On my SE Asia trip, I confess to being hesitant to visit places like Pol Pot’s killing fields and the CuChi tunnel outside of Ho Chi Minh city. The “American War” (Vietnamese name) brought up memories of friends killed and protests at home. I didn’t want to revisit anger over my government’s lies. My peers, those with a bright and promising future, signed up because they believed in the honor of that war. How do you justify top brass without the cahones to admit they were wrong? Those men who delivered our young to the slaughter house instead of doing the right thing? Frankly, it’s happening again in Afghanistan. History repeats itself, and we’d be wise to revisit these places of horror.
I felt helpless facing so many ghosts and told our guide, KC, that I didn’t think I could handle the encounter. He encouraged me. “Dawn. You need to come. I’ll make sure you don’t have to see anything that’s too difficult. Please come.” KC kept an eye on me throughout, and now I must admit that he was right.
Chum Mey is one of only seven adult and five children survivors of the Tuol Sleng high security Prison and torture center during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Mr. Mey doesn’t know why he lived, other than he knew how to fix machines and his captors needed him. He was arrested on