made her quite independent. She always stood upright and proud.
According to our custom, Mai’s marriage was arranged, when she was sixteen years old. My Grandmother Sei was my father’s mother, an influential woman who loaned money to the people of the town to finance their crops. She was exceedingly wise, so of course she chose Mai. Grandmother Sei paid a visit to the house where Mai was living with her brother Mern and his family.
She simply asked, “Seoun, will you marry my son?”
The request took Mai by surprise. She did not even know him.
“He is a good man, and well respected,” said Grandmother Sei.
She was persuasive, and not many people ever refused her anything. Mai felt apprehensive because my father was older.
“Why me?” she asked.
“I know that you are strong and able, and kind enough to take care of my son’s family,” Grandmother Sei said. “And he will build you a big house to live in.”
Father’s first wife had died and left him with three children. Mai, having struggled alone for much of her own life, knew what it was like for children to need a mother. So she made her decision right then and there.
Mai answered, “Yes.” And the deal was done.
Father's name was Chheun; I called him Pok. He was tall and handsome, with strong features and smiling brown eyes. Pok was a wagon builder and he crafted the finest wagons. Everyone in the province knew the Koas Krala wagons by their design.

Pok owned a large farm where he raised cows, pigs, water buffalo, chickens, ducks and lots of fish in a pond. The family hid their gold in a clay pot, buried where the banana tree grew. It was well known that people in Koas Krala had lots of secreted gold, and the name of the town signifies that.
Mao was my parents’ firstborn child. I called her mean Mao because she always wore a stern expression. Cina was the pretty one, and then came Pech, and I was the youngest. My name is Chanra. My father’s daughters from his first wife were Seam, Poey and Tha. They were all married. Seam and Poey lived with their husbands in the nearby city of Battambang. Tha was my favorite sister, a striking and stylish girl. She carried me everywhere until I got too heavy. I followed my sisters to school at the nearby Koas Krala temple, where the monks taught reading and writing. I enjoyed the lessons, mostly because the monks fascinated me with their shaved heads and eyebrows, and their wrap-around saffron robes, especially the youngest monks arrayed in the brightest color. They wore nothing underneath, but I did not know it at the time.

The temple was made of stone, fit for the Gods, and sat regally in the center of town, facing east. It was enclosed by a wall, next to a tranquil pond crowded with floating lilies. Sculptures of many-headed cobras, or Naga, adorned the balustrades of the pathway leading to the shrine. Its three levels formed a pyramid shape, like a temple mountain. The steep stairs on the tiered base led up to the terrace with an open pavilion, galleries and library, and on top of that perched the central tower. The tall pointed roof looked like a crown with five peaks, one at each compass point and one in the center, topped with a domed cupola. The exterior walls were intricately carved with bas-reliefs of battle marches that showed the coming of the French. They were studded with sculptured columns, each one different from the next.
On a warm day, I looked up at our temple with pride. I felt humbled by its size as I stood in the dappled patches of shade cast by tall mahogany trees growing just outside of the retaining wall. I wore shorts, thong sandals and little else. Vendors sold fruits and vegetables nearby, and the smell of sweet rice dumplings tempted me. I ran to the stairs, and then up and down, and then back up to the railing of the terrace, which was rough in my hands. I made my way around and around the patio, and then through the gilded doorway to the central sanctuary. It was dark, but I could still see the paintings on the walls depicting the life of Buddha one side, and on the other a parade of costumed men and women riding harnessed elephants draped in ceremonial colors. Huge stone figures stood sentinal on each side of the room, and I sought comfort in the half-closed eyes and gentle smiles of those meditating Buddhas. Behind one of them I discovered the perfect hiding place. I crouched there, just as quiet as a statue, concealed and waiting. When my sisters finally came up from the library to find me, I seized just the right moment to jump out, shouting and laughing and shattering the silence. Then I ran back out, down the stairs, and all the way home, just ahead of everyone else, to be the first to claim the rights to the big hammock, the one that Mai had made from coconut fibers, that was hanging in the shade underneath our house on stilts.

Everyone gathered there; my family, our neighbors, friends, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and anyone with a song to sing or a story to tell. My Uncle Jem was a Captain in Lon Nol’s army. He visited us, and told stories about his military expeditions and the fighting in other parts of the country. The war seemed so far away then.
          I preferred to lose myself in the traditional Cambodian music we listened to. It was under the house that I first saw the boy, Nary, playing the khim. He came from a nearby village, wearing a big straw hat, and he rode in on a bicycle with a basket on the back that held the wood and brass khim. It was an elegant instrument for such a boy. He played while sitting with his legs crossed, striking the bronze wires with rubber-tipped bamboo rods. The women danced. I played finger cymbals, called chhing, and watched Nary intently as his lips moved to the music, but he did not sing. He looked happy when he played, even when the songs evoked sadness.

