I spent this week in Vietnam and Cambodia. These two nations were inextricably linked in America’s wars in Indochina (it is interesting, but logical, to find that the conflict we refer to as “the Vietnam War” is here known to everyone as “the American War.”) Today Cambodia has a government installed by Vietnam and dependent on it — during my visit, the premier of Vietnam was in town, and the wall of the royal palace in Pnomh Penh was festooned with banners proclaiming “Long live the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” and praising the friendship of the two nations.
This is ironic since historically Cambodia has feared Vietnam and the latter came as invaders in 1978; and the current government of Cambodia is a dictatorship of 30 years standing held in low esteem by most Cambodians. Still, the Cambodians tolerate the status quo quietly because it is seen as far preferable to the violent rule of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent civil war, which ended when Vietnam drove the Khmers out of the country.
The Khmer Rouge’s campaign to purify the nation killed between 2 and 3 million Cambodians, perhaps a quarter of the population. I visited one of the famed killing fields, where human teeth and bone fragments still appear on the ground, more exposed by each heavy rain. The site has dozens of large basins, about 20 feet in diameter, that were mass graves, now eerily filled with wildflowers and thousands of butterflies which flit over grave sites like tiny spirits of the dead. There are also trees against whose trunks babies had their skulls smashed, and in the center a four-story memorial stupa whose central atrium encloses a glass structure filled with over five thousand skulls from the victims.
I later visited the notorious Tuol Sleng prison (also known as S-21). This was the most famous detention and execution center of the Khmer Rouge – a converted high school near the center of the town. Many of the victims were former Khmer Rouge who were tortured and executed for alleged treason, including women and children. The prison is ghastly – there is no other word. The empty cells remain, many with shackles, as do torture devices (paintings on the wall of one compound depict the tortures for those whose imagination needs assistance). Barbed wire is everywhere, on the walls and across the balconies of the former classrooms. Photos of the victims, many grossly emaciated, line several buildings. In the last room, a pile of bones and skulls shows the outcome for most inmates (only 7 survived out of thousands who entered).
One leaves these graphic monuments astonished and horrified at the cruelty that human beings can inflict on others. Yet not far off is a living monument to generosity and goodness. This is the foundation Pour un Sourire d’Enfants (For a Smile for the Children), an NGO that provides comprehensive educational support to some of the poorest children in Cambodia. PSE was founded in 1992 by a French couple — known affectionately at PSE as ‘Mamma and Papa’ – who were struck by the wretched condition of children who literally lived on a scrap heap. Near the site of a vast garbage dump outside the center of Phnom Penh, where families scavenged for food and items to recycle, Mamma and Papa built a small shelter and school. Their goal was to give a chance at a decent life to children who otherwise would have no chance for education or normal work.
Today, PSE has grown into a professional organization that assists 6,000 children across Cambodia. The children are of all ages, from infants to age 18, and are admitted only on the basis of stringent standards of poverty or family abuse. (Children in impoverished families in Cambodia are not only prone to beatings and emotional anguish, but also to being sold into service or prostitution). PSE provides housing for children who are abandoned or endangered in their homes. For children whose families are safe but too poor to send them to school, PSE provides a comprehensive educational and vocational training program, along with meals and uniforms. In addition to the children in the area attending classes at the PSE facility, PSI also provides financial support for school fees and uniforms, and social work guidance, for poor families in a broader area, including two satellite facilities in other cities in Cambodia.
PSE offers a wide range of vocational and class training. We were told that students choose their course – from auto mechanics and landscaping to nanny/maid service, restaurant work, and other hospitality fields, to information technology. Those with the desire and ability can prepare for university exams or business school. PSE told us that most of their graduates are eagerly sought by local and international businesses. They really do appear to transform lives. It was delightful to see the children, of all ages, in neat clean clothes, looking purposeful and happy, working together to pursue their chores.
After seeing the horrors of war, it was redeeming to see these efforts at rebuilding lives. Cambodia still is struggling to recover from the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge years, but a new generation is rising. With international support and organizations like PSE, they have hope again.
To be sure, it will take another generation to overcome the corruption of the current regime, and the poverty of the population. But Cambodia has great natural beauty, from seacoasts to mountains to the historical wonders of Angkor Wat; it has plenty of water for agriculture; and a young population eager to work and learn. In a few decades, this could be one of the most attractive places on earth, even though just a generation ago it was one of the most horrific and wretched.