From Small Beginnings Restoring Life

This is not a story about Cambodia, it is a story from Cambodia. I am once more listening to the hopes and dreams of Cambodian friends and colleagues.

I am in Battambang in North Western Cambodia.  Once more I am breathing the aroma of steaming rice and the aroma of frangipani flowers. Once more I am in awe at the red ball of tropical sunrises and sunsets.  The bells chiming from the Wat are as familiar as if I have never left. I am among close friends who continue to dream of a peaceful and united nation where those who are very poor are never overlooked.

Thirty-three years have passed since I first began to understand the depth of Cambodian suffering. My friends in Cambodia each have their stories.  During their childhood they learned of war. Trucks loaded with ammunition were sent from North Vietnam down through Cambodia to support the Viet Cong fighting against South Vietnam. This became known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. The United States and Australia were supporting the South Vietnamese government in the war against the Viet Cong.   Because of the Ho Chi Minh trail US President Nixon ordered carpet bombing of Cambodia. This bombing, 2,765,941 tons of bombs raining down on Cambodian villages, continued until August 1973. Cambodians, though not part of the Vietnam war, suffered carnage, fear, homelessness and turmoil. My friends endured this when they were very young. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge seized power and declared Day Zero. My friends were marshalled into youth labour gangs where they must work or be killed. ‘Your life means nothing to us’, said their captors.

I can best describe ‘Pol Pot Time’ in words that a friend, Nee Meas, wrote. ‘During the years and months and days of the Khmer Rouge regime it seemed that there was no longer a future to plan for. Our life had narrowed, narrowed, narrowed to think only of survival. In those hungry Khmer Rouge days, we sat in endless meetings to be lectured and criticised and betrayed but all that could occupy our minds was to think where our next food could be found … I recall being so skinny that I looked like a very old man even though I was only 18 years old. There was no hair on my head, my knees were weak and would not obey me when I needed to walk. They called me Ta, meaning grandfather. The experience of my body was like the sensations of a strange dream where your joints do not do what you expect. I was blind in the dark and so when I set out for my work at 3 am and returned at 8 pm I would have to be led along holding on to the hoe of the person in front … Self-reliance, hope and dignity were drained away … the move back to dignity is long and slow’.

Late in 1978 the Vietnamese army converged on Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, drove the Khmer Rouge back to the jungle and ‘liberated’ the captive population. The Khmer Rouge fought back from the jungle. Cambodians in immediate danger fled north to the border of Thailand. Peace was agreed upon in Paris in 1991 but fighting continued; when I worked in Battambang during the nineties this town was still classified as a war zone.

After more than a decade in a refugee camp of displaced people on the Thai Cambodia border, Nee returned to Cambodia and with other friends dreamed a dream of restoring life in a ‘Cambodian way’. Some had been refuges at the border, others had stayed in an impoverished and dangerous Cambodia. All had suffered and felt compassion for those still suffering.  Eventually a group of twelve leaders gathered: six men and six women. They travelled to villages where people still suffered poverty and danger. They went by motor bike, one or two together, and stayed consistently in a village, sharing food and sleeping on the ground as the villagers did. They listened and learned; eventually they were trusted as friends. They felt compassion for these village people in their isolation and need and understood the relationships in the village.

Nee wrote, ‘Krom Akphiwat Phum (the name chosen by the group) is trying to build a way of working which is not copied from the way of any other country. The knowledge that is needed is in the village already and we know that the best way for us to learn is from the people there. They are teaching us the way … The village is like a basket that has been broken and the pieces scattered. The pieces are still there but not everyone can see them. What has been broken can be re-woven slowly and gradually, but only by those who will take the time to stay close to the village people and build trust with them. I know for certain that this can be achieved, even though it must be done slowly and carefully. Eventually the village people are the weavers themselves and they carry the task further, further. The basket will be better than before, but first it must be something like the same.

You cannot easily change the damage caused by war, or caused by systematic breaking of relationships, or by loss of dignity.  You cannot easily change the damage done by the meetings which were held in fear, or the meetings at which people were harangued with propaganda. The mind is paralysed by such things, so the way forward is slow and careful.

The way that people can begin to talk honestly with each other is by joking and chatting informally and gradually strengthening relationships again. They sit together in places where they can be comfortable. In the evening or under the shade in the heat of the day. Where they are at ease, they can begin to talk personally …’

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After days of working in separate villages the twelve Krom Akphiwat Phum workers met together on Fridays as a circle of equals, sitting on a straw mat, reflecting on their experiences. Their ‘office’ was a Buddhist sala rebuilt to be a simple meeting place. They crafted a structure for Krom. Three leaders, each with differing tasks to fulfill, would be elected from among the twelve. Leadership would be stable, and always decided by election. There would never be a time where all three leaders finished simultaneously. All twelve would work in the villages then return to this circle to plan, to review, to ask questions and to share what they were learning. They did not bring projects to the villages, they listened in a way that enabled the village people to hear one another, consider their next step, and work together to overcome challenges. Representative from various villages were, from time to time, invited to come and sleep a few nights in the sala and share what they were achieving. Networks formed. A simple village man Kampong Ko was in the audience of a United Nations meeting in Phnom Penh. When the facilitator asked for comments, he put his hand up, stood proudly and spoke. ‘You have written that Kampong Ko is remarkable for developing a duck project and a rice barn. Of course, we have a duck project and a rice barn. But what we do really is that we develop people’.

In the early days some Australians ‘stood by’ Krom and helped with connections and technical knowledge. Friendships have lasted. We have come back after many years in order to celebrate all that has evolved. For this month’s audio I have read (in translation from Khmer to English) some of the stories that women and men of the villages shared during the early years.

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