Destiny Calling

Destiny is calling and once again, it is time to move on. Cambodia has proven to be a remarkable country in which to spread my wings. Each of the destinations inside this destination played a worthy hand in a highly spirited game of discover the hidden mojo. But beyond the emotive temples and past the scenic serenity, the poignant charm of Cambodia is carefully concealed within the subtle grace of her people.

Born post Khemer Rouge, the fantastic glow emanating from the young adults with whom I interacted radiates hopes and dreams. Perhaps it is borne from the repression their parents endured. Out of the darkness and into a life, ever-marked by the unspeakable acts of which man is capable. Does the balance grow under the light of freedom found on the other side? I don’t know. What I am certain of is that there is tangible purity in these children.

The surge in tourism is viewed as a blessing, creating jobs, enhancing the standard of living and bringing to their doorstep, vicarious journeys as experienced through the eyes of visiting guests. The concept of traveling themselves as foreign as the thousands pouring through temple gates, for now, they still find it exciting to be a part a different world, if just for a moment

As a personal practice, optimism generally prevails over pessimism. But with one foot firmly rooted in reality, I have no choice but to add a large dose of pragmatism here. I wish to wrap my arms around these kids as to perpetually protect their innocence.  In addition to catalyzing economic development, rapid growth can also pave the way for an influx of interested visitors that do not always have the best interest of a country, it’s people or the environment, at heart.

From Ubud to Uluwatu, I imagine Indonesians originally shared such positive notions about the impact of tourism. If you asked now, I wonder if the Balinese would tell a different story. The island, is at this moment, surging to capacity yet the building continues. Expansion more profitable than zoning, hotels, resorts, restaurants and shops are rapidly replacing what is left of the rice terraces and farmland. Retail space is becoming too expensive for locals to rent; more and more Western shops are moving in. Much of the remaining agricultural parcels are being sold off as the quality of life becomes less valuable than the property. The prohibitive cost of living pushes families further and further from the tourist hubs, all but evicting sacred vibes of the island. Bliss is now pedaled as the hot commodity. What has it cost?

One Western toilet flushes more water than the average Indonesian consumes in one day. Yet the building continues. Heavy smog permeates the cities, road congestion clogs the streets and water pollution is killing the fish. The building continues. Deforestation and habitat destruction is devastating the wildlife on the island. When is enough, enough?

There is a window of opportunity after which everything changes. Cambodia is now in that window. Consider this my written plea to the almighty gods of tourism: Please, please, please, let’s not make the same mistakes again. Cambodians are proud of their land and of their perseverance. They still care about the happiness of visitors and possess a desire for us to find their home worthy. They possess an innocence I no longer do.

Live. Learn. Lend your voice.

~ by Christine Fowle

Alice, is that you?

One change in Phnom Penh and bussing it to the Southern coast takes twelve hours. This and a twenty-minute bumpity, bumpity, tukity, tukity ride in the dark; finally I reach the out of the way retreat. Exhausted, I walk across the tiled floor of a guestroom resembling a Q-Bert video game. Yes, I realize this dates me considerably but regardless, I open the wooden shutters to let in a night breeze and suddenly step on something. That something turns out to be a six-inch caterpillar. Seemingly unimpaired the furry creature regains consciousness and slowly and extremely tentatively, creeps away.

Plopping back-first onto the bed I close my eyes and inhale the soft scent of jasmine. Upon the exhale, I release the tensions of a long day into the gecko-chirping symphony surrounding me. A muffled plunk drops into the concerto prompting my eyelids to spring open. I peer up to meet the gaze of a small tan cat perched high atop the armoire. Staring down at me and then back again at the floor, she is sporting an expression that would indicate there are some descending issues underfoot. Following one of my few travel rules, this one regarding manhandling foreign felines, instead of assisting I open the door and watch as she carefully works her own way down and out.

