Friday, January 22, 1999

The Killing Fields

Welcome back to the Kanestergram!

After returning from an extremely enlightening tripto Cambodia, I am pleasantly reminded of the luxuries Bangkok has to offer, and rather than loathe living the life of an expatriate, I find myself grateful that Cambodia is a great place to visit, but not to live. After a spell of a sickness that kept my spirits under for a day or two, I am trying to shed the remnants of the stomach bug and get back the pile of work that has grown on my desk.


As I begin, I ask myself, how many of you even know where Cambodia is? Furthermore, if you were to be educated enough to know the geographical location, do you know the country's history? There is only so much that you can read about, but to understand the genocidal rule of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge doesn't fully grasp one until you hold in your hand the human skull of a Khmer who met his fate from the swing of the axe to the head while working in "The KillingFields". But this skull is one of 8,950 found at the memorial stupa I visited outside the capitol of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, during my first day in the country. Scattered among the countryside and in similar memorials in Siem Riep and Battombong are the remains of some 2 million people who died from torture, execution, exhaustion, forced labor, etc. Their deaths created a flood of refugees and orphaned an entire generation. Cambodia is still feeling the effects of the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. Just recently, the United Nations and the current government in Cambodia are trying to bring the leaders of the genocidal orgy of death to justice in a trial for genocide.

Cambodia is a country in search of itself. With no reliable government in place, and political leaders still bickering and fighting for complete power, the refugees from Cambodia's recent civil war are just returning to their country. And it isn't much better than the refugee camps they leave on the Thai Cambodian border.

In the middle of the country, and surrounded by various settlements of internally displaced people, are the ruins of Angkor Wat, number one tourist destination in Southeast Asia, and picture perfect. Vaguely reminiscent of an Indiana Jones film (ironically, rumors around indicate Angkor Wat may bethe setting for the next film), Angkor Wat exists in splendid beauty, virtually untouched by the effects of mass tourism and slowly being restored by foreign governments aiding Cambodia's tourism department. My visit to Angkor Wat was a side attraction to my main mission to Siem Riep (where Angkor Wat is located.) And that mission was to meet with the internally displaced (IDP's)

They exist under primitive conditions in the villages on the outskirts of Siem Riep. Food comes from farming and work, but little more than rice is fed to the people, leaving children with distended bellies -evidence of malnourishment, and starvation.

Reality in the village is the life and death struggle with Malaria. Villagers introduced me to a beautiful baby girl, not more then two months old. She is an orphan, both of her parents victims of malaria.

Further on down the road, we meet with more villagers. They direct us to the house, and there we see an 18 year old boy, delirious and in a fit of shivers brought on by malaria. It is his third time contracting the disease, and the second in a week. He is in such a bad state, that he needs to be taken to the hospital to be treated.

Only, where we take him is not a hospital. It is a barn, decaying with age and rotting with the changing weather. Here, the young boy rests on a primitive bed. Walking in to the dirt floor barn, you see syringes, IV's, and plastic bags scattered among the dirt. Unsanitary, not dependable, and certainly the only hope this boy has to get through the misery of malaria, I watch as the nurses attend to the boy. They do so quickly because I am a foreigner, and wouldn't want to upset me since I am watching (theybelieve "monitoring") them, so they give immediate attention to the boy. If we were not with him, he may have waited for several hours before receiving care. It was lunch time.

Resting, and finally replenished with liquids through an IV after several violent vomiting spells, the boy is a bit more relaxed, and we leave him in the good graces of god and hope that a speedy recovery gets him out of the hospital.

Back in the village, another man beckons to us. He is a farmer, and walks on one leg while the other dangles. His leg is broken, and has been for four years. It is a simple procedure to rest the bone. He is afraid to pay for the operation. Our organization volunteers the funds, but that does not persuade him to undergo the surgery and get a cast on his leg. That would leave him out of the house, and he may miss the harvest, losing valuable rice, and ultimately, his means of survival. Catch 22.

It would be the theme of my impression of the country. Catch 22. Maybe damned if you do, definitely damned if you don't. And the oasis to all the chaos are the NGO's there to help the people.

Among them, our sister organization, Jesuit Service Cambodia (JSC). JSC operates several programs in Cambodia. Among them Urban Development, and theMekong Wheelchair. But perhaps the most prominent, if not most important, campaign that JSC carries on is the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).

JSC is actually the employer of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Tun Chanareth, who accepted the award on behalf of all land mine victims. I met with Tun Chanareth at JSC Siem Riep. He is an ordinary man, who spends his days meeting with displaced people, handicapped farmers, tradesmen and laborers, basically anyone and everyone. He also fixes the Mekong Wheelchair, which he helped design. He is a carpenter, farmer, activist, orator, former soldier, husband, father of six, and a genuine good-hearted man. He is simply amazing, and in his presence I feel like I am talking more to the village mayor than I am the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. His words ring the truth and suffering of a people whose life has been filled with pain, hardship, sacrifice, and loss. His encounter with a landmine left him without legs, but not confined to a wheelchair. His agility and dependencey on his hands enable him to be a top craftsmen. At the JSC compound, he shows me his latest project just completed - a gazebo. The craftsmanship and final product would impress even the most die-hard carpenters and lumbermen, my father included.

But Tun Chanareth makes up only part of the colorful cast of characters living the drama of everyday life within JSC. Everyone from a former MiG fighter pilot to a newly arrived Australian social worker, incorporating many kinds of religious orders, from Providence sisters to Jesuit priests. And their sound track is a musical composition still in the making.


In an e-mail to those who would know her, I informed many of you of the incredibly sad news that Carrie Williams and her family recently received. Carrie has been sending updates, and I have been praying for the best. Hope and prayers will be some of the only comfort that the Williams family has during these hard times. But through the grey clouds dart glimpses of sunshine, and Carrie writes this update recently.

"Dad went in to receive the results from all of his tests. They confirmed that he has B cell Chronic Lymphcytic Leukemia, which is a "normal" type. The doctor decided immediately to start the chemotherapy. This chemo, however, is supposed to have the least side effects and so far, Dad hasn't been sick. Because the chemo kills both good and bad blood cells, there is a chance for anemia, fatigue and loss of appetite, but he hasn't had the flu symptoms and sickness that is associated with chemo.

Eventually, the doctor feels that he would like to do the bone marrow transplant. My dad's sister has volunteered if she is a match. The neat part (only the Lord) is that Dad's best friend from high school just "happens" to be an internal specialist at the best bone marrow hospital in the Omaha. For those of you who know me, I was born in Omaha, and all of our family lives in Nebraska. So, when the transplant takes place (it is a long process) Mom can stay with family and the family can see Dad. Isn't God amazing? I have hope in knowing that HE is in control of our lives and He loves us all in amazing (and sometimes hard to understand) ways."


Well, sadly enough, it doesn't look as if I will be able to go to the grand gala opening of this movie in California on May 21st. I will be way too busy for that. So, I had hoped to see the opening here in Thailand - on June 18th, but soon found that with any luck,, I will be in Nairobi, Kenya, for our annual JRS In-Service, and may not be able to see it here either. Oh well, when I get back I suppose. I'll just have to wait.

That about wraps it up for this Kanestergram. I got lots of e-mails while I was away, so I'll try to get back to you. In the meantime, take it easy, and I'll see ya next week!