It’s been a surreal couple of days. I went from New Years Eve in Seattle, Washington, watching a laser light show themed “outer space,” straight to the killing fields of central Cambodia, an area where Pol Pot’s troops devastated the population, killing roughly one fourth of Cambodia’s people.
At the same time, my initial 48 hours in Cambodia has been nothing short of amazing. I might go on a limb and say Cambodians are the friendliest people I’ve ever met…their smiles often stretch the full length of their face, and most are extremely quick with a laugh. The girls that run things at my hostel actually hug me – hard – every time I walk in. I’ve already gone local, hopping on the back of any motorbike that’s close by, and can’t wait to spend this month exploring Cambodia further.
But the dichotomy of this place strikes me – a brutal history and an enormously kind people.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. I just finished reading Rye Barcott’s moving novel It happened on the way to war. Barcott, like me, is 32 years old, but has managed to achieve a jealousy–inducing amount in his years. While in college, on ROTC scholarship, Barcott created a thriving, participatory-development based NGO in the heart of Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum.
(Barcott in Kibera)
But Barcott too, is a bit of a dichotomy (if a person can be one, that is). As he managed the development of one of the most successful NGO’s in a place where few foreigners even tread, he spent his days fighting in a war he didn’t fundamentally agree with. Barcott was drawn to war, drawn to front-line action, and desired to be in the heart of the fighting and chaos that was Iraq. And that really is hard for me to understand.
As the Iraq war draws to a ‘close,’ (I say this with a sad and jaded dose of skepticism), and as I experience the beauty and history of Cambodia, I can’t help but think about the intense capacity people have for doing real good and real evil. Certainly this isn’t a new concept, but Cambodia puts it in perspective — so too does Barcott, who struggles as both a marine and an individual to do the right thing, to listen to his conscious, and to question what that line is that turns people from good to bad.
And, I think all of this is linked, in some ways. The killing fields of Cambodia, the American military-industrial complex, the damning curse of extreme poverty, and the ability of people to emerge beyond those constraints.
In the last years of the Vietnam War, U.S. forces bombed and invaded Cambodia in their efforts against the Viet Cong. This created millions of Cambodian refugees, who then fled to Phnom Penh. The U.S. government claims that the thousands that died were primarily Khmer Rouge. But then, this is the same government who gave us such classic wars as Iraq and Vietnam, so, needless to say, I’m skeptical.
Barcott, a dedicated and tireless marine, put the needs of his country before his own beliefs at times – serving in Iraq despite his doubts – and although he struggled to always do the right thing, he also worked to answer those questions many of us would ask of ourselves in the same situation: If we found ourselves in a similar place, (like staring down Khmer Rouge forces, or a potential insurgent in Iraq) how would we react?
On my tour in the Cambodian killing fields, the audio narrative poses just this question – were the Khmer Rouge to come to your town, what would you do? Join? Fight? Surrender? Surely it wouldn’t be clear-cut for many.
Barcott struggles with this same issue as he develops his NGO, and as he leads a team of marines deep into war. As the Executive Director of Carolina for Kibera, Barcott daily made decisions that could make or break young people’s lives – just as, when his team of marines caught two young boys in Iraq, he had to hold back his anger and more base instincts when questioning them and determining their next steps. (These two boys end up in Abu Ghraib, and like many things in the fog of war, were lost in the system).
Yesterday, as the sun went down, I found myself in Tuol Sleng, the school-turned-prison ran by the Khmer Rouge. Of the 20,000 people that entered Tuol Sleng, or S21, only 7 survived. Walking through the rows and rows of what used to be a schoolhouse, now memorialized holding pens and torture chambers, I simply couldn’t shake the chill that ran through me.
So, today, at the start of the next phase of my trip I simply can’t help but think of Cambodia’s past as I enjoy it in its present. Just as Cambodia is rebuilding and shifting rapidly, so are small pockets of Kibera, thanks to genuinely innovative programs like those ran by Barcott’s NGO.
I guess, in the end, people can be shockingly good and shockingly bad…as well as deeply resilient. And, at the moment, I can’t think of two better examples than Kibera and Phnom Penh, as people in both places work to build better lives.
More info, or to help:
- The Halo Trust (Landmine removal throughout the world, including Cambodia)