Tired, frustrated and apprehensive about what other curious creatures may sneak, slither or crawl into my room to introduce themselves, I quickly close the shutters. One backward glance at the dizzying floor sparks a brief analysis of the situation:

It has finally happened — I have morphed into Alice. And this is Wonderland. If I open the door to the armoire odds are grand that I will discover a full tea party brewing inside, along with a stunning, albeit tiny, hat. Of course — this must be what Kitty was searching for — how silly of me not to see! It’s all so obvious!

Or perhaps I just need some sleep.

Upon waking the following morning I am greeted not by the Queen of Hearts, but by fields bursting of lush green vegetation. Having chosen a cozy area within the region, I’m finishing out my Cambodian adventure at a small retreat boasting an organic garden and gorgeous eco-philosophy. A gorgeously contemplative backdrop to bask in the glow of the last two weeks.

Feline Death March

Battambang is described as a small provincial town. And that it is. A tuk tuk tour takes care of the local sights — temple, fish market, peanuts drying in the sun and chat with my driver, following which, I make the decision to leave the next day.

The geckos in my room chirp in concert. The air outside is hot and dusty and there is renovation work taking place on the rooftop directly above my room. The banging and sediment dropping begins at 7:30 and every day I extend just one more night. One day turns into five and whatever the force begging me not to leave is, I don’t argue. Perhaps it’s because I feel no guilt eating squishy fruits, waiting for the floors to dry.

The girl that works the Front Desk has a peculiar manner of speaking English; it goes beyond normal difficulties with pronunciation. Come to think of it, she may have similar issues with the Cambodian language. Anyway, I was thinking about perhaps pondering a visit to a temple considerably out of the way and shared this with her.

Four of us were sitting on a wooden bench in the lobby, waiting for the freshly mopped tiled floor to dry — myself, and three young girls that keep an eye on me. The young lady with the impediment was peeling me little opaque fruits as she explained that the mountain the temple sits on, is where cats go to die.

With obvious confusion, I repeat her claim with a decisively questioning look. To further punctuate my disbelief I proceed to demonstrate, using my hands as paws, the arduous sport of feline mountain climbing, all the while crooning high-pitched wails of impending cat-death. I end the performance with a pointed expression beckoning re-confirmation.

Yes. This is in fact what she had meant.

The girls, mystified by my ear-tweaking, dramatic display, place an inquiry and the feline death-march assertion is then translated into Cambodian. They both whoop and howl to the tune of you’re crazy. My girl turns back to me and in all seriousness explains this is what her mother told her.

This was one of my more active days.

~ by Christine fowle

Under The Big Top

Taking a detour and boarding the 7a.m. bus to Battambang instead of heading south to the coast for a bit of chill, I wave good-bye to Siem Reap in search of some more boogie-time.

And boooy do I find it.

The circus is in town!

The circus is always in town when you’re in Battambang!

Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) is a Cambodian NGO that is developing children socially, culturally and skillfully, through the arts. There’s a cornucopia of vocational options to choose from, from theatre, to visual arts to music and the students’ skills are recognized and requested throughout the country by numerous organizations and hospitals. Two of their young performers are even training with the Cirque du Soleil in Montreal!

PPS has designed a holistic approach to dealing with life issues such as AIDS, drugs, human trafficking and domestic violence. It’s combined with a dedication to education, offering both formalized and supplemental programs, as well as social action, embracing the community with a Child Care Center, Social Services program and Leisure Center.

Did I mention the circus?!

I pop in to catch one of the bi-weekly performances, this one entitled, Cabaret. And what a show! There were no clowns to be found on this set, only a group of talented kids ranging in age from single to double digits. The performance was spectacular — their little bodies were contorting, twisting & turning, dropping & hopping, bouncing & spinning & flying! Whew. Don’t even get me started on the musicians. The finale involved the entire cast and a very long flaming jump rope. Set to the energetic beat of hip, jammin’ tunes, the joie de vivre bursting from these kids wasn’t just enthusiastic. it was infectious.

I wanted my training to begin immediately either twirling about 40-foot scarves, dangling from the rafters or plinking & plunking on the Dr. Seuss-like musical instruments. They were having sooo much fun! If even slightest possibility existed that my application might be considered, I would have signed up on the spot.

