Friday, November 18, 2005

Struggle for a future

Cambodia still suffers from legacy of Khmer Rouge reign of terror

Battambang and Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Standing on a dusty roadside, Mom Noeum gestured at the tangle of tropical overgrowth surrounding his tiny, wood frame house. Aside from a few orange trees, he can grow nothing on his land.

“This area is full of mines, but we don’t know where they are,” he said.

Even if he could plant his fields, the work would be hard. Both of Mom Noeum’s arms end in stumps below the shoulder, blown off when he tried to clear a mine from the path of a column of Cambodian government soldiers tracking Khmer Rouge guerrillas nine years ago.

When he moved to the village of Dey Sor in the northwestern province of Battambang six years ago with his wife and three children, they knew there were mine fields in the area, but like many Cambodian farm families seeking a place to eke out a living, “we didn’t know where else to go,” he said. “I’ll stay here -- I have no choice.”

In many ways, Cambodia itself is like Mom Noeum, its prospects for the future cut short by a brief, bloody period that left the country virtually without infrastructure, without educated professionals and without an economy. And while it is rebuilding, the task may take generations.

“After the civil war, the country was destroyed -- even human resources -- and values were lost,” said Chea Muoy Kry, who heads Catholic Relief Service’s peace-building efforts in Cambodia.

Over nearly three decades, Cambodia was wracked by armed conflict, first from a spillover of the war in neighboring Vietnam and then from its own civil war. The U.S. bombing of Cambodia on the grounds that the Viet Cong were using it as a base helped fuel the rise of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who launched their own offensive against the Cambodian government, capturing the capital, Phnom Penh, in April 1975.

During the next three years, eight months and 21 days, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot pursued his vision of a peasant utopia, killing anyone who was considered an obstacle -- including those who were educated or who had worked with Westerners -- and purging his own party’s ranks of dissenters.

By the time South Vietnamese forces ousted Pol Pot in January 1979, nearly 2 million Cambodians had been killed or had died of starvation. The most graphic testimony lies in the glass cases filled with skulls and the bone fragments poking out of the ground at the infamous “killing fields” outside Phnom Penh.

The long-term legacy of the reign of terror is less visible, but just as insidious, reflected in statistics like the country’s high infant mortality and short life expectancy rates. Pol Pot declared 1975 to be “year zero.” Four years later, the country had to begin rebuilding from almost nothing.

Dr. Mean Chhi Vun, who heads Cambodia’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and Sexually Transmitted Illnesses, was a medical student when Pol Pot came to power. He claimed to be a laborer and was sent to the Battambang rice fields.

At the time, he said, there were more than 1,000 doctors in the country of about 8 million people. By the time Pol Pot fell, there were 14. The rest had died or fled. The medical school reopened in 1980 with mostly foreign faculty, and Mean Chhi Vun was among the first graduates.

In health care, he said, “we started from scratch after the Khmer Rouge.” The same was true in fields such as education and agriculture.

After the Vietnamese installed a government, fighting continued until peace accords were signed in 1991. Elections were held two years later, but some fighting continued in border zones. Although the armed conflict is over, there is still an edge of violence to the country.

Dangerous legacy

The Working Group for Weapons Reduction estimates that between half a million and a million small arms circulate in Cambodia, about half of them in civilian hands. And in many rural areas like Dey Sor, skull-and-crossbones signs warn of land mines, some of which shift around with the flooding of the Mekong River delta during the annual monsoon season.

Along the road near Mom Noeum’s house, a colorful billboard with a painting of an explosion under a water buffalo-drawn cart warned of the danger. Nearby, a farmer and his young son were tilling the field behind their house. The farmer paused to rest, leaning for a moment on an orange and white skull-and-crossbones sign.

Sok Srim moved to Dey Sor in search of a better life, forced out of her native Takeo province by flooding and a shortage of arable land. Like Mom Noeum, she knew there were land mines near her new home. “I’m worried about them, but I had no choice,” she said. “We’re poor. What can we do?”

As she spoke, an explosion nearby sent a cloud of black smoke billowing over the tropical greenery. She flinched, but not like the first time she heard a blast like that, when she gathered her children and huddled in a ditch.

The explosion -- there are sometimes two or three a day -- came from a nearby field being cleared by a team of experts from the Cambodia Mine Action Center working with explosives-sniffing dogs. Behind a warning sign, white stakes marked the part of the field that had already been cleared.

Millions of mines and unexploded ordnance -- shells and grenades -- still litter Cambodia’s landscape, causing about 900 casualties a year. Mine clearing is slow work. More than 250 square kilometers of land have been cleared since 1992, but more than 4,000 square kilometers are known or suspected to be mined.

“For many villagers, the risk of not being able to provide for a family is greater than taking the risk of clearing mines by themselves and reducing the overall risk in contaminated land to a tolerable level,” according to a 2003 study by the International Peace Research Institute, Handicap International and UNICEF.

While adults working in fields or forests are the most frequent mine casualties, children are more likely to be injured by unexploded shells. In March 2004, 15-year-old Lon Kom Sot and a friend were tending cows when they found a strange object in a field. Playing with it, Lon Kom Sot tossed it against a tree and it exploded. He lost both hands; his friend was killed.

