Walking With Genocide

Cambodia is a young country. I’m not referring to the length of its existence, but the age of its people; the population is overwhelmingly under 40 years of age. The reasons for this, and for the disproportionately large number of people who are maimed in some way, are no mystery. The liberation from the brutal and genocidal Khmer Rouge regime took place in 1979. Mass deaths from execution, disease (because they executed all the doctors) and starvation decimated the country’s population in the years prior to that, and for some time afterwards famine and land mines were ongoing issues to the health of Cambodians.

I’m not Jewish, nor do I have any friends who hail from central Africa, so I personally have not had any first-hand encounters with people who lived through this kind of event. Modern day Cambodia is by no means a politically idyllic place – given that I am a guest here I will not dwell on this topic – but discontent is kept well under the surface (though people are more vocal about their wariness of China’s increasing influence and presence here) and it’s easy to see that though poverty is widespread here, life is at least far, far better than it was under the Khmer Rouge for the vast majority of the country.

So when I walk down the street, every time I do encounter someone over 40, I can’t help but search their faces for some acknowledgment, some trace of this event…because they almost certainly lived through it and were affected in some way.

I haven’t been here all that long and people don’t go out of their way to talk about it, though I have heard a few stories – how a mother saved her family’s fortune by hiding their valuables in the river; the lady who runs the restaurant I frequent, who with her mother who sometimes potters through the restaurant in a kindly way, are the only remnants of what was once a large family. But nothing first hand. It would seem terribly rude and intrusive to ask – akin to the stern warning signs like ORPHANAGES ARE NOT TOURIST ATTRACTIONS that dot the restrooms of the tourist spots here, a heavy-handed reminder that other peoples’ tragedies and hardships are not appropriate fodder for our idle curiosity.

Fair enough. But I still look at the occasional elderly (or late middle-aged) person that I see on the streets and I wonder. What did they go through? How did they survive? How does living through something like that affect you?

They are usually female; I see far fewer older men and almost none over 60. The women seem to have a common look, at least to my western eyes. Often it’s snow white (or grey verging on white) hair, cropped above the shoulder. Their faces are lightly lined and their expressions are neutral. I think about what they went through and I expect to see weariness or some kind of haunted look. I don’t really see that. There’s a depth, a sense of much going on under the surface, but a placidity on the front. It doesn’t look like sadness or being haunted. The best way I could describe it is as a sort of quiet relief.

That doesn’t seem satisfactory, though. Although my first impressions of Asia have tended to hold up through repeated visits, I know better than to assume I have scratched below the surface in any of the cultures I’ve gotten to know. It is often said that Cambodians hide their pain and will never show it to a Westerner. I can’t speak to that. I can say I have seen no tears, little anger, and much patience as I have walked the streets and taken in what’s around me.

I still look for clues.

A few weeks ago I was seated in front of one of the juice shake stands that dot the center of town. This one is my favorite because they make lime-mint shakes with a dollop of cream, and I suspect others feel the same as there’s usually a wait. So as usual, I settled down on a plastic chair under the shade of a tree and waited for my shake.

In front of me parked on the street, sitting in the back of a tuk-tuk (no doubt waiting for an absent family member), was one of the white haired, placid faced older women I have spoken of. In her arms was what I presumed to be her granddaughter, a child of perhaps three. They were faced perpendicular to me, oblivious to my presence, and I watched them. The woman looked off in the distance silently, her expression thoughtful but peaceful, for a long time. Then she leaned down with purpose and lovingly kissed the child on the head.

Maybe it was nothing; just a mundane moment that transpires in families everywhere. But I don’t think so. I felt that the kiss held all the weight of remembering what you’ve lost, and fully valuing what you have now.

I think seeing that moment is as close as I will ever get to understanding what happened here.

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