Phare Ponleu Selpak translates as “the brightness of the arts” and this unique operation welcomes 1400 children into its various programs each and every day. If the creative spark these kids ignite onstage is any measurement of success, they have a serious firestorm brewing. This was the most spectacular event I’ve felt privileged to be a part of since my arrival in Cambodia. Right on kids!

~ by Christine Fowle

Finger Wagging

Siem Reap, not quite ready to release me from her grasp is bequeathing the gift of one more night. I extended my stay and very quickly discovered myself free to attend a performance. But not just any performance. It’s Beatocello.

There is a hospital next to the hotel. For days I have wheeled past the men, women and children — lots of children, queuing on the sidewalks in front. They stand under overhanging tree branches quietly watching life on the street pass by. Every day they wait. It’s my new friend Boran, that finally clues me in. “It is a free hospital,” he tells me. Surely his English must be confused. “Free?”

Throughout town, poked into grass, posted on buildings, light posts and storefronts, even in the hotel lobby, are signs for Beatocello. Held every Saturday night, it’s gratis performance that includes J.S. Bach cello works and remarkably enlightening commentary. Beatocello is Dr. Beat Richner, founder and director of the Kantha Bopha hospitals. And yes, treatment for allCambodians is completely free of charge.

Dr. Richner began working in Cambodia with a small pediatric hospital in the 1970’s. When the Khmer Rouge invaded he was driven out and forced to retreat to his homeland, Switzerland. Years later, at the request of King Norodom Sihanouk, Dr. Richner once again left behind the comforts of Zurich and returned to Cambodia. In 1992 Kantha Bopha I officially opened its doors. The hospital was a tremendous success and in 1996 Kantha Bopha II was christened, followed by the Siem Reap, Jayavarman VII in 1998.

Humble beginnings employing 16 foreigners and 68 Cambodians has now grown into a revered operation supporting 2,100 Cambodians and only 2 permanent foreigners. The impact has been astounding. Against the odds of governmental corruption and a fractured healthcare system, the Kantha Bopha[1] hospitals have treated over 9 Million outpatients, 900,000 inpatients and performed 90,000 surgical operations. Over 550,000 children that would have otherwise died, did not.

This is indeed remarkable but it has come at a price. That price has been Dr. Richner’s life. Of the hospitals’ funding, 90% is derived from private donation. And this is why Beatocello plays. Every Saturday. Over 600 performances. For twenty years, Dr. Beat Richner has been sustaining the financial burden of these institutions. He is the primary reason people donate.

He’s frustrated. He’s angry. And he’s tired.

Beatocello’s performance is moving and his style direct. The good doctor has no qualms about prodding his bow into the BIG white global healthcare elephant stomping through the operating room. He stabs at the debilitating issues of international bureaucracy, inappropriate fund distribution and grossly ineffective methodology. But this was not at the heart of Dr. Richner’s impassioned plea. The most critical dilemma focuses on the rights of poor people to quality medical treatment.

Several years ago I began exploring global issues, mostly because I was painfully ignorant.  I’d spent a great deal of time working in Northwest Europe but didn’t comprehend what was taking place in the poorer countries of the world. The more questions I raised, the more answers I received. The more answers I received, the more disturbed I became. Years later I’m still sorting through the quagmire of information. There are however, some glaring certainties[2].

  • In 2010 there were approximately 8.8 Million cases of tuberculosis.
    • An estimated 1.1 Million died.
  • In 2010 there were approximately 216 Million malaria cases.
    • An estimated 655,000 died.
  • There are 3-5 Million cholera cases every year
    • 100,000 – 120,000 result in death.
  • An estimated 500,000 require hospitalization for Dengue Fever every year.
    • 12,500 die. Mostly children.
  • Worldwide recorded cases of SARS were slightly over 8,000.
    • Less than 1,000 have died.

Which issue ignited a global media frenzy?

Every year 7.6 Million children under the age of five die; 19,178 children, every day.