We listened to plays broadcast from Phnom Penh on the radio. One told the legend of the beginning of the Kingdom of Cambodia. A beautiful Khmer Princess met an Indian Brahman, as they both sailed through the watery land. He fell in love at first sight. The Brahman shot an arrow from his magic bow into her boat and she agreed to marry him. Many of the folk stories were tragic, and left me wishing for a happy ending. I favored princess fairy-tales; one in particular about a young lady with many suitors, all trying to marry her for her money. The clever girl lured the men into a room full of her jewels. When each of them stepped up to take one of the valuables, he dropped into a hidden pit of warm mud and sticky rice. That test revealed the greed of the deceitful men. The Princess then married for love.

Springtime was always my favorite time of year, when the dry heat came on and we celebrated the New Year. I would wake up at dawn when it was still cool and quiet, and slip noiselessly out of bed and tiptoe past my sleeping sisters, and very stealthily, skipping the floorboards that creaked, make my way to the kitchen. My breakfast was always a feast of the leftover rice stuck to the bottom of the pot, with lots of soy sauce. Then I would peek outside and take a deep breath of the fragrant early morning air, and look to see if our horse named Samnang, which means lucky, was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. If I came out with a special treat, he shook his mane and bent his head down so I could pet the white star on his forehead.

The barefoot monks came by, chanting their prayers and collecting alms. It was an honor for me to give them food. I made my own rounds of the neighborhood. Next door, I watched the cleaning and pounding of massive amounts of fish, and the preparation of the prahok fish paste. I ran barefoot in the rice paddies, skipping my way down the low earthen dikes that divided the fields into square patterns, where rice grew taller than I was. I usually arrived home dirty and smelling of fish. I played by our pond, under the shade of the fanlike fronds of the sugar palm trees. My sister Tha’s husband helped us get the sugar palm juice, an important job before our social gatherings. He scaled the tall, slender, curving tree trunks with a ladder, to gather nectar from the flowers by letting the juice drip through a bamboo pole and into a jar. By morning the jar would be full of the intoxicating juice.

I had everything, even a new baby brother. Srey was born, chubby and adorable. Mai was so happy; finally a boy. For whatever reason, her other sons had died; one miscarriage, and another at birth. To ensure that the spirits would not take Srey, Mai dressed him up as a girl. He wore an earring and a dress for the first two years of his life, and became part of our contented family.
     We ate our dinner together after Pok came home from work. He often went to Battambang City for business. I secretly knew that he loved me the most, because without fail, he returned with a bag full of fancy hard candies. He always gave it to me.

     "One piece for everyone…and the rest are all mine!" I announced. 

I did not want to share, especially the green and white ones, which were sweet, and they never spoiled my appetite.      
Mai made the savory B’baw Mouan soup with chicken and rice in a hot pot, the aroma filling the kitchen. I set the table, putting all the food out at the same time in various bowls and platters; with small bowls of fish sauce, soy sauce, salt and pepper, lime slices and chilies.
We were preparing for just such a meal when I first heard the sounds of war in our village. It was June 6th, my eleventh birthday, not a big celebration, but Mai always remembered. Suddenly, loud booming sounds resonated from somewhere off in the distance.
"What is it?" I asked.
I could tell by the look on Mai's face that something was wrong.
"Chanra, call for your sisters, we must go," she said in a strangely calm voice.
"Where, Mai? And where is Pok?"
"Pok is waiting for us."
Mai packed up the food in a basket that she placed in my arms. She steered me to the door and down the stairs. She carried a rolled-up floor mat, a blanket, and Srey in his little dress. Again I heard a loud noise that sounded like thunder. My sisters Cina, Pech, and mean Mao were already coming in from the fields, followed by the horse Samnang. They tied him up under the house as he snorted and stomped his feet. Mai prodded me along as we headed toward the temple. My sisters ran to catch up with us. Usually Mai told us to be quiet when we walked, but she did not seem to notice our loudly clicking thongs. That worried me.
"Pok, Pok!" I called when we got to the entrance of the temple.
My father and some of the other men from town were putting palm fronds and tree branches up against the inside of the surrounding walls, tying them together with vines and barbed wire. Pok waved us under the cover, and I saw some of our neighbors there too. We all sat down, huddled closely together, and for a while heard nothing but the sounds of our own heavy breathing and the low voices of the men keeping watch outside.
And there it was again, still far away, but unmistakable, the sound of explosions. Mean Mao said they were bombs, Cina said they were missiles. Srey cried.
"Have some birthday rice cakes," said Mai, trying to distract us.
We each took one from the basket.  I took one more. We sat on the floor mat, wrapped up in the blanket, in the dark, until at last we fell asleep.
The sun shone brightly when we awoke, and Pok said we could go back home. Everything seemed the same as always when we got back to the house. Mai made a pot of jasmine rice. She set aside enough for our lunch, and then prepared another portion with slices of jackfruit, which she stuck with sticks of incense and  placed on the altar. I  picked some wildflowers growing in the yard and laid them next to the offering. Mai lit the incense and got down on her knees, put her hands together out in front of her, and bowed her head three times. Together we prayed to the spirits of our ancestors.
 Pok went back to work on the shelter, and everyone else did chores as usual. Srey and I watched Mai in the kitchen. I noticed the crease between her eyes that told me she was unhappy. I tried to be helpful and ladylike because she liked that, and she did not have to tell me once not to talk too much.

