Blog by Sue Wallingford
It’s been several weeks since our return from Cambodia. I can no longer blame jet lag for my foggy mind, memory lags and that abiding sense of malaise that sticks to me like the sticky film of dusty sweat caused by the sweltering heat of the south asian sun. The scenes of Cambodia visit me daily and have become a familiar place in my psychic landscape. Memory fragments, holding emotions of every flavor and texture, haunt me, relentlessly whispering again and again, “Always remember, never forget.”
Following our work at CWCC (Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center) and the trips to the Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum our team met in an attempt to “process” all the stories of trauma we had heard and seen. The need to make sense, put words to the sensory overload, was just too much to bear. Even the daily meditations and response art couldn’t touch into the immensity of the experiences we shared in just a few days. And then, confused even more by fits of shopping, bolts of spontaneous laughter, genuine connections and toasts of celebrations! It was like trying to talk about the impossible.
In my attempt to bring some sort of peaceful lid to the vicarious trauma and suffering our group was feeling I offered what I know about the brain and the way it processes new information. “Of course we couldn’t make sense of it all, or articulate what was happening because our brains were working overtime to just merely assimilate and sort into categories the constant barrage of new stimulus!” The new sights, sounds, taste, smells of being in a foreign country alone was keeping our brains too busy to even begin to make meaning out of all the emotions that had been unleashed. So, to not have the ability to speak of it made sense, right? Nice try. I convinced my self of this too.
And while the above may be true, it should not become a convenient excuse. The words need to be spoken – if not then, then now. At least a beginning attempt…
As a way to put words to what feels unspeakable, the impossible story, I am reminded of a conversation I had with one of the girls at CWCC.
Maly, a girl just entering her teen years, had been at CWCC for over a year. Her mother and father had moved her and her sister to Thailand because they needed to find work or else starve. When away at work, sometimes for 12 hours shifts, they had to leave her and her sister alone at home. One day as Maly wandered to her favorite play place in the woods, a neighbor followed her there and then raped her. This raping ritual went on for weeks before her parents found out. The neighborhood boy expecting her to show up in this “special spot” everyday threatened her life and her sisters if she told.
Before being brought to Thailand Maly had lived in a small province near Battambang with her grandparents were she recalled happy and abundant times. Her grandparents she describes were caring, wealthy and loved her very much. But now, because she was “soiled,” her grandparents didn’t want her, and her parents couldn’t care for her either.
When I saw Maly in the crowd of children gathered to greet us upon our arrival I was comforted by my remembrance of her from our last year’s visit. Our mutual smiles of recognition instantly brought a sense of trust and eased the anxiety we both felt. This glance of recollection was all it took to not be perceived as a threat; rather it initiated a memory of something good, bathing our brains in feel good endorphins. For me the remembering was simple, mostly comforting. For Maly, I imagine, it was complicated, marred by her history of trauma and heart wrenching abandonment.
After we had made our introductions and we were making our transition to the community room where we would make art together for the next two weeks, Maly approached me. She looked at me so expectedly, fearlessly even, as if I were an apparition able to ease her mind in some essential way.
She asserted, in fairly good English. “You remembered me, and you came back, but when you left before, I miss you so much.”
My heart open, cracked a little bit. Tears filled both our eyes. I told her I missed her very much too and shared how happy I was to see her again. I couldn’t tolerate the idea of telling her that our stay was short, risking the probable possibility that she would be mad at me for leaving again. My little-bit cracked heart couldn’t open anymore. Not now. My tear filled eyes dried up and I went about the business of setting up the space. Maly, went off with her friends.
The 2 weeks flew by and the groups’ fears of “not helping”, “not making a difference”, and “not making authentic connections” dissipated quickly as the art space was filled with brightly colored tissue-paper flowers, ribboned wands, mandala drawings, circling pin-wheels, string webs, clay figures, and lit hope-filled lanterns. Art literally filled the space; the sound of laughter, song, and lullabies of Khmer mixed with English lingered. The completed wall mural of three young Cambodian girls protectively holding hands around a freshly bloomed lotus seemed to say it all.