What constitutes a crisis? What is preventing the international community from garnering the necessary awareness to solve these problems? Why haven’t we experienced worldwide rallying to stop this senseless loss of life? I still have more questions than answers.

My passport is issued by a country that in less than two years, has generated $1,317,000,000 for a presidential race[2]. The 2012 Congressional elections have amassed $1,853,106,280.

Admittedly, I find the finer nuances of politics confusing. But there is nothing perplexing about how $3.1 Billion could be spent. I’ll give you a hint — in the twenty years Kantha Bopha has been healing the Cambodian population, operating costs have totaled $400 Million (with only 5% paying administrative costs).

Twenty years; $400 Million. One election season; $3.1 Billion.

There are obvious systemic flaws if chaotic campaign financing is not only conceivable but legally permissible. It would be easy to wag a finger and say, “Bad, bad, politicians.” But we as individuals are ultimately responsible. We are responsible for electing the governmental officials that make decisions on our behalf. We are also responsible for policing them when they step out of line.

Fixing these problems involves the removal of root causes, of which there are many. One of the most basic is the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution that recognizes corporations with the same legal rights as living, breathing human beings. The most immediately prevalent issue however, is the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission  which essentially provides corporations with a green light to procure politicians. A corporation can legally now spend limitless amounts of cash toward funding the candidates that best support its idealistic value of maximizing profitability.

The rules that govern our lives are not static. If we shake the planet loud enough we can affect change. Until then, we get what we get. As I’ve come to understand, democracy, much like life, is not a passive process. I’m not saying that fixing the United States’ political problems will mend global healthcare. But until the political lunacy that is gobbling up billions of dollars and bombarding our psyches with polluted promises of prosperity stop, nothing will improve. This much is certain. The planet will continue to hemorrhage cash. Beatocello will continue to play. And over 19,000 children will continue die — every day.

Live. Learn. Most importantly: Lend your voice.

We have an opportunity to be part of the solution. Each one of us as individuals has personal power and a choice.

~ by Christine Fowle

[1] Source: Kantha Bopha Website
[2] Source: World Health Organization.
[3] Source: FEC.
[1] Source: World Health Organization.

Lady Tuk Tuk

An understanding developed a few years ago. It involves how I spend money. Awareness began cultivating, that one powerful method of expressing my values is by aligning my purchases with the principles I hold dear. Spending meaningfully is one way of making a statement. Yes, I am only one individual and perhaps the conglomerates whose lean production costs are capitalizing on overseas labor don’t miss my patronage. But the social entrepreneurs taking risks to start businesses representative of their own convictions, value my support on a very personal level.

This being said, I have been officially reduced to the auspicious title of Lady Tuk Tuk.

Two nights ago, based on a desire to spend my Riel in significant ways, I strolled past a looong row of drivers along the narrow street, all competing for my off-season business by shouting the afore mentioned “Hey lady, tuk tuk?!” Wrong move. “I’m no lady,” reverberated through my head but didn’t quite convey the reversal of respect I was hoping to command and therefore kept the thought precisely where it belonged. Instead, a young man uttering nary a word, caught my eye. He was a young twenty-something wearing a baseball cap and when I approached, he smiled a smile that lit up his entire face and I just knew — he’s my guy.

“You want tuk tuk or motorbike?” he asked and I noticed the bike was unhooked from the cab and I’m all about the cool night breeze whooshing through my hair! “Motorbike,” definitely the motorbike. His name is Boran and his temperament is every bit as genuine as his smile. I also find that he makes for very good company.

After two days of climbing Angkor’s holy rocks I’ve self-prescribed some extended temple rest and decide that open road therapy is the sweet cure I’m looking for. So, I employ my newest friend and we head for the hills. Breaking through the city limits, cruising with our gorgeous traveling companions flora and fauna, it’s a rural daydream leaving nothing but dust! The highlight is undoubtedly our trip to the butterfly sanctuary — from caterpillars to pupas into winged beauties, the fluttering works of art are precisely what the doctor ordered; we even spy two butterflies mating!