The warfare that was once just part of Uncle Jem’s military tales had reached the outskirts of our village. The communist fighters were called Khmer Rouge. They wore all-black outfits, with red scarves so bright we could see them lurking by the edge of the nearby jungle. Sometimes they would come into the village looking for one particular person. We heard that a man was taken away, an artist. The soldiers said they needed him for a special job. Pok suspected that it was because he was of Chinese descent. We started spending most nights in the shelter, along with the other villagers. When darkness fell, the sounds of gunfire always seemed a bit closer. Mai told me to imagine that we were playing hide-and-seek in my favorite place. But I suddenly felt too old for that, and the grand Koas Krala temple was different too. The shelter stretched out along the inside of the surrounding wall like a train, each family had their own space. The men had strengthened the refuge by covering it with a mixture of mud and hay, and a layer of bamboo, thorny branches and barbed wire.
When we emerged from the shelter early in the morning, I always pretended that everything was fine.
"You are all lucky I got you into the hiding place, or you would be dead," I said merrily, skipping along. "And do not worry about farming because I did all of your work while you were sleeping!"
My family always pretended to believe me.
One day, as I jumped over a yellow ribbon in front of our house, I saw Tha and her husband riding up in one of Pok’s wagons, pulled along by two lazy water buffalo, kicking up dust from the dirt road as they approached. I dropped the ribbon and ran out to meet them. I did not notice the soldiers coming from the other side until they were very close to the wagon, and stopping it. They carried guns over their shoulders. Their black uniforms looked just like pajamas. The boys appeared to be young, not much older than myself, and I thought I recognized one of them as a peasant from a nearby village who had gone to the hills.
The tallest boy, with his red scarf wrapped around his head, called out to Tha and her husband, "Can you show me the way to the next town?"
Tha’s husband pointed in the right direction.
"Get down from the wagon and show us," the boy ordered.
I had never heard a young person address someone older so impolitely. Tha’s husband was a doctor; well educated and respected. Tha bravely threw her shoulders back, took her husband’s hand and headed off with him, followed by the boy soldiers.
I waited on the stairs of our house all day for their return, my eyes fixed on the road. I liked Tha's husband because he was always so patient with me, taking the time to give me water buffalo rides, steering me around the yard in circles. I waited some more. Mai told me not to worry, but the fact that she was praying did not reassure me. 
Just before dark, I spied Tha returning, looking very small in the distance and bent over like she was carrying a heavy load. She came back alone. I ran to her, and when I put my arm through hers she was shaking. 
"He is gone from this earth," was all that she could say.
That night in the shelter I asked about death. Mai told us what the Buddha said to his disciple Ananda.
"When they die, nothing will remain of them but their good thoughts, their righteous acts, and the bliss that proceeds from truth and righteousness. As rivers must at last reach the distant main, so their minds will be reborn in higher states of existence and continue to press on to their ultimate goal, which is the ocean of truth, the eternal peace of Nirvana."

Her words and the sound of her voice comforted me. But I felt sad because I knew that Tha’s husband would never return.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Finding Peace In Cambodia by Jerry Edling

The first thing you notice is the haze. It is thick enough to transform the sky into a soft lens through which the reddening sun descends over the Mekong River. Hundreds of people clamber onto a mountaintop structure at the Angkor Wat complex to view this spectacle every day. The sun descends into the river like a languorous flatboat, disappearing from view before it reaches the horizon. Watching the sun descend is an awe-inspiring spectacle, but the grand finale is tantalizingly shrouded from view.
photo: Frederick Noroha
Sunset over the Mekong River is a metaphor for Cambodia. This country’s brilliant but turbulent history is gradually coming to light through the haze of time, but the finale is shrouded in questions. This is a land of kings and the Khmer Rouge, a place in which visions of a brighter future have led to both splendor and savagery. Cambodia is coming to grips with both.

