War-torn Battambang town in the early nineteen nineties was a place of violence. Weapons of war were everywhere. Early one morning as I sat sipping my usual cup of coffee at the little tin table near the market a Cambodian boy, perhaps 16 years old, slumped down beside me, put his AK 47 and rocket launcher on the too-small table and said, ‘Grandma the mosquitoes have been biting me’. He pulled up his threadbare tee-shirt and showed me his chest, then his arms and legs. He was bitten. I could sympathise with that as he needed me to do, but what could I say in the few moments before the army truck came to collect him. To protect his feet, he had nothing but rubber thongs. I never saw him again, this youngster heading off to the nearby frontline, fully armed and worrying about mosquito bites.
My Cambodian friends and colleagues who had survived three years, eight months and twenty days of terror in the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, then almost three decades of civil war, were the ones who showed me that peace-making is possible. They worked as a team, Krom Akphiwat Phum: in the beginning there were five women and five men. They went to villages close to the frontline, two by two on motor bikes, each pair working side by side with the people of one village.
I listened and learned. Take one small village at a time. Become part of the lives of the people. Sleep there, bring rice enough to eat and to share food with the people of the village. Understand that the civil war draws enmity, sometimes within families and always between families. Listen with respect to each person as days and nights go by. Find a common ground where those who hear the pain of another might work together for the common good. Working together to resolve a real need can restore relationships, forge peace.
I knew Wattina, a Cambodian political prisoner who was held, mostly in solitary confinement, for 9 years. Wattina told me, ‘You must wash vengeance from your heart otherwise you are never free.’ There was Dara, the young Khmer father who saw his family killed by the Khmer Rouge, but later wept at the sight of blood flowing down the face of Khieu Samphan when the Khmer Rouge leader was attacked by a crowd. ‘This is an old man. We have met him with vengeance. If we meet vengeance with more vengeance, we will destroy all we have.’
Because of my involvement in Cambodia, I was asked to be part of a group reflecting with Tibetans in their own country and in exile in Dharamshala. I wrote, ‘Tibet is dark. The visual impact is of armed soldiers and guns, the mood is of oppression and violence. The ancient mountains stand transcendent, but the shells of holy buildings tell the story of a culture raped. Everywhere, on every corner, in every temple, monastery and market, is the military’. Our group met Tenzin Choedrak, a doctor. As a young man he had been personal physician to the youthful Dali Lama; he was imprisoned when the Dali Lama had to flee the country in 1959. We knew he had been tortured viciously during his 27-year imprisonment but his meeting with us was relaxed and jovial. I asked, rather awkwardly though genuinely wanting to know, how he could withstand so much persecution and yet come to his release in such a tranquil spirit. He said, ‘I could only feel pity for my torturers. Here were human beings destroying themselves by violence. The suffering would not destroy my spirit but acting in violence would’.
While looking for an image of Tenzin Choedrak I found a small piece of an amateur video where this Buddhist man talked about Jesus, praised him as a teacher and holy man, then said that if Christians across the world followed Jesus’ teaching exactly, the whole world would be at peace.
We begin 2023 with armed conflict in Ukraine, Myanmar, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen …. So much of pain.
In my lifetime Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the United Nations until he was killed in 1962, worked tirelessly and to dissolve conflict without recourse to weapons. He often succeeded; he wanted to establish the UN as an instrument of peace in a world of turmoil. He wrote, ‘Our work for peace must begin within the private world of each of us. To build for [humanity] a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just’. Dag Hammarskjold died in a plane crash generally considered as set up to sabotage his peacemaking efforts in what is now Zambia. When I was young I was inspired by his life, and his journal published as ‘Markings’.
Is this the clue … that peace begins within the private world of each of us? Something of respect, inclusion and compassion, person to person?
Cambodian culture has the underpinning values of Buddhism. Maha Ghosananda, a Buddhist wise man advised, ‘Clear the landmines from your own heart first’. Peace begets peace. Violence comes fast; peace comes slow, but I think it comes through one heart at a time.