Inhaling the scenery in reverse, Boran returns me to town where digging into the Siem Reap soil also unearths a bountiful bouquet of happy. A myriad of projects cultivating empowerment, education and community are sprouting up on either side of the river, providing numerous opportunities to support this city in lasting ways. Planted along busy streets and quiet roads are shops, eateries, galleries and hotels offering charming collections of meaningful methods to help grow local prosperity and travel with a purpose.

Along with Sala Baï, a small handful of neighborhood restaurants are also serving as training grounds for fresh, young pupils looking to make their mark on the world. Traditional and experimental artists occupying studios and alleys include painters, photographers, weavers, carvers and silver smiths — amateurs to master craftsman, from remote villages and developing cities. Landmine victims are peddling books by pedaling with their arms and clothing stores are assisting women living with HIV/AIDS. Boutiques offer sustainable handbags, Fair Trade souvenirs and jewelry crafted from recycled materials; there is no shortage of shops focused on projects supporting orphans, education, the disabled and disadvantaged.

Time, energy and financial means are finite resources and therefore not only valuable but cherished, and expenditures I make return the favor. In addition to receiving the benefit from the product invested in, I’m also granted the gift of satisfaction. At home and abroad, knowing my dollars, Rupiah, Riel and Rupee are feeding sustainable systems provides a small slice of inner peace. Even if Lady Tuk Tuk does at times, go a little out of her way to pay it forward, its well worth the effort. The rewards are priceless.

~ by Christine Fowle

Gone Fishing...

Twenty-five years of working in the hospitality industry has firmly planted its roots in the very essence of my being. Service excellence renders me giddy and authenticity is perched high on a pedestal and vehemently exalted. My current home, Le Meridien Angkor, feeds into this passion, making both coming and going a supreme delight.

It is only in the staff that the gift lies to transform a hotel from a pretty box housing a lot of nice stuff into an exquisite locale in which you feel recognized and cared for. And this pretty box is filled with young men and women that exude genuine kindness and graciously bestow it upon each and every guest that passes through their doors. It’s during one such interaction that a lovely girl in the restaurant shares a bit of information with me. She is a student at Sala Baï and with a little research I discover a very special school with an extraordinary mission.

What I love about Sala Baï is not only the school’s tourism based educational focus; it is the methodology behind their execution. The program is exclusively designed to provide hotel and restaurant skills to youths from underprivileged families within Cambodia with a household income of less than $300 USD per year. One hundred students are accepted annually to participate in the eleven-month curriculum, with majors including Housekeeping, Front Office, Restaurant Service and Cooking. The scholarships include supplies, accommodation, food, bicycles, uniforms and medical coverage with absolutely no cost incurred by the students or their families. Because of this, the competition for admission is steep and involves a meticulous selection process including family visits, examinations and personal interviews.

Phort, one of Sala Baï’s young scholars provides me with a tour of the facility and also lives in the dormitory with Ek, the sweet girl that sparked my initial interest. The hotel consists of three deluxe rooms and a suite; the restaurant, open for breakfast and lunch, is run entirely by the students, who also receive instruction in both French and English. Phort seems impressed with my limited French vocabulary and neglect to tell her that after living in the country nearly three years I’ve only achieved the narrow linguistic accomplishment of interpreting restaurant menus.

In passing I’m introduced to Emmanuelle Dethomas, the school’s Communication Officer who has signed on for two years with the project. Emmanuelle describes the background the students and explains that a portion of the integration process often involves an introduction to electricity and running water before training even begins. She also shares that the school boasts a job placement rate of 100% and that along with several other hotels, Le Meridien Angkor provides internships to approximately five students per semester and in many cases continues the relationship after graduation.

In addition to local hotels and restaurants, the school is also supported by international partnerships, private donations, as well as, hotel room and restaurant sales; they even have a cookbook! My guide was superb and I absolutely LOVE what they are doing here. Not only are these young ladies and gentlemen being taught how to fish, they are learning how to prepare and then serve it up in grand style. Nicely done Sala Baï!

