Little bracelets, joyful gifts, lessons of hope
Each year our church’s Youth holds an auction to help raise funds for their upcoming mission trip. One year I was delighted by a little box full of colorful beaded bracelets. They were like Joseph’s coat, they were “red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and…” To me they were like sunshine you could wear on your wrist. They were “Annie Bands” and every time I chose to wear them, I put them on with a smile and always thought of the beautiful young lady who made them.
The Khmer Rouge called it the Potato Orchards – the Killing Fields. From 1975 to 1979 these followers of Pol Pot ruthlessly murdered over two million of their own people, over a quarter of the country’s population. In 1994, Pol Pot’s followers received a royal amnesty in an effort to bring peace and reconciliation to a warring country; and to squelch the continuing insurgency of Khmer Rouge uprisings. We were in Cambodia in September 2014 just in August, the first Khmer Rouge followers to be brought to trial are found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and are sentenced to life in prison. The “Why?!” of the Killing Fields has not been answered. It may seem surprising to many that a majority of the people of Cambodia have accepted, or acquiesced to, the amnesty agreement. Their Buddhist faith teaches them to avoid anger and revenge, allowing karma to be the ultimate judge and jury. They have chosen peace over justice. To me their choice is a form of forgiveness which I find hard to grasp; and a lesson from which I should learn.
Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
As we approach the place there are ominous clouds that serve as a fitting backdrop to the memorial. The scene is set, dark and foreboding, I start to palpably feel anxiety. A few raindrops begin to fall, I think once again God is crying.
It is quiet here, too quiet, guests whisper reverently so as not to disturb others, or disrespect the dead. What could we possibly say that needs to be said here? People wander listlessly, maybe it’s the sultriness of the day or the impending storm, or maybe this is one of those places that steals one’s energy in order to communicate something deeper.
We are at one of the 388 Killing Fields in Cambodia. This one is outside of Phnom Penh and over 17,000 people were killed here. Eighty-six of the 129 mass graves have been found; one contains 450 bodies. How can there be such peace and beauty in such an evil, horrid place?
I stop and listen, my heart beats faster, my breath slows, and I hear the inaudible beseeching cries of the people. One could be forgiven for thinking this place was a park, there are green spaces, maintained paths, and informational signs. Except these green areas are sunken from the decaying bodies piled in the mass grave. The signs give the details of how many people might be buried here or how they were murdered. Along the paths, small bones and pieces of clothing come to the surface with each rain storm that passes. At first I try to avoid stepping on them, but there are so many that soon, I give up realizing that the dead surround me.
My throat tightens, I want to cry, but I don’t — not yet. This is a personal experience, don’t talk to me, leave me alone. This should be experienced as one’s own intimate hell, because if even one voice enters the moment – even the voices in my head – they will try and explain this, maybe even to justify or excuse it.
My attention is drawn to a colorful tree, I smile to myself to see something so colorful, almost joyful and approach it with interest. Oh my dear God. It’s the baby tree, the tree that Khmer Rouge soldiers, many of them children themselves, would swing babies against this tree killing them. How can I come to understand such evil, such pure damnable evil? Now, I cry.
Even if the “Why?” was answered, it wouldn’t make sense, it would still be unthinkable, unacceptable; we would still cry out “Why?!” So many lives, so many innocents, Jesus Christ, so many babies. It makes me feel pitiful, helpless, righteous indignation, anger; I feel hate. And for this moment, I don’t want to let go of it, I need to embrace it, let it bore deep into my protected little world and fester for a while.
I’m still by the tree and now Lord, I’m a little confused, because today this tree is covered by thousands of colorful bands, they are stuck in every crevice, twig and hang from branches. I want to feel hate, but this, these are expressions of joy. What? How? I wonder who was the first one to leave one of these colorful little“I was here and so were you” reminders. Then I wish I would have bought a dozen of these locally made woven bands in the last market we were in so that I could leave a little bit of me here too. And then I look down and realize that I have my Annie Bands on today. I love wearing these bands…I take off my favorite one bright pink with blue beads and work it into one of the crags. Rest in peace, sweet babies, your cries were heard.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
As if the Killing Field wasn’t mind-numbing enough our next stop is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The first impression of this place is of all the rusted harsh barbed-wire – a menacing welcome. Our guide, Sky, talks about the comples, which prisoners were housed where, the history that this was a high school before a prison, how prisoners were tortured, how children were made into soldiers, torture rooms, the cells. It is all so very, so very, horrid.
And then there are the photographs, row upon row, panel after panel, rooms of those eyes looking a me. Each person’s image recorded not for their or history’s sake, but the Khmer Rouge meticulously documented each person because they believed them to be spies, enemies, CIA, KGB; they recorded their images because they felt they were so right and justified in their actions to torture, to murder.
