There are few lands in which the past bleeds so much into the present. People follow traditions that no one can tell you the origin of, handed down in an esoteric language that few people in the rest of the world care to learn. Temple ruins are cradled and preserved by monstrous trees. You imagine these trees were once seeds blown in between stones as the ancient Cambodians carved away at the structures. You could walk out of a malfunctioning time machine and not know if you really did travel back the thousand years you inputted, or if you’re still in the present.
And the genocide. It’s right there. Although it ended nearly forty years ago, it still feels fresh. It was in this context that I was sent out to work on the Cambodian Oral History Project.
I suppose the reason I had for undertaking this project was partly selfish. I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about pain and its role in life. I read the book Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis before going, which helped me understand more clearly about the role of pain in the path to perfection, but I still felt that there were things I didn’t understand. I couldn’t justify the incredible amount of pain in God’s plan. There seemed to be so much wasted pain that didn’t aid in sanctifying at all. Only crushing, destroying, and killing. How was this part of the plan?
When I arrived in the country, I quickly met up with a lighthearted, hardworking native Cambodian woman who helps manage the project. We were able to interview quite a few people together. One of the first people we interviewed was an older woman, a mother of a member of the LDS Church. Her house was supported by stilts like most houses, and we met in the shade below her house. Her children and a few grandchildren lived there as well, bringing a total of about twelve sharing the small space. When she talked about her experiences during the Khmer Rouge, she seemed calm, collected, even somewhat apathetic. I realized that it was a kind of defense mechanism to cope with the horrible atrocities. It wasn’t until we asked her about raising her children right after the Khmer Rouge that she changed. “After their father left us, I had to raise them all on my own. We had no money, sometimes I didn’t even have enough to buy salt….” In an instant, her hands shot up to her face, covering it as she tried to dampen the sound of her crying. She had been able to mask years of pain and solitude under the Pol Pot regime with detachment, but when she mentioned her inability to support these children that she loved, the mother in her could not hold back the tears. That was a moment when I realized that in Cambodia, the resurgence of past pain was only a sincere question away.
When the interview was over, we comforted her and talked with her daughter who had sat in the interview. Her daughter is happily married, works for the LDS Church, and seems to always have a smile on her face.
Another interview was with a man who was one of the members of the Church I had seen. During the Khmer Rouge he had nearly starved to death. One day he found a rope and kept it. The people around him asked if he got it to hang himself. He shook his head. “No, it’s just that in the morning I’m so hungry that I don’t have the strength to get up. I’m hanging this to the ceiling so I can pull myself out of bed.” One thing I noticed about stories during the Khmer Rouge was the emphasis on starvation. There were killings, beatings, torturing, but it was the hunger and thirst that never abated during those years. There were breaks in between people being suffocated by plastic bags. The sound of gunshots wasn’t constant, but during those brutal years, the hunger never stopped. Just enough food was given to keep the soul from ripping off the body. Some would even would tie ropes around their stomachs at night, compressing their stomachs to curb the hunger.
Another man told of his experiences during the genocide. He mentioned a phrase the soldiers used that I had often heard: Tuk min jomneny. Dok min kat. This roughly translates to ‘Keeping you isn’t profitable. Loosing you isn’t a loss.’ He talked about the hunger, how the soldiers kept track of every potato planted and fruit grown so that no one would steal them. What amazed me was the apparent uniformity of all these peoples’ experiences. Trying to keep something like church doctrine consistent throughout the entire world would require an army of missionaries, trainings, conferences, reading, and lots of teaching. How was it that this regime could be so pervasive and homogenous during this time period and throughout the entire country? I was receiving interviews from all around the country from different peer leaders, all telling similar stories. The methods for killing, the organization, the philosophy, it was so consistent throughout the entire country. It was organized chaos. And it caused so much pain.
After the man finished sharing his experiences about the genocide and post-Khmer Rouge life, we asked him if there was anything else he wanted to tell his future descendants. He looked straight at us. “I just want them to know what I’ve been through, and to never stop working hard. I want them to know what I’ve done for them, and that I love them.” We looked over to his son to see if he had any more questions to ask, but he was in tears with his head down. Instead, we thanked the father for the interview, and ended it.
I heard countless other stories in my time in Cambodia, I wrote often, and still didn’t feel that I had solved my question by the time I had to leave. After returning home, my mind was still on the topic, until one night I had a thought. If everyone was experiencing the perfect amount of pain to obtain perfection, no one could ever help anyone. God would stop them and say, “No! Don’t help! This is just the right amount of pain!” I’m not convinced Cambodians are somehow worse, and therefore in need of more pain to “polish their souls.” There is such thing as excess suffering. Why else would Christ us to alleviate others’ pain? It’s the state of this fallen world. But it gives us the opportunity to help. And excess pain doesn’t mean the sufferer can’t learn more. I saw people rise above the most extreme pain and grow “brighter and brighter,” until they very nearly became “the perfect day.”
The people I interviewed were kind, selfless, and so sincere. But most of the elderly have little ambition for themselves in this life, have few dreams, and feel entitled to nothing but perhaps the air they breathe, a small plot of earth to watch over, and peace. You can give them struggles, financial instability, poor living conditions, but they’ll be content with peace, defined as nothing but the lack of bloodshed and tyranny.
They’ve sacrificed much of their hope, but not in vain. Their hope lies in their children. The opportunities the elderly could have had––– the wishes that were replaced by bullets and bombs––– they now plant in their children. And through this oral history project that hope will be delivered. Behind nearly every story was an interviewee’s child who learned something from all of the story of their family member.
Cambodia will grow and progress. Their children are educating themselves and moving forward. But because of these stories, they will never forget what happened to get them there. They will never forget what it really means to be Cambodian. And maybe that’s worth the pain.
* Bryan Brittain served as project intern in Cambodia from May to August 2017. Originally from Camas, Washington, he served as a volunteer missionary in Cambodia for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days Saints from January 2013- February 2015. Bryan is currently a student at Brigham Young University studying Entrepreneurial Management. He has also worked as an intern with the Cambodia Job Foundation, taught art and piano, co-founded a social venture in Uganda, and started an on-line publishing company.