Why?

Before you read this you should know that it is graphic. This isn’t a joke. Life isn’t always pretty and neither is this post. Some nasty shit has gone down in many parts of the world and Cambodia is no exception. My intent here isn’t to be shocking for the sake of being shocking. I do have a point to make and hope that by depicting the events that took place here, you understand.

The airplane descends, hovering over the cement square buildings, tropical landscape and dirt roads, finally setting down on the landing strip. Slowly navigating the exhaust filled streets, every inch is crammed with cars, motorbikes and tuk tuks. Beyond the road, dilapidated open wood structures remind me of many parts of Indonesia and India I traveled last year; homes, open to the elements, held together by whatever scraps available.

Dozens of adjacent open garages line the streets, places of business. Hanging from ropes are old power tools. Piled on the ground are stacks of tire rims, motorbike parts and rebar. Other enclosures reveal racks of used clothing, household items and cooked food, intended for sale to locals. One can quickly ascertain that there is not a great deal of income being amassed when the broken sidewalks are loaded with similar stalls competing for the same Cambodian Riel.

The next day my driver picks me up at 10am. Our very limited agenda consists only of two stops, the first of which is the Tuol Sleng Museum. After purchasing my ticket I walk outside the sparse office, look around and quickly re-enter.  I ask for the assistance of a guide; her name is Mhaurin. The museum is a high school; was a high school, until seized by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and one of the first cities evacuated by a regime called the Khmer Rouge at the onset of the Communist Party of Kampuchea victory in 1975. Soldiers instructed residents that the city would be decimated by a US air raid and that deportation to the countryside was necessary for survival. This was a lie. Roads out of the city were jammed with evacuees as were the roads leading from other cities throughout the country. In a very short time Phnom Penh’s population of over two million was emptied.

Pol Pot was leader of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and his Khmer Rouge army consisted predominately of boys snatched from their homes in small villages bordering Cambodia with Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The majority of these young men were living in poverty. Promised food and a purpose, they were indoctrinated, and the demented craft of exacting torture was developed on animals, to hone what would later become a means of destroying their own blood.

Pol Pot’s vision was that of a social engineered communist agrarian society, a classless existence in which the entire country consisted of peasants and the evils of city life abolished. Eliminating any intermediary steps to achieve this objective, the population was categorized into two groups “Old People,” those living rurally, and “New People,” made up of those residing in urban areas.

The terror began unfolding with the evacuation of the cities and the forcing of the Cambodian population into agricultural labor camps. Families were ripped apart and divided into numbered work units based on age and sex. The country was cut off from foreign influence. Borders were closed and all institutions, financial, educational and religious, seized.

The personified “enemies” of the regime’s distorted ideals were indiscriminately murdered, but not before undergoing interrogation. This list of enemies fell into every category imaginable beginning with anyone with connection with the former government of Cambodia or any foreign governments. The intellectual elite followed, viewed as the greatest threat to the new existence and an embodiment of free-market capitalism, the very essence of what the Khmer Rouge set out to destroy.

Tuol Sleng, or S-21, as it was assigned, was a high school converted into a torture camp. The methods were crude. Prisoners’ fingernails were pulled out, appendages chopped off and chlorine poured in.  They were bound, hoisted over a wooden beam, turned upside down, spun and beaten unconscious. The captive men were then dipped in chemical-filled vats to revive them. They were shacked to metal bed frames and electrocuted, forced to admit they were KGB or CIA, and subsequently provide names of family, friends and colleagues.

Artists, teachers, ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai, Christians, Muslims, Buddhist monks and the Catholic Church, all enemies. Anyone educated was considered a menace and anyone with a religious calling, a “social parasite”. The former were killed the latter, Monks and Nuns, defrocked and killed or forced into labor. Temples, churches, cathedrals and mosques were demolished. Any scrap of religion, culture or unity was to be decimated in the name of the new society.

