Scenes of Cambodia’s Troubled Past

Scenes of Cambodia’s Troubled Past

One of my favorite things about Cambodia so far is the blur of life passing by our windows as we move from place to place in our bus. We stare out the glass, entranced at the alien scenes that flash before us. Chickens scratch through a trash pile. A little boy steps gingerly in his sandals into a pool of festering green water in front of a storefront to pick at a scrap of plastic. A woman on one of the ubiquitous scooters holds onto a large platter on her head with one hand and a death grip on the driver’s shirt with the other hand. Scooters dive around our bus, like minnows in a stream. Then, the occasional gold-painted Lexus like a gaudy ornament in a colorful sea of life. It’s hard to tear our eyes off of these scenes. 

We visited the store of Village Works, a fair trade organization that Chapel Hill works with for Festival of Hope every Winter. The woman who founded the organization, Anak, took us to a building where women and men sat round tables rolling scarves and running sowing machines. At the store, a woman with no hands deftly maneuvered her nubs to pack the scarves, purses, and other knick knacks we bought. I didn’t learn her story, but I do know Cambodia has land mines strewn about. She was emblematic of the healing work Village Works is doing, giving people who might not otherwise have a job some hope of keeping employed. To me, she also represented a snapshot of the healing the whole country was doing.

We spent a majority of our day walking through scenes of the country’s troubled past. Dan Griswold, our team lead, asked me at one point if it was worth it to revisit these places. I found it invaluable as a first time visitor. For every person we met, the atrocities of Pol Pot’s regime were an indelible part of their story. In the late 70’s, one out of four people in Cambodia were killed. How could we begin to minister to them without knowing more about their collective pain?

The first of these scenes was a school that had been converted to a prison, called Tuol Sleng. We walked, quiet and reflective, through classrooms that had been converted into torture chambers. Hastily slopped dried mortar dripped down the narrow brick cells that had quickly been built to confine souls. The place was thick with the sense of oppression and evil. Thousands had been through these walls, almost all (except for a couple dozen) ended up dying within the prison or were destined for the killing fields.  We saw their faces in rows of photographs, with dull, fearful, in pain, expressions frozen in time as they were catalogued like specimens. I found myself breathing deeply as I stood at a railing looking out on the courtyard, as if to counter the claustrophobic horror I felt in this place.

Where was God when these men and women were being tortured and murdered? It was a question I found myself asking. But it was not rhetorical. I knew he wasn’t absent. We bear witness to a God who was himself tortured and imprisoned. I couldn’t imagine the pain and horror of this kind of experience, but God knows fully what that meant. Not just because he is omniscient, but because he became man and gave himself into the hands of a broken humanity that gashed and tore at his flesh. If I felt sorrow and pain at the sight of these atrocities, how much more the God of love who bears the marks of that love on his body?

We visited one of the killing fields too, a place called Cheung Ek. This is where prisoners from Tuol Sleng (and other places) were transported, murdered, and buried in mass graves. But now it is an almost idyllic, garden-like place, tourists quietly walking around with headphones, listening to the tour guide as they walk over the bones still jutting out of the ground. In the middle of the grounds is a Memorial Stupa, a temple-like edifice inside of which are stacked to the ceiling the bones of men, women, and children.

I stopped and wrote this in my journal: “I sit here on a bench at the killing fields, surrounded by remains and evidences of horror. One of the things I am told by the guide is that loudspeakers were hung from the trees playing patriotic music. These, along with the generators, would have created a cacaphony meant to drown out the moans and cries of the victims at night. I am struck by this image. In the end, the screams of these victims continue to cry out long after the loudspeakers were silenced. And there is no music so loud that it could prevent the sounds of atrocity reaching God’s ears. As if these men could hide their evil from the Lord. It is in places like this where I am grateful for a final justice. Many, if not most, of these murderers slipped back into private life after the revolution was over. Even Pol Pot died at an old age, never admitting guilt, never receiving any earthy justice. But our God is just and his judgements will be true. Maranatha.”

The soul can only take so much despair before finding ways to cope, so when we returned to the bus our conversation turned to lighter fair and it wasn’t too long before smiles and laugther returned. But we won’t forget those images, those stories. I suspect we are no different than our Cambodian brothers and sisters in this way.

Larry Hackman
Assistant Pastor
Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church