Lon Kom Sot’s family was among the poorest of Battambang’s poor. His mother was a widow and the family’s land was mined, making farming nearly impossible. After the accident, he probably would have ended up begging for alms on a street corner.

Fr. Enrique Figaredo, the Spanish Jesuit who heads the apostolic vicariate (similar to a diocese) of Battambang, met Lon Kom Sot while he was in the hospital.

“I asked him: Didn’t he know that mines were dangerous? He said he’d heard something about them, but because he’d never been to school, he didn’t really understand,” Figaredo said.

For the teenager, the encounter with Figaredo was fortuitous. Lon Kom Sot is now studying at the Arrupe Center, a school and rehabilitation center operated by the church in Battambang. “Now he’s learning to read and write -- and without hands,” Figaredo said. “When he had hands, he never went to school.”

Free education -- at a price

That is not unusual in the countryside, where “free” public education comes at a price. Teachers earn about $20 a month, and schoolchildren are often expected to pay a daily bribe. It may be the equivalent of about 50 cents a day, according to Kek Galabru, who heads the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, but it often puts an education beyond the reach of children from poor families. When a family with several children can only afford to send one, she said, they choose to educate sons rather than daughters.

For church workers in Battambang, education is the key to Cambodia’s future.

“Many people couldn’t go to school during the Pol Pot regime, so there was a gap,” said Fr. Pedro Gómez, a Yarumal missionary priest from Colombia. “The education [young people] receive in the family is very weak, because their parents could not go to school.”

The legacy of the war years, Figaredo said, is “a traumatized country. The social fabric is torn. Just as the land mines have made the land treacherous, violence and war have broken down the trust between people.”

“The value is selfishness, because Pol Pot taught people not to have social relationships,” said Chea Mouy Kry of the Catholic Relief Services peace-building program. “People don’t even understand it themselves, but they come from [an atmosphere of] killing. Every day they saw death.”

As a rural development worker for the government, she would have been a target for the Khmer Rouge when they took power in 1975, but she claimed to be a student and was sent to the rice fields in Battambang. There she learned the tricks that allowed her to stay alive. “If you are clever, you could survive,” she said. “If not, you would be killed.”

She figured out techniques for planting rice more quickly, and she anticipated the needs of the commander in charge of her area, gaining his respect and appreciation. As head of a work group, she would look the other way when hungry workers stole handfuls of rice to take home with them.

“But I didn’t know how to steal,” she said. When she tried, she was nearly caught. Stealing was a daring act, punishable by death, and members of work groups were rewarded for informing on one another.

That kind of control was possible partly because it was a way for people to survive and partly because, as subjects of a monarchy, Cambodians were accustomed to authoritarian rule.

“When people are very poor, they’re easy to manipulate,” Chea Mouy Kry said.

After Pol Pot was overthrown, she became a teacher and eventually began exploring paths to peace with young people. “The younger generation did not have the values of relationship, social responsibility and communication,” she said. “Everything was lost.”

She began leading workshops on peace-building and nonviolence, giving teens a chance to talk about their concerns and their experience of violence and the aftermath of the war. One student who participated in the workshops was Bou Makara, who founded Youth for Peace in 1999 to provide leadership training to young Cambodians.

“In Cambodia, people believe that only the political leader or high leader in society can lead,” said Long Khet, who now directs Youth for Peace. “We want to empower [young people]. They need to lead themselves. They need to lead their family, their community.”

On a rainy afternoon, about 20 teenagers from different parts of the country gathered in the meeting room at the Youth for Peace office in Phnom Penh. Their voices drowned out at times by the pounding of rain on the tin roof and the roar of motorcycle engines in the street, they listed the things they worry about -- domestic violence, street crime, drug use, HIV and AIDS, deaths from traffic accident injuries in Phnom Penh’s congested streets, nationalism, corruption, tensions between Cambodians and Vietnamese living in their country, land conflicts between the rich and poor.

Workshops they have organized in their home communities have sometimes drawn mixed reactions, especially from local government officials who fear that they are stirring up opposition to the government.

Some -- especially young women -- also meet with resistance from their families. Yen Nampain, 20, used to chafe against her parents’ rules because her brother could leave the house to study and she could not. “My family wanted me at home, caring for my younger brother and sisters,” she said. “I was angry.”

She finally convinced them to allow her to attend Youth for Peace meetings and has gradually won them over, although her mother worries about her future. “She says, ‘You’ll never get a husband that way.’ I tell her that’s OK -- I’ll stay single,” Yen Nampain said, to laughter and applause from her peers.

Youth for Peace provides a forum for young people to talk about the legacy of violence in their land. One issue that stirs contradictory emotions is that of bringing the perpetrators of the genocide to justice.

Although Pol Pot died in 1998, Heng Sokun, 24, said his neighbors in the province of Kampong Cham would like to see other Khmer Rouge leaders brought to trial. It’s important to the victims that justice be done, he said, and a trial would help keep something like the Pol Pot regime from happening again.