Sick, hungry, weak and desperate, the laborers, as they were reduced to, were forced to work twelve hours a day or more in the scorching heat. Food was scarce; they were provided little more than a daily handful of rice. Those not executed were dying from malnutrition, exhaustion and disease; children were murdered to avoid avenging the deaths of their parents. The Khmer Rouge had a motto: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."

Approximately 17,000 prisoners passed through the gates of Tuol Sieng before being transported to sites now known as the Killing Fields, where they were executed and dumped into mass graves. Bullets were too expensive to waste; instead the means of death included pickax, club and spiny leaves of palm trees, used to slice throats. There are an estimated 20,000 of these sites located all over the country. Only twelve prisoners were known to have survived the ordeal at Tuol Sieng.

The Khmer Rouge reign finally came to an end when the Vietnamese armed forces invaded Cambodia and in January of 1979 seized Phnom Penh. They subsequently found the schoolhouse, abandoned, and the twelve dead prisoners, still shackled to the bed frames. Their bodies were buried in the school courtyard in remembrance.

The Killing Field Choeung Ek, is now the site of a Buddhist memorial park, constructed around the mass graves of many thousands of victims that died here. It’s a peaceful place of introspection, commemorating the tremendous loss this country has endured.

There is no happy ending here, no happily ever after. Cambodians, slaughtered at the hands of Cambodians. Three years. Three months. Eight days. 1.7 Million people[1], dead. Friends lost neighbors. Husbands lost wives. Mother’s lost children.

Mauhrin’s brother was one of these children. She was thirteen years when she was separated from her family. She was forced to walk 180 miles (290 kilometers) from Phnom Penh to Battambang. The journey took three months on roads congested with others making the same trek, stepping over the bodies of the dead. Upon reaching Battambang she was put to work in the fields where she labored with the others, desolate and afraid.

She knew the number of the group her mother was sent away with. When released, she ran and ran until she found her. Her father, a teacher and older brother, a student, were both killed. Today her mother is 88 years old.

I cried. From the moment I stepped foot in the first room of the schoolhouse and saw the picture of the dead prisoner found here. I cried looking at the metal bed frame and the shackles he was bound with. I cried in the second room and in the third and in the fourth. I cried looking at the hundreds of photographs taken of the prisoners: men and women, girls and boys. I cried for the hundreds of thousands of innocent people they represent. I cried for Mhaurin, for her mother and her father and older brother. Mostly I cried because the pain was unbearable.

Millions of deaths cannot be for nothing. There must be a lesson here. Cambodia is only one example of many. Too many. One in every five men women and children were killed. ONE in every FIVE.

It would be pointless to bring up such graphic detail about past events for the sake of retching through emotional circumstances that will forever remain unchanged. My point is, there are valuable lessons here and genocide is not a thing of the past. It is occurring now. Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, Congo – millions of human tragedies over what? Religion. Race. Money. Power.

Really?

Children are being ripped from their families and trained as soldiers. These are real children. Children that should be receiving an education. Children that should be embracing their cultures and loved by their parents. Women are being raped and young boys, programmed as killing machines. Governments are orchestrating the slaughtering of their own people. You don’t have to see it firsthand to know it is real. Look at Syria. Look at Sudan. These massacres are very, very real.

We live in the most influential nations in the world. What good is our freedom if its not exercised? What good is power if not used toward something meaningful? Progress is not a mere measure of GDP. Until we tell our governments that we think these causes are worthy of our attention, they won’t be. We are NOT powerless. We have a voice. And this human tragedy only ends when we stand up and say enough.

There is change happening; we are on the brink of possibility. Never before have we been able to make a difference so quickly. With a click, everything can change. But it requires opening our eyes and acknowledging that the world is a small place and that human life is indeed valuable. What good is history if we don’t learn from it? As individuals, as nations and as a human race, we can help or we can sit back and watch while the planet self-destructs.

We have an opportunity to be part of the solution. Each one of us, as individuals, has personal power and a choice. And whether we want to admit it or not, doing nothing is also choice.

Live. Learn. Most importantly: Lend your voice.

~ by Christine Fowle

 

[1] Based on Yale University Cambodian Genocide Program data.