Sunday July 15th, 1990
His countenance betrays no emotion. There is not a hint of tears in his eyes, nor a glimmer of hatred. Nothing. And, when he finally speaks after a few moments, his voice is even, respectful, controlled.
“The most difficult thing for me when I come here,” he says quietly, “is looking at these, and wondering if my parents or my wife might be one of them.”
We stand then, continuing in silence, because there is so little to say that seems relevant when before you is a towering glass pyramid stacked to the sky with human skulls, a reminder of evil and torture, of war and horror, of genocide.
Cambodia. The countryside. I find myself wishing it were just a movie set, but I know it isn’t. The broiling sun of Southeast Asia intensifies the humidity, and even the exotic bird sounds seem parched and forced. I keep taking pictures of the skulls -- close-up, shots of the gaping mouths, more pictures -- because once you take your eyes away, beyond this haunting, eerie memorial to indescribable human suffering lay the “killing fields” themselves: mass graves, one after another, shoveled up to expose four years of carnage, when peace in this agrarian land of peasants was abruptly replaced on April 17, 1975, by godlessness and fear under the Khmer Rouge, ordered by the fanatic Pol Pot to rid their country of all outside influence.
Cambodia’s population was nearly annihilated along with its history as the human condition was reduced to enslavement, forced labor and murder under the Pol Pot regime, intent upon eliminating all things considered polluted by foreign thought or deed -- education, religion, business, medicine, architecture, culture, entertainment, people.
And now, in the Summer of 1990, the suffering continues. I had no idea until Dr. Ngor enlightened me, brought me up to date, then brought me here. The Vietnam War is over. That country is recovering while its neighbor, Cambodia, decimated, gasping and virtually helpless, is isolated by the world’s superpowers, made ineligible for the humanitarian aid it so desperately needs.
What remains is a civilization at risk -- people trying to teach children by memory, artists striving to think back their culture, surviving teachers begging the rest of the world to “return our history to us” by furnishing books for schools that barely exist.
Apply the same quandary to every aspect of life here, every profession, every human pursuit, and you draw a rough overview of the situation in Cambodia today. Then add to that the fact that in the jungles and villages, Khmer Rouge soldiers still terrorize the country in their bloody lust for power. In truth, even that will not prepare you for being here. Your eyes will not be prepared to witness the limbless and the hungry. Your olfactories will not be prepared for the devastating stench of decay and filth. Nor will your
heart be quite prepared for the silent orphans of this war torn land, or the beggars of Phnom Penh, once a thriving city, or the scores of sick men, women and children in what we would hesitate to call even makeshift hospitals, or the 380,000 refugees who have suffered too long in the camps along the border of Thailand and Cambodia to cling to anything as tenuous as hope.
But for me, what caught me by particular surprise were the echoes from hell which I hear day after day, night after night...in conversations with survivors of the Cambodian holocaust.
What began as a five-week humanitarian mission with Dr. Ngor immediately became a gift from God -- an experience at once sobering, challenging and enlightening.
Sobering because one can hardly stand in the killing fields or a Khmer Rouge torture chamber with a person like Haing S. Ngor and not seriously consider things like life, death, and what is truly important in the world to you yourself.
I stood there and and heard him speak again of how God kept him from perishing at the hands of his communist captors, even when he begged to die so he wouldn’t have to endure further torture. How, after four years of such suffering, he escaped, taking a six-year-old niece with him, eventually settled in Los Angeles, was persuaded to act in “The Killing Fields,” won the Academy Award for his performance, and became a world crusader in the cause of his oppressed countrymen. It is a joy to serve with him.
The experience also challenges me -- as a Christian, as a minister, as an American -- to re-prioritize the way I utilize the time of my life. To make it count...not just for myself, but for God, country and mankind. And, as I have said, the mission to Cambodia enlightens me as well: After our visit to the mass graves and several monuments of skulls, Haing and I drive back to Phnom Penh. Somehow, all I can do in the car is pray for rain. It is the rainy season, but there is a drought, and the rice fields are dangerously dry.
Back in the relative comfort of my hotel room at the once grand Monorom, I continue to write...
We have returned to the city from the “killing fields”. The smells in Phnom Penh are gut-wrenching and pungent, ripened by the frying heat of the day. Trash is piled everywhere, never hauled away, a feast for rats and flies and, unfortunately, the naked children of the streets. They play alongside the filth; some beg, some look at me and break my heart. I come back to my room -- it seems much more comfortable now -- and I think of all that God has allowed me to witness just this one afternoon. As I reflect, my spirits continue to sink.
As I pray for each person I remember seeing today, from the average to the impoverished and the privileged, I remember that Jesus wept. And now I weep as well. Tears of sorrow, tears of pain, tears of compassion and overwhelming grief. My very soul cries for Cambodia.
It has become strangely dark as I share my emotions with God. I look out the window. God seems to share my grief with a soundless torrent of teardrops from Heaven. And in His graceful way, the Lord instantly heals my breaking heart as I realize that He is answering my prayers for rain for the farmers. It is also a blessing for the city. As women rush to pull already soaked laundry from lines and railings, the children of Phnom Penh run shouting and laughing through the streets.
I am refreshed by this example of the Lord’s mercy. He has brought me here with Dr. Ngor to survey the land, its people, their needs. The rain is His and so am I. And so is Cambodia.