Human rights workers would also like to see a trial, but many are pessimistic about the prospects. Despite an agreement nearly a decade ago to hold a national tribunal, a starting date seems no closer now than it was then (see accompanying story on Page 14).

Figaredo is not convinced that a tribunal will make a difference. “It’s become so politicized and so focused on money -- on how much is going to be paid -- that it has distracted attention from today’s problems,” he said. “The kind of justice we need is for people to have food, education, affordable health care and access to land.”

Further impoverishment

Those needs are critical in Cambodia, where 115 children out of every 1,000 die before reaching their fifth birthday. Outside the Khlang Meas health post, a small wood-frame building just off a dusty road in Battambang, a slender, solemn-eyed girl cradled her younger brother in her lap.

Five-year-old Boukim Heng was born HIV-positive after his mother, who died of AIDS in June, became infected. Now his 14-year-old sister, Heang, cares for him and three other children. Once a month, they and other people living with HIV and AIDS gather under the trees outside the health post for mutual support.

If he lived in Phnom Penh, Heng might be on antiretroviral drugs like the children in a pediatric AIDS program started by Maryknoll missioners a few years ago. But antiretrovirals are not yet available through public health centers in Battambang.

Just financing the rebuilding needed in all areas -- health care, education and agriculture, in a nation where 80 percent of the population lives in the countryside and crop yields lag far behind those of neighboring countries -- is a hurdle. Cambodia is dependent on international donors for half of its national spending. The government provides less than 17 percent of the Health Ministry’s $18 million budget.

Many Cambodians distrust public health services and opt for more expensive private care. To pay for medical treatment, rural families are often forced to sell or mortgage their land. That is the leading reason why Cambodians lose their land, although others fall victim to land speculators -- government officials or military officers looking to make a buck, or companies investing in tourism or agriculture.

“When big investors come, no one protects the property of small farmers,” Figaredo said. “This is a country ripe for colonization. It’s empty. So it’s filling up with colonizers.”

Because the Khmer Rouge destroyed all land titles, ownership may go to the richest or most powerful.

“In areas that are mined, land isn’t worth anything and it’s occupied by people who are very poor,” Figaredo said. “When the mines are removed, it isn’t clear who owns the land.”

Landless families migrate to another province in search of an unoccupied plot or end up in rundown houses in Phnom Penh. Young people also drift to the city in search of education or work. Some end up in garment factories, where they may earn $40 a week -- almost twice the wage of a government-employed teacher or doctor. Girls may be drawn into the city’s booming sex trade. Cambodia lies on a trafficking route along which Vietnamese women are taken to Phnom Penh and Cambodian women to Thailand to be kept in virtual slavery in the commercial sex trade.

Human rights advocates and church workers say the prevalence of the trade is another indication of widespread corruption in Cambodia.

“How can you bring women and children from Vietnam -- and pass through [both countries’ border controls] -- without being arrested?” one human rights worker said. “You cannot do this illicit activity without having strong support.”

Youth for Peace founder Bou Makara believes that bringing the Khmer Rouge leaders to trial would be an important step in breaking through corruption and impunity.

“If the tribunal fails, it would have a bad impact, because the youth will know that [the defendants] killed a lot of people, but that they cannot be sentenced,” she said.

Hundreds of faces of those killed stare from black-and-white photographs in Tuol Sleng, the Phnom Penh school that became S21, a holding place for prisoners who were brutally tortured before being sent to the killing fields.

The eeriest thing about Tuol Sleng now is its very normality. It is easy to imagine schoolchildren crowding into the classrooms or playing in the schoolyard. On the street outside, handcraft shops and restaurants cater to tourists and motorcycle taxis dodge mud puddles left by afternoon showers.

Inside, the walls are lined with sobering reminders -- paintings by a former prisoner who depicted the torture in gruesome detail; the solitary confinement cells, some still marked by remnants of chains and bloodstains; and row after row of the photos of the victims, taken by their captors.

Most of the faces are young; many seem little more than children. In one set of photos, young men stare at the camera from under Mao-style caps. They were among the Khmer Rouge soldiers killed by their own comrades.

One of the faces is that of Oung Longdi, Bou Makara’s uncle. Although he joined the Khmer Rouge, ideological differences with the regime led to his death. “I wondered [about it], because my mother said my uncle was a good person,” Bou Makara said.

She is hoping for a new direction for her country and is considering a career in politics so that she can help shape a new political system.

“I have a lot of questions: Why did the party do what it did to the Cambodian people? Why did it make people suffer poverty, a lack of education, corruption?” she said. “I’m not happy with the political leadership. People don’t know how to choose a leader. I have to share what I’ve learned.”

Barbara Fraser is a freelance writer living in Peru. Paul Jeffrey is a freelance writer/photographer who lives in Eugene, Ore. They were recipients of the Eileen Egan Award for Journalism for their 2004 series on Latin America. Their trip to Cambodia was made possible by Catholic Relief Services, which presented the award.

National Catholic Reporter, November 18, 2005


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