|Laurie in a tuk tuk|
After breakfast on Saturday October 4, I went with the “tuk tuk” driver to pick up Sithan. The tuk tuks are autorickshaws—motorcycles with rickshaws attached to them. Sithan is the 33-year-old president of the Cambodian Hemophilia Association (CHA), who has hemophilia. He was to join me today for a tour. When we got to his home, he met us at the gate not looking well. Pale, tired… he was bleeding from a serious dental extraction last week and it was really bothering him. We brought factor for him on this trip, and he had already used several vials, but now needed rest.
So I went alone to the Choeung Ek Memorial, the “Killing Fields,” so dubbed by Dith Pran, the Cambodian journalist who was portrayed in the movie The Killing Fields. This would be my second visit to a genocide site (my first was in Rwanda earlier this year).
The tuk tuk ride was insanely wild, like being on a run away roller coaster. We jostled through the streets of Phnom Penh, dodging cars, motorbikes and other tuk tuks. The tuk tuk is open-sided, with a roof. The wind whipped my hair; the air is gritty with pollution. I can’t help but think I’m in a little cart at a low-budget Asian Disneyworld, on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Motorbikes, carrying young ladies with pink helmets, young men with intense looks wearing surgical masks, even children—some sandwiched between the father driver and mother passenger, sound asleep—swarm the cars and tuk tuks like ambitious bees. Contributing to sensory overload are the odors: diesel fuel, thick, acrid exhaust from vehicles; sudden sour smell of rotting garbage as we cross a bridge; a surprise charcoal smell laced with delicious scent of roasted beef.
My driver took back roads and alleys, some of which were nothing but huge mud puddles from the rain. I actually started feeling really queasy and nauseated. I was glad that Sithan stayed home!
We arrived after 40 minutes and the driver sat in the lunch area while I paid the $6 admission and picked up a headset and started the tour. Overhead was a brilliant blue sky with a glaring sun basking us in 90° sunshine. Directly in front of me was the huge stupa, or Buddhist temple. The soothing and paternal voice on the headset said to go there last. The narrator himself survived the vicious Pol Pot regime and felt honored to be able to narrate what happened. There were many killing fields throughout Cambodia but this was one of the most famous. There wasn’t much to see; some signs informed us of what once stood there—the area where trucks would disgorge prisoners (prisoners! They were men, women and children, average citizens), the place where prisoners would be registered. But there were graves of hundreds of victims, vaguely protected by a small stockade around each mass grave. The first grave contained the remains of 450 victims; a sign told us that each time it rains, more remnants are unearthed. It is not unusual to find human teeth or small bones still, after all these decades. Clothing was displayed, and the bones of victims. As I listened to my headset, a one-legged, dirty man stood by a tree; we were separated by a wire fence, that’s all. He was begging, begging in his own country. I handed him a $5 and he asked, “America?” And I nodded and smiled.
The Killing Tree
Clothing of victims
Stockade fence with prayer ties
Eventually I came to the stupa. It is steady, solid, soaring… and stacked with skulls. Perched on the corners of each section are stone mythical creatures in Hindu religion: Garuda, the winged birdman who carries Lord Vishnu. And Naga, a dragon/snake that is Garuda’s enemy. That they appear together here denotes peace. After removing my shoes respectfully, I climbed the marble stairs, which are strangely cool, even in the suffocating heat. Facing me is a clear, acrylic wall, encasing thousands of skulls, bleached white, stacked neatly. Each skull has been analyzed and marked with a color dot to denote its sex and how the victim was killed. They were killed in many different ways but all primitive: cleaning rod was a favorite method. You can look at eye level into these skulls, which were once peaceful, innocent people, mothers and fathers, young men and women. You feel like talking to them, apologizing, wishing they could have a chance at life, a normal life. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and looking at the bashed and pierced skulls, you want to believe this is true for their peace. So few of us ever get to see a human skull. When you gaze at one, emotions aside, you marvel at its architecture: the nasal passage ways are intricate and refined, thin sheathes that capture minute scents; the occipital bones are strong and full of character, creating almost a surprised look. You’re reminded that each of us has one of these hollow-eyed, whitened shells within us too, and, Caucasian or Khmer, we all look pretty much the same once the skin is gone.
It started to downpour as I left, as the heavens opened and “threw down their spears.” (well, it was stars in the poem) The driver unfolded the tuk tuk’s side canvas to protect me from the rain, but with him driving, and other motorbikes and tuk tuks throwing up water and mud, it was pretty messy, and yet refreshing as the temperature has been a steady and muggy 90°.
We're in Siem Reap today, where the ancient temples of Angkor Wat are, a World Heritage site (though better known in the west for being the location of the filming of "Tomb Raider"). After a great breakfast in the hotel, where they cater to your every need, Martha, Sithan and I headed in a tuk tuk to the Angkor Children’s Hospital nearby. Already 20 children and their families were waiting for us. Cambodians are a truly beautiful people. I loved seeing the little children’s faces turned up at me, mixing shyness with curiosity.
Martha gave a presentation about Save One Life to the audience while Sithan translated. It was a long day in some ways: sitting in a hot meeting room, tightly surrounded by incredibly impoverished, often illiterate, families whose children have bleeding disorders. We were only going to interview three families, but instead, we decided on the spot to interview them all! So sitting in chairs that are like elementary school chairs, with a small tabletop attached, we divided up the families. Soreng, the social worker, took some; Martha and Sithan took some; and the Dr. Sing Heng and I interviewed some. It took about two full hours, maybe more. I also photographed them all. I handed out the gift bags, which were an enormous hit—each child received an authentic Beanie Baby and some toiletries and candy. The kids were adorable and mischievous, giggling and casting glances at me, some brazenly looking and smiling. We connected with almost all.
As we interviewed, sweat constantly slid down our backs, dripped off our hair, but what an honor to meet so many! The local volunteers here did a great job mobilizing the families. The families were given meals in Styrofoam boxes, for which we paid. The hospital would kindly cover their transportation costs.
The stories are sad; some heart-breaking. One boy with hemophilia, about 20, has mental issues; his mother is partially paralyzed. They are very poor and have such hard lives. All these children will be available for sponsorship through Save One Life (http://www.SaveOneLife.net)
|Cambodian Hemophilia Society (in Siem Reap), with Martha and Laurie|
It was tender, and heart breaking. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, almost defeated when facing the crushing truth of poverty and hemophilia. Will we ever make a difference? And then, I think, if we were not here, who would help them? Just $22 a month can truly change their lives. We’ve seen it happen in other counties, and we are going to see it happen in Cambodia.
(Do you see a child you want to sponsor? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!)
Great Book I Just Read
Survival in the Killing Fields [Kindle]
Ngor is famous for portraying the journalist Dith Pran, the subject of the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, which won Best Picture, and earned Ngor, who was not an actor, Best Supporting Actor. Ngor himself escaped the Killing Fields, but spent four years working hard labor and starving on a communal farm. He had to hide his profession as a doctor or he would have been killed. He was tortured several times, brutally, and endured chronic starvation and deprivation. The story is an easy read technically, but difficult emotionally. He reveals all that he experiences from the point of view of the victim; he didn’t understand what was happening, never heard of Pol Pot, and could only focus on survival. Eventually he escapes in the last throes of the regime, when the North Vietnamese invaded, and enters Thailand. He makes his way to the US, a broken man, angry, but still surviving. Though he became a Hollywood overnight sensation, his life still did not go easy. This should be required reading for high school students, and any fan of history and survival. Four/five stars.