On the last day, amid the testament and remnants of the days past, Maly came to me again, tears spilling over this time.
“Mommy,” she said (she had started to call me this, even though she knew it wasn’t the correct way to address me), “Always remember me, don’t forget me.”
With great conviction and strength I had only seen glimmers of before, she grabbed my hands and gaze, and stopped me in my steps, demanding my full attention.
Pointing to my heart first she began her chant,
then putting her hands over her heart,
and pointing to herself,
Three times we did this routine, me mirroring her, and never once averting our gaze.
The last thing I said was this chant through the window of the van, as we drove away.
“I PROMISE MALY, I WILL NEVER FORGET YOU,”
This message from Maly, though so relevant to our personal relationship and the love we risked despite all that separated us, has a much deeper and profound meaning. Her message, her request, is a message that reaches far beyond our relationship. Her hand held, unwavering gaze repeated plea to me to NEVER FORGET is the call of the Cambodian people, and the relentless whisper that haunts me daily.
On April 17, 1975 until January 1979, nearly 2 million Cambodian people died under the rule of the Khmer Rouge from massive executions, torture, starvation, disease and over-exhaustion. Referred to as Year Zero, people of all ages; families, doctors, lawyers, teachers, monks and artists were systematically purged out of the society to be replaced by a classless, purely agrarian civilization. The Cambodian culture and traditions overnight came to an abrupt halt. People were to answer only to one ruler, a faceless concept called, “Angkor.”
Just a few years prior to this on March 18, 1969, the US began a 14-month secret carpet-bombing campaign that reigned over the skies and countryside of Cambodia, in order to cut off supply routes and base camps of the Viet Cong forces. In these fourteen months it is estimated that nearly 3 million tons of bombs were dropped, exceeding the amount of bombs dropped on Japan during WWII by almost a million. As many as 300,000 Cambodians were killed and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. The Khmer Rouge, which previously had been an insignificant threat, hiding out in the jungles saw this as a ripe opportunity to exploit the U.S. aerial bombardment as a means of propaganda. Seemingly overnight the regime quickly grew in numbers and power enlisting many teenage boys and girls angry about the devastation of their once peaceful land.
It is not hard to deduce from this chain of events that our animosity toward Vietnam Soviet backers, our new alliance with China and our clandestine bombing operation literally helped lay the ground for one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century.
So when Maly asked me to never forget her, I hear generations of Cambodian voices behind her. Voices from those I have seen and not seen. Voices I heard when I walked within the claustrophobic stone-stark blood stained walls of S21. I hear it from Arn Chorn Pond, who lives each day proclaiming this message in his every breath, as if paying penitence for the tremendous trauma he experienced. I felt it in the dance, the performances, the music and the soul of the Cambodian collective expressed in every art form. I saw it in the painted landscapes and sculptures of traditional and contemporary art. I saw it in the mud encased bones and clothe remnants surfacing from the pits at the Killing Fields. Reminders are everywhere, but no more so than in the faces of the Cambodian people I passed everyday.
The trauma is not over. A large portion of the Cambodian people still struggle with the demons of their past very present in their lives today. Struggling to survive each day, far to many Cambodians suffer from deep emotional and spiritual wounds due to what happen during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and the worlds decision to look away. In a society that was nearly exterminated, the people of Cambodia are barely scraping by, holding on to threads of hope that some day they might regain all they lost. The kingdom of Cambodia was once a place of plenty, a utopian, prosperous society. The people were gentle, kind and at peace. And surprisingly, for the most part, despite their horrendous history, this is still true.
We have turned our backs too long, conveniently forgotten, or given in to the malaise and confusion of not being able to form our words. The cry of the Cambodian people is a cry to all people… and all beings that share this place we call our earth-home. Because it is still happening.
Open your mind,
soften your heart, and
peer deep into the bones of lives lost.
Unearth the history, and trauma past.
Listen to the cry of generations before you,
that lay bare in the unspeakable pain.
Reach out your hand,
look into the gaze of your sister and brother,
and pay close attention.
Never turn away,
this could be you,
this is you.
Names and part of the story have been changed to protect the privacy of “Maly.”