Cambodia is a place of great contrasts. It is a place where beauty and ugliness stand beside one another. Where wealth and poverty shake hands. Where ancient art mingles with cheap imitation. Where dignity and desperation dance. Where serenity and trauma jostle together.
I went to the royal palace today. The monarchy and the religion of Buddhism intertwine on this site of beauty from afar. Ancient artifacts intricately created by artisans lie in dusty display cases with crude numbering visible to the range of tourist eyes – the devout, the curious, the bored, the intrigued. Wood work seems almost crude with stenciled gold paint that appears to have been applied with little craftsmanship. Is this the evidence of a people scrambling to pull together tourist sites after the blight of genocide traumatized a people, a culture, and nearly obliterated the legacy of the arts? Are the obvious repairs to broken and crudely painted cement statues the story of an impoverished people after years of civil war and cruel and evil dictatorship? Are the numerous boxes for contributions signs of religious devotion, superstitious bondage, or the reality of economic struggle?
The Cambodian people are beautiful with smiles wide. They exude grace in the sweltering heat and humidity with long sleeves and hoodies while I am nearly brought to my knees. They are eager to help. Unhurried yet attentive. They laugh – a miracle given atrocities of not so many years ago.
As I seek to take it all in, to absorb this very different context than my own, there are so many layers, so many competing images I see. I am here, the learner. The one who watches and listens. The one who tries to imagine what is fair and right and kind and just in this place of paradox.
In the heat of the day I went on to the genocide remembrance place – the notorious prison where 20,000 entered and only 7 survived. Row upon row of mug shot photos – taken as the prisoners sat with an instrument of torture pressed against their skull conveniently hidden from the camera. Except for the photo of the mother holding her baby exposing the device. As I looked into the eyes of men, women and the smallest and most beautiful of children, I marveled at the variety of stories told in these faces. The defiant ones who stared the camera down. The ones who laughed in the face of death. The sad eyes calling us to remember them. The terrified eyes pleading to wake up from this nightmare. The exhausted eyes, nearly closed, bruises indicating that the tortures had already begun. So many eyes, so many stories, so many lives ….. my own eyes long to simply go numb as so many in the photos. It is too much to take in to imagine futures demolished. But then, one sees photos and paintings of torture …. And eventually one gets to the room with glass cased of skulls and bones. Some still have the blindfold over empty sockets. Some are shattered. All stare vacantly accusing the world of turning a blind eye. They silently scream, “Rwanda, Burundi, Bosnia, Sudan ….. how could you let it happen again??”
The air is heavy, the stench is not far off. A man with his face disfigured from burns begs with a tattered hat held up to my tuk-tuk. A child, the pawn of a needy adult, is thrusting braided bracelets at me to buy. Two survivors are selling their books – sitting day after day in the very place that sought to steal their soul. Then a beautiful young woman posing for her lover, the backdrop is the braided barbed wire – suicide prevention of desperate prisoners, and she beams a massive smile for the photo. And my spirit screams and the nausea creeps up into my throat and I fight to stand.
And I am reminded, “This country does not need me or the advocates I seek to mobilize, or the fragments of funds offered…… I need this country, our friends need this country, the world needs this country…..” This I know theoretically as a good principle, a movement of intentional humility ….. but in this sweltering prison yard I know it in a deeper way, a way that doesn’t just humble me – it crucifies me.
Why Cambodia some ask? Cambodia holds not just a story, not just a lesson, but a divine invitation. Cambodia, not alone in this calling – but with its own distinct opportunity, sings to the world a lament of remembrance that speaks today in this moment. A country of contrasts. Stepping into the tension. To listen, learn, tearing the heart muscle to induce growth.
Wait. Be still. Be present. Choose to remain. Identify with. Love with tears.