Tuol Sleng Prison, or S-21, is a former high school nestled among the row buildings and Humphrey Bogart shutters of Phnom Penh.

It is the crucible of a vision that went horribly awry, the place where the Khmer Rouge brought all the “counterrevolutionaries” and the innocents who allegedly didn’t share their vision of an egalitarian peasant society.

To walk into S-21 is to be reminded that it is part of very recent history. Victims of land mines, robbed for life of their mobility by the paraphernalia of war, cluster around the front gate of S-21; and only the most callous of souls could fail to part with a few riel to ease their suffering in some small way. Tour guides are available at S-21. They are as patient and attentive as the tuk-tuk drivers who take visitors on bone-jarring trips around Phnom Penh. They recount the atrocities that were committed at S-21 with what can only be described as professionalism. It is strangely comforting to hear their factual accounts of the ordeals of the prisoners who unwillingly made their homes here, comforting in the sense that facts and honesty are the best palliatives for pain. And this was a place of unimaginable pain from the moment the prisoners arrived.

The visitor to S-21 is shown pictures of new arrivals with numbers safety-pinned to their chests. It is impossible not to cringe when viewing these photographs and to wonder what sort of zeal or “patriotic” fervor could lead one human being to cause so much suffering in another. But the pictures only tell part of the story. The leg irons that kept the inmates shackled like doomed cattle still litter the cold concrete of the cells. Those hard, unforgiving floors provided the bedding for the inmates, who slept in their underwear while shackled to the wall or to iron bars and were served two spoonfuls of weak porridge every day.

Prison life at S-21 had an eerie regularity. Prisoners were tortured twice a day. How frustrating it must have been for the inmates to gaze over the wall at the city as they were walked to the post where they were hung upside down. When they passed out, their heads were dipped in filth so putrid it woke them out of unconsciousness. After their ordeals they returned to their cells, which did not always provide any respite from torture, as the still-visible blood stains silently attest.

S-21 is a grim place; and yet, there is a sense of peace about it, a peace perhaps born of its origins as a high school but more likely arising out of the reverent spirit that pervades it. S-21 is a shrine to the innocents, the powerless folk who are simultaneously history’s victims and its soul. About 17,000 people entered S-21. Eight are known to have survived.

There is no peace at the Choeung Ek Killing Field, located several kilometers from S-21.

Here the visitor is shown a tree where the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide were killed with makeshift weapons while a loudspeaker blared music to cover their screams and where children were bashed to death against the trunk for sport.

The Killing Field is pock-marked with mass graves that stand empty, dug up like so many craters of the moon. 

At the center of Choeung Ek stands a commemorative stupa that serves as the final resting place for so many, its gilded spires reaching to the sky as if to ask why.

These are disturbing images, to be sure. It is a testament to the resilience of the Cambodian people that they are confronting this period of their history so forthrightly. Cambodia is a young country with an ancient history. According to the World Factbook, its median age is 22.9 years. Most Cambodians know the Khmer Rouge only as history, not as part of their own lives. But history dies hard. It is still on the lips and in the memories of older Cambodians who, like the stupa at Choeung Ek, reach out and ask why. Younger Cambodians are following their lead.

It is that resilience that lingers in the memory of the visitor and that buoys Cambodia toward a future filled with hope. The essence of Cambodia is that it is rooted in place. The dominant image on its flag, for example, is Angkor Wat; and its 500 riel note is adorned with the images of both Angkor Wat and a modern bridge. This is a country that draws its strength from places rather than abstractions, in contrast to the United States, for example, which is rooted in an idea. Norman Rockwell paintings capture the essence of the American spirit: a man rising to a point of order at a town meeting, a woman uncovering a turkey at the Thanksgiving table, a soldier returning home from war. Angkor Wat captures the essence of Cambodia: regal splendor in the forest and a sense that it is possible to build something that will endure for generations to come. 

photo:Molyda Szymusiak

Given that Cambodia is rooted in place, it is, perhaps, significant that Angkor Wat faces west, toward the sunset. Is it possible that somewhere in the haze that shrouds the future Cambodians will be able to glimpse the lasting peace they deserve?