I pause in front of a board of all women. Intentionally, I look into each one of their eyes. Silently I try to let them know that they were someone, not forgotten, someone’s daughter, wife, sister mother, friend, co-worker, neighbor. You are someone, not just a black and white image with a number. I’m here, I see you.
Some eyes convey fear, some sadness, some anguish, some are empty without hope, helpless; and some shout defiance. I image this was not a good place to be defiant, but then again,this was a place where it wasn’t good to be anything. There would be no way to act, nothing right to say or way to be. There was no sparing one’s life, it was only a matter of time before life was over.
Another room, another thousand eyes, there are so many. It overwhelms me and I feel a need for there to be just one. I desperately look at the faces, look in the eyes, searching for the ‘one’ – the one – that won’t let me go. She and I find each other. Her eyes beg the question that no one can answer. Why? I touch the glass where her cheek is, “Just tell what you want and I will try. I’ll try to help, but I’m also afraid of you. I can’t speak lies, but what is truth? I’m strong, but not that strong. Lord, help me to be…something.”
Later in the day I write “Number 241.”
Oh sweet girl, I am so very sorry,
you are no longer running carefree
in the river breeze.
Your beautiful smile has been lost
in the misery that is now your life.
Your family, where are they?
Where are those who knew
the sound of your voice,
the creak of your footstep,
the smell of your hair?
Shh, be quiet sweet girl,
maybe the boogie man will pass.
Let your tears fall silently on the hard floor,
Let them mingle with the dirt and others tears
once shed, now gone.
Look not into evil eyes; be small, be invisible.
I know you’re scared,
try to find a place to hide within yourself,
in your mind be anywhere but here.
Look sweet girl, someone is here with you.
I don’t know you, but I care. I love you.
Our images meld together,
you are the foundation, I am exposed.
My heart rends in your presence.
You and I, for this moment in time, we are one.
Dear sweet girl, your lost hopes,
your vanquished dreams,
the joy of life you sought but was not meant for this world.
Peace anew, may everything that you once were,
whatever that may have been,
may it be reflected in me.
I feel small, defeated, confused and have no idea what and how I should feel and do. As we leave this place, I know that I am not done with it nor it with me. I feel a need to do something, no matter how small. And then I look at my right wrist and it comes to me. It may not be much, but I’m going to give away Annie’s bracelets.
So here goes, meet the new owners of “Annie Bands”.
Cong Kah, the weaving village
The air is so heavy with humidity that I smell the wood burning from the village long before we actually see it. Arriving at Chong Kah we are greeted as if we are long-awaited guests of honor. People line the dock smiling, waving, calling out to us. “Hello!” “Hello!” “Hello!” I am modeling my new top from Phnom Phen for Fredda, the ladies on the shore “ooh”, laugh and applaud for the little fashion show. I curtsey in return.
This is a poor village, the children and women crowd us as we step off of the hastily laid gangplank over the muddy Mekong. Walking step-in-step with us, they tell us their names, smiling and looking us in the eyes they thrust their colorful scarves between us. Insistently, each woman and child says, “I’m your number one.” It’s not a question, but a statement.
When we got off the boat, each person from our group is approached by a person, usually a child, that persistently says, “I’m your number one. I’m your number one.” In a culture that is obsessed with those wanting to be “number one” because it is a sign of success no matter how the success was achieved. I am not one that really respects the “number one” position. So this nagging to be “number one” is an uncomfortable nuisance to me and finally, I say to the older boy who was pestering me, “Okay, okay, you’re number one. Now, I want to listen to the guide.” His name is John and he knows my name is Lisa. Later I will learn that being told you are ‘number one’ holds the same meaning as a promise.
There is one little girl, Renee who is quieter than the rest, so finally, I accept her attention as she walks by my side. I ask her the name of the flowers, trees, and she tries to sell me scarves.
Ahnee comes up to me, taps my arm, grabs my hand and says, “You, come with me,” when I hesitate, she strikes my modeling pose and we laugh. “Later,” I say. She joins on my other side and another little girl, Linea joins our little group. Three little girls become my companions, sometimes they allow me some space, but they are never far away and whenever we walk, the four of us talk and they answer my questions the best they can. But don’t mistake their kindness or eager hospitality, they are salespeople and their goal is to make sure I spend all the money I have on their scarves.
Our tour of the village includes watching the weavers and touring one of their homes just so we can see how they live. Our guide stops by a cooking area to show us a traditional treat that is being made for a special celebration when the people of Cambodia go to their pagodas to make offerings. He speaks a few words to the family there and then smiling at all of us say, “They would like to share with you.” We each get a taste of a savory sticky rice mixture that has been cooked wrapped in banana leaves. Another stop on our tour is to the one home in the village just because it has a toilet of which they are quite proud. We’re told thatonly 22% of homes have running water and most people use the bush as their toilet.
