These are wise words from a good friend and ex-colleague from MSF who works with me on the Board at Phter Koma. About ten years older than me, he was a young boy when the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975. When Lisa visited me in July last year she purchased a book “When The War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution” by Elizabeth Becker. Not long later, she pronounced it as too heavy-going and I inherited it. With everything else going on I haven’t read it regularly but I have continued to slowly plough through and am learning a lot from it. I’ve just reached Chapter 7 on page 205, with over 300 pages to go yet.
The background to the Khmer Rouge is one of surreptitious paranoia on a background of communist and xenophobic doctrines. After proving to be a less-than-average student, Pol Pot obtained a low-level qualification in Paris, where he became involved with Communist movements in Europe and then South East Asia before branching out to form the Cambodian Communist Party which became known as the Khmer Rouge (French for the Red Army). For years his position as head of the organisation was known only by a very few close leaders in the party. In the years prior to 1975, Cambodia was already politically volatile. Lon Nol, the Prime Minister overthrown by Pol Pot in 1975, had himself led a coup against the ruling King Sihanouk in 1970. Both of these predecessors behaved as megalomaniacs, lurching the country between disasters and predisposing their people to the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. When the Khmer Rouge overtook Phnom Penh in April 1975, the city of 3 million people were immediately marched into the countryside to join agricultural collectives. Millions lost their lives to violence, murder, starvation and disease as traitors were identified and “disappeared” and village populations inflated to beyond capacity upon their forced arrival. In my opinion, Cambodia provides a prime example of the way that destructive power taking root at a given point in time in a given place, can impact upon many generations of time and place.
The repercussions of events from decades ago continue to impact significantly upon Cambodians today. Anyone my age and older, is affected by memories of trauma related to American, Vietnamese and Cambodian terror including relentless air raids and land-based assaults. Arguably the worst assault of all, being the defeat of Phnom Penh in April 1975 by soldiers who were initially believed by many to be liberating them towards peace. This could not have been further from the truth. As a young girl in New Zealand I have a clear memory of my mother claiming that “Pol Pot is a bad man” and that he was doing bad things to his own people in Cambodia. It did not make sense to me at the time and I certainly had no comprehension that oneday I would go to live in this far-away land. At the same time, as I was going to school everyday, attending Brownies and Swimming Club, sleeping over with friends, playing with siblings and cousins, jumping on our trampoline and eating three meals a day, my insightful Cambodian friend was living an altogether different existence.
He openly talks of his experiences and last night in conversation about things he gave me permission to tell my version of his story here. I am afraid that I won’t do it any justice because his experiences are so far removed from my own that it’s difficult to comprehend what he is even talking about sometimes. His mother was born in the year of the Tiger. He says that “She was a rich lady. Once she lost everything of her own, she pitied me and oneday she told me “You are really unlucky. I am a tiger and I was very strong. But now I am too weak, like the tiger without teeth. So you have to learn how to live by yourself, because I have nothing to give you, I have no ability to feed you””. When my own mother visited me last year he was very surprised to learn that I still had a mother and that she could travel. My perception of this was “gee, I really must be looking old these days”. But he went on to say “My mother died when I was still growing up. I miss her even now. She was the one person who I trusted entirely and who always listened to me and understood me no matter what”. I feel the same way about my own mother. The difference being that when I lose her, I will have had a solid lifetime of good health and prosperity with her, not a fleeting childhood of trauma and starvation.
My friend is a doctor who did his medical training in Vietnam after joining the South Vietnamese military in the 1980s. In his 50s now, he has nothing. The “good” salary of around $1,000 per month which he has earned via MSF for about seven years now will come to an end later this year and he expects to find a standard job as a doctor earning in the vicinity of about $400 to $500 per month. He does not have a home or any savings. His earnings have been used to put a number of nephews through university, who now sport some very impressive qualifications including a recently qualified architect. When he has not been helping family he has been involved with the children of Phter Koma, most of whom he has known since they were infants, watching their parents die as he tried unsuccessfully to save them from their AIDS disease. We were at Phter Koma together last night and the children, happy to see this paternal figure, put on a musical performance in the front yard for us, using a plank of wood as a microphone and a broom as a guitar. Many laughs and hugs were shared. When his contract ends with MSF he is planning a change in lifestyle. There will be no money for personal internet connection or domestic travel, nor for continuing to assist others, including the children at Phter Koma. Attempts to convince him of alternative solutions such as financial assistance are met with dignified refusal, which I understand but find difficult to accept. The continuing legacy of Cambodia’s history is one of such intense destitution that the men and women best placed to execute positive change remain so focussed on survival that it is not possible to think beyond their own needs.
During the Khmer Rouge my friend grew up as an orphan, occasionally seeing his mother when their mobile collectives would merge together perhaps once a year. He was placed in a collective with other boys and learned to be quiet and compliant as the soldiers monitored friendships and moved people around to avoid anyone becoming too close or friendly with each other. He was also regularly quizzed about what he knew of the people in his group so he said nothing and he heard nothing in order to remain safe. Anyone seen to be behaving in a traiterous manner could be taken away and never seen again. Today he is outspoken and confident but he understands why so many of his generation remain quiet and without opinion. He was the youngest of thirteen children in a wealthy family in 1975. By 1979 his father and nine of his siblings, their spouses and children were all dead. His mother died in the early 1980s. He lived on the streets as an orphan before joining the military where his academic ability led him to medical school.
As we spoke last night he said a few profound things, which I have come to expect from this wise-hearted mentor. I had offered to try and help in some way because to me, a homeless, fully functional doctor is not a normal or acceptable reality. In my world respected doctors earn too much, not too little, and this situation feels intolerable to my western perspective. His reply was that he was happy for me to tell his story but that I should not ask for help and that if help were to be offered, he would have to gratefully decline. “Since I was born my heart has been broken so this is the normal life for me. The suffering in Cambodia is so much and the children at Phter Koma are only 12. For me, in Cambodia when you are old, no matter if you are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or anything, you can go to the Pagoda and they will look after you”. The future as he sees it has a Cambodian solution, not an imposed foreign solution and I appreciate this. At the same time I lament the consequences Cambodia continues to live with, of an era impacting upon generations who did not create and do not deserve the world they happen to have been born into.
When he stated last night that “with human beings, two plus two does not equal four” he was not talking about anything to do with what I’ve written about here. But his comment is the perfect title of this blog post because it exactly describes the disproportions of this arbitrary and somewhat pre-destined world we all share.