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February 11, 2022

Journeying Through Cambodia

I discovered the color green when I arrived in Cambodia. Clumps of rice grew through paddies, poking through still waters stretching into distance shrouded in heat haze. I was transfixed by it, the brightness outshining the freshly cut front lawns of my Australian neighbourhood. The greens of the spaces I lived in lay dull, dying back to bare earth in winter or turning crispy in summer’s heat. But here they ebbed color the way a painting can light a room.

After muddling my way through the interrogations of the stern military officials in customs I made my way out into heat almost too heavy to fit into lungs.

Prom met me outside the airport. He introduced himself with a small bow, hands clasped towards me as if in prayer.  One of the first features I noticed about him was a discoloured eye. It was red, but not the red from a bad night’s sleep or allergy. It seemed to glitter, situated in the iris. It was too early for me to ask about. My question may have been too personal. He drove me to my motel. People worked on the side of the road, looking up, curious, sometimes smiling.

Prom took me to Angor Watt during dawn. Before humidity became so heavy it drenched me, my shirt weighted with perspiration. I climbed to the top of one of the temples, mist boiling out of nearby tree tops. I stood as a few tourists photographed each other. One section of the temple was blackened by a lightning strike. Indentations from bullet holes peppered walls.

The next day Prom picked me up and we drove for a couple of hours. We eventually pulled off the road and parked at an old military site. Signs told us not to step off the track in case of mines. Around the corner the remains of several old bombed out Russian tanks rusted.

“War,” he said. He looked out over the hulks. Saplings and grass grew through many of them. His single word was devoid of feeling, as if he’d commented on the weather or bad traffic. I asked if the civil war in Cambodia had been sparked by the American bombing. (110,000 tons of bombs were dropped on that country over 14 months, mainly through 1970).  “No,” Prom said. Before I could ask what started the fighting, we were joined by another person. That man showed me the swelling of shrapnel lodged in his knee.

“Why doesn’t he have that removed?” I asked Prom later. “It’s close to the surface. It wouldn’t be a complicated operation.”

“Is good for tourists,” he said. “And tips.”

A shop owner tried to explain the bombing. She said at times vapor trails lay through the glaring skies. You never heard the planes but could spot them, little more than a dot at the end of a white line, straight as if ruled across the sky. By the time the trail began foaming and breaking up the earth started trembling. Shuddering quietly, the movement lifting through feet.

“Feel it in you. Like sickness. Like sadness,” she said. Even her children knew what those vapor trails meant. But there was no rest for Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge later instigated the civil war that decimated the country. Led by Pol Pot they undertook a policy of Year Zero, where all history would be purged. History would need to start over, from the year of zero. The country was renamed Democratic Kampuchea (a name heavy with irony). Books were forbidden, plus the wearing of glasses. Glasses suggested a person might read books and therefore had to be banned.  There was to be no music, no family, no medicines or hospitals and one of the most painful of all, no expressions of love. Symbolically, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Phnom Penh was destroyed as the Khmer Rouge took over, beginning the process of erasing the past. Cities were emptied and residents marched into the countryside, being put to work to plant crops. Incredibly, around one quarter of Cambodia’s population died during this time. A loss of life between 1.5 to 2 million people. As I made my way around the countryside, person after person I met was missing a limb, having stood on, or been close to, a detonating land mine.  As Australian journalist John Pilger said, there was only work and death.

After a few days I came to know Prom. He described to me the time of Khmer Rouge rule as being when children informed on their parents to seek rewards from the leaders. Neighbours and friends reported on each other. Terrible tortures were inflicted on people. These included people whose only crime was to have knowledge of the time before Year Zero. I finally asked him how he came to have the discolouration in his eye.

“They tortured me,” he said, saying it slowly, as if reluctant to tell me. “They put chilies in my eyes.”

During that afternoon Prom told me through the years in his community he often saw people every day who had been his torturers. People who worked with the Khmer Rouge and oversaw misery, imprisonment and administered punishment. But he had since gone about life alongside them. They became neighbours, people he stood next to in shops, passed in the street and even baked the bread rolls he purchased. I was incredulous. How did people inhabit the same communities as those who oppressed them? Didn’t they want justice, or possibly revenge?

“You’re prepared to live alongside these people?” I asked.

Prom nodded. He believed those who committed wrongs would face a judgement in the next life. There was no need for punishment or retribution. He lived without bitterness or a need to avenge what happened. It enabled him to continue his life with purpose and without anger.

I could only marvel at his capacity to forgive. In my life we held grudges against others, often for trivial reasons. Even against people that were no longer alive. Perhaps the difference between us was our cultures; mine built around consuming, achieving happiness through possessions and wealth. His culture built with spiritual values, strong and unwavering despite the genocide and bombing he experienced.

In the driveway outside my motel we shook using both hands. I felt the loose skin of his palm close over mine.

I recall the plane taking off the following day, climbing steeply so that a couple of children started crying a few rows behind me. The plane banked, dipping so that heat haze rolled into view. Squares of paddy water shimmered in the hard light. But it was the heat haze I watched, covering distance in such a way that the country still remained unrevealed and mysterious.

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