Are you in school?” I ask the girls. “Yes.” They reply in unison. “What do you study?” The open-ended question is too hard for them. “Math?” “Yes.” They agree. “History?” They look at one another, obviously History is not a subject. “What is your favorite class?” They all chime in together, “English!”
As we pass their school, I ask the girls to stop so I can take their picture and I want to give each of them one of Annie’s bracelets. “For me?” Renee asks with honest surprise. “Yes, for you.” I give one to Linea and Ahnee. They put them on and they admire their new treasures. The colors shine brighter against their sun-darkened skin. “Now, we are friends with something in common.” I say and we put our bracelet wrists together.
At the school I see the dock area and the mass of villages enthusiastically awaiting our return. The girls go into their sales mode, “Buy from me.” “No me.” “My mother here.” They grab my hand, pull me towards their mothers. “I’m your number one.” “No, I am!” How do I choose? Who is my “number one”? It is impossible. And I honestly only have three five dollar bills on me. I come to a dead stop. They stop. “Shh. Listen to me. I will buy ONE scarf from each of you, that’s it, no more.” They clamor to be my “number one”. “Stop! It doesn’t matter who is number one, I am only buying ONE scarf from each of you. I promise that I will buy from each of you, but I only have money for one scarf each.” Ahnee slyly says, “Then you buy three from me.” “Ahnee, I may by zero from you.” Linea looks up at me and says, “I can be your number two.” I take her hand, “You, my dear, are my number one.”
Linea takes my hand, she doesn’t look over her shoulder at Ahnee and Renee as the ‘number one’ victor, her focus is on her mother where their scarves are laid out on the ground. They show me several designs, then Linea shyly pulls some checked ones out, in a whisper she says, “Mine.” “You made these?” I ask with surprised satisfaction. “Yes.” She looks down. Her mother smiles at me and nods, “Linea work.” I see a brightly colored orange, blue and pink one and think of my sister Cindy. “Thank you, Linea and Linea’s momma.”
Renee is right there next to me. She grabs my arm and leads me over to her mothers little spot on the hot concrete. They show me bigger more expensive scarves. “No, too much, I can only spend five dollars.” They show me some more and try to sell me two. “No, I need money to buy from Ahnee too, remember I promised that I’d buy one from each of you.” I look at Renee’s mother and say, “You have a beautiful daughter.” She nods and smiles and says, “Two for ten.” I laugh, “No, just one,” I decide on one that is blue like the Cambodian sky, “thank you.”
Now, to find Ahnee, because I promised. Ahnee sees me and runs up, taking my hand we literally run to her mother’s shop. “My mother makes all of these.” Mother smiles at me. “Beautiful daughter.” We both smile at Ahnee. “Ahnee, did you make any of these?” I ask. She hesitates, “My mother makes…” then, looking, she points to some and proudly says, “I help…these” and puts one in my hand that this brown like the Mekong River. We exchange my last five dollars for the scarf and I look back towards the ship realizing that I’m going to have to face this confrontation alone.
It is like a Cambodian gauntlet of selling hell to get through the din and organized chaos of the dock back to the cocoon of the ship. “You buy form me. “ My shop here.” “Remember me? Joe.” “Buy from me.” “My children need school.” “Help us.” “Please look.” I hate feeling like I haven’t done enough. And then, I’m approached by John. “Lisa, I John, I was your number one.” I remember him and the hasty way I tried to get him to leave me along earlier; I said he was my number one. I look to see if I can find Richard, Fredda or David, if I had just one more five dollar bill I would buy from him. I don’t see anyone to save me from myself. “John, I am so sorry, but I don’t have any money left.” He is visibly crushed and I feel ashamed that I spent all my money on beautiful little girls and didn’t save any for this young man. “But I go to school, need money,” he pleads. I feel awful, “John, I am so very sorry.” I want to cry as I walk the plank back to the boat.
Orphanage near Twin Holy Mountains
There are 87 students, 33 girls, they take turns and go to school four hours a day either in the morning or afternoon. At the orphanage, they continue studies with French, English, Art and Computer. They are orphaned by HIV/AIDS, Khmer Rouge mine, auto accidents, and abandoned by unemployment and poverty. The children are not available for adoption, there is no registry, there is a history of exploitation; and we are welcomed – encouraged – to sponsor a child’s education.
We are invited to seats on the porch, the children are gathered together to sing a welcoming song for us. Afterwards, the children come up and take our hands and start to show us around the property. It is a little awkward, but we each accept the hand placed in ours and they dutifully take us to the various areas of the Orphanage.
