[PHNOM PENH – November, 2006] Comebacks exist on a personal, communal or national level. Sometimes, they exist on all three...
On my first visit to Cambodia (ten years ago to the day), I was blown away by the visible scars of civil war that destroyed the country in the late 1970's. Sure, the Khmer Rouge's bloody reign had ended a full twenty years prior to my arrival, but the oppressive effects still hung in the air like a burdensome blanket. This "fog of war" choked me like a humid haze. Walking through the aftermath, I felt a strange immediacy to the conflict, as though the blood-letting had ended just days or even hours before my arrival.
At the notorious Killing Fields of Cheung Ek, I walked amongst the nameless graves of Pol Pot's victims, but more impressionable than the pile of 8,000 skulls or the signposts indicating "635 Bodies Found Here" were the bone fragments that littered the ground before me. As I pulled at scraps of fabric, unearthing them from the clayish red soil, the human remains (now merely bone fragments and dust) escaped through the shirtsleeves and pant legs, as though seeking solace in the hallowed ground from which they came. With human remains sifting through my fingers, the Khmer Rouge’s goal – creating an agrarian society that broke all links with the past and denounced education and family as enemies of the state – seemed more ludicrous than ever. As I found myself face-to-face with the decayed matter of these nameless victims, I pondered their identities: was this the shirt of an executed professor who was killed for his "western ways" or perhaps a simple city merchant murdered for his "cosmopolitan lifestyle"? Each scrap of checkered cotton or blue polyester yielded another dead body, another gruesome death, another lost soul. The two million Cambodians killed during the four-year war equaled a quarter of country's population at that time. Death still hung in the air and without proper burials, the war's ghosts continued to roam free.
Also in the capitol of Phnom Penh, I wandered through the notorious Tuol Sleng Security Prison, also known as S-21, a place so gruesome that death's grim presence still haunts the empty halls. What was once a high school had been converted into a torture prison for the Khmer Rouge's political prisoners and on the day the Vietnamese liberated the city, they were horrified to find tortured bodies chained to beds, the charred remains of prisoners and countless corpses within its blood-splattered walls.
Today, the place has been left in situ; the rusting bed frames, the gruesome photos and the crimson bloodstains that resemble a deranged Jackson Pollock painting have been left exactly as they were found. Having visited Nazi concentration camps in Poland, the scene at S-21 made an even deeper impression upon me. Unlike the death camps of Birkenau, where the wooden huts that housed the doomed Jews have crumbled to dust, the shock of Tuol Sleng still resonates through the halls. It was this immediacy – the feeling that these crimes had just taken place – that made that 22 year-old Chicago boy tremble.
Even away from these death-ridden places, I felt the traumatic after-effects of the war. Middle-aged men were strangely absent from the mass of humanity on the city streets, as such a large percentage of these young men (at the time) had been killed by the murderous rage of Pol Pot's brief-though-horrific reign from 1975 until 1979.
Even after escaping the madness, having fled the chilling city like a haunted Conrad character, I was assailed by stark reminders of the dislocation the populace still endured. On a riverboat floating towards the illustrious Angkor Wat temples, a small elderly man inexplicably but gently held on to me, hugging me without reason. To him, I represented security, perhaps because I came from a "rich country" or perhaps because I was too young to have experienced the horrors of the war, as though my innocent and uncorrupted soul provided this poor man solace. I tried to imagine the horrors he had experienced – had he watched his wife raped before his very eyes or had his sons been killed as he looked on? As his anguish seeped into my being (call it the Permeation of Pain), I had to wonder if those scattered teeth at the Killing Fields were his mother's or if that infant's skull was that of his own baby boy? As we found ourselves locked in a most unexpected-yet-emotional embrace, words were not exchanged though the expression "I feel your pain" resonated within my soul.
My initial round-the-world trip was a personal quest, a mission to learn about the wonders of the world; but after witnessing Thailand's temples and the glorious beaches of the Philippines, Cambodia's war scars shocked me into confronting a reality I never knew existed. As I left Cambodia the first time, I made a vow to return to this troubled-yet-enchanting country, though I had no idea when or why.
One decade later, in a new millennium and armed with a new sensibility, I have returned.
Just like the victims of any war, Cambodians have reacted to their past in a variety of ways; some have turned to art as a means of therapeutic self-expression while others have withdrawn into themselves, unable to confront the inner demons unleashed by Pol Pot’s murderous rampage. After reading personal accounts and speaking to locals, I understand the difficulty so many face in recovering from the war. Besides the physical trauma that years of forced labor and malnutrition caused, even more harmful are the mental side-effects: post-traumatic stress disorder, constant fear and the loneliness (and guilt) that comes with the death of one's family. For the survivors, there is no simple recovery plan, no magical "9 Steps to a Normal Cambodian Existence." Loung Ung, in her chilling autobiography First They Killed My Father writes, "Someone told me if you hit your head hard enough, you will lose all your memory. I want to hit my head hard. I want to lose my memory."
Which brings me to Kong Vuthy, who emerged from the bloodshed beaten, though not defeated. Both his parents and all seven of his brothers and sisters had been killed, but somehow he was strong enough to forge a new path. I can't imagine how he had the determination to start anew after losing his entire family. “I was still young - twenty-five - and I still had hope. At least I had all four of my limbs,” he tells me, in reference to the thousands that had been maimed by the all-too-common land mines peppered throughout the rice paddies of the Cambodian countryside.
What better way to deal with the sense of loss than to turn the most improbable of professions: that of a comedian. In the years to come, Mr. Vuthy would make a name for himself as an actor and comic, even traveling abroad to perform. But although he carved out a successful living for himself and his new wife and children, he still felt unredeemed. Sure, he had helped his people laugh their way through their anguish, but he sought out a more immediate impact.
And that is where our paths crossed: at the Chey Prach Kuma, the small orphanage he founded amidst a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Phnom Penh. In the last four years, Mr. Vuthy has dedicated himself toward improving the lives of these children, who just like that war-scarred young man, find themselves lacking homes, parents and the love that every child deserves. I had come to Phnom Penh to offer my services to a few orphanages and thus two worlds have melded into one. Our shared experience (coupled with many other incredible moments there) had a profound effect on me as an individual.
Though the staff and children at Chey Prach Kuma were overjoyed that a foreigner had showed up out of the blue and single-handedly refurbished their makeshift cooking space into a proper kitchen with the supplies needed to prepare 150 meals a day, my contribution is merely a drop in the bucket when compared to the sacrifice that Mr. Vuthy and so many like him are making for the orphaned children of Cambodia on a daily basis.
My initial foray into Cambodia awoke me to the unimagined horrors of war, but my return visit has opened my eyes to one man's path to recovery and an entire country's attempt to free itself from the ghosts of its past. There amidst the symphonic sound of happy children playing, if you listen real closely, you can hear the melody of love and the triumph of the human spirit. And that is what I call a Cambodian Comeback.