A little girl by the name of Surenee takes my hand. Punlou, our guide, tells me she is seven years old and she will know very little English. To everything I ask her she answers “Yes.” I give her one of Annie’s bracelets. First we go to the Art room and I buy a painting that I believe was done by her brother.
Next she guides me to the Craft room where an older girl tells me she is Surenee’s sister. I give the sister one of Annie’s bracelets and she shows me a yellow woven bracelet that Surenee made. Of course, I buy it. Next we go to see the sleeping quarters of the boys, then she shows me the desk that she uses in the classroom and says, “English, Francais.” This is a good room for learning.
We see the girl’s dormitory and what would pass for bathrooms. I ask where she sleeps, she doesn’t understand, I mimic sleep by putting my folded hands by my head, closing my eyes and going “shh, shh” and pointing to her. She understands, takes my hand and trot and skip across the courtyard to the kitchen. She points to a bed in the corner where a lady sits; she runs to her open arms calling, “Momma, Momma”. Momma’s name is Lenah and they are both beautiful to me. I share an Annie bracelet with momma too.
We hear a bell and Surenee takes my hand again to lead me back to the bus. I decide to sing a little song to her since they sang to us earlier. “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart…” When I finish she smiles at me and claps.
One of the first little girls to come to me early in our visit joined us as we crossed the courtyard. She received an Annie bracelet too.
It is wrong to call this whole place Angkor Wat for this is just one of the many temples in the area; the largest is Angkor Wat and as we approach it by the great causeway over the moat, through the gates, across the field, it still commands the distant view. And maybe that is the best description of this place for me – distant. In space, time, understanding, history, relativity – it is a place to which I did not connect. As I walk around I try to study the murals, I hear the guide telling us the history and try to make the stories fit of warriors, kings, dancing ladies, the people who worship. I admired the beauty and extraordinary sense of history and architecture, however, I did not really relate to this place as I hoped I would, as a place of passion — knowing full well that this is exactly that sort of place — just not for me. This is a place for the people of this culture who have grown up with it, who have made it part of the very foundation of their lives.
While this stone structure tells so many stories, it did not feel alive to me until I found a mother and child cooling themselves in a shady spot. The toddler giggled and got an Annie bracelet.
We leave Angkor Wat and tour other temples. At the last one of the day a thunderstorm erupted and deluged us. Others of our group heeded wise words earlier in the day for umbrellas and ponchos. I gave my umbrella to Richard and sent him ahead. I actually found the rain to be refreshing and once soaked through, it really didn’t matter. At the end of a long path I could see the shuttle waiting for us; and I could see another mass of the insistent persistent ever present sales children and started to dread the encounter. In no time I’m surrounded by children selling items. “Magnets.” “No, thank you, I don’t want magnets.” “Key chains.” “No, thank you, I don’t want key chains.” “Postcards.” “No, thank you, I don’t want postcards. Then, my resistance fails, “Bracelets.” “How much?” “One, three dollars,” the little one says. “That’s too much.” She tries, “Two, three dollars.” “No, I think that’s too much too.” This continues until I end up getting three bracelets for two dollars. However, the young miss who I bargained with was not really happy with the deal as I gave her the money she wanted more. I gave her an Annie bracelet. I motioned to take her photo, she gave me a curt nod and stood there as the rain saturated us.
On the bus, our local guide, Sky, says to us. “I love it when you buy from the children, because that means that they and their family will eat today.” He pauses, “I hate it when you buy from our children, because that means that they will not go to school.” He wipes some water from his face and smiles at us, “Whenever you can, make them take you to their momma and buy from them and say, ‘education.’”
Viking River Cruises’ sponsored HVTO School
HVTO – Home-stay Volunteers Teachers Organization International is the brainchild of one of the local Siem Reap guides who works with Viking. Today it has 660 students from eight different villages. They set up libraries, musicals, clean water and teach English and computer skills. At this school the older students teach the younger ones. Poeit, is the young man who shows Richard and I around. His mother and father are rice farmers, where he and his four bothers and four sisters also work when not in school. His favorite subject is English and he wants to be a tour guide. To prove he can read, he read the first paragraph from H.G. Well’s “The Time Machine” to us. Sometimes our questions were too complicated for him, but he enjoyed showing us the rooms, library, garden (his favorite thing to eat is soup); when he didn’t know an answer, right or wrong he would simply smile and say, “Yes.”
We stood by the door of one of the classrooms while one of the young student-teachers guided the class through a reading recitation exercise about a Tigers and Bears ball game with Jim Reed and the Tigers winning a championship. To me it seemed an odd selection to be reading, but they were reading it and learning English and getting an education. The young teacher was very proud of her students as they finished the recitation and she smiled and gave us a slight bow as if to signify the end of an act.
And so now, it was the perfect place, time and person to give away my final gift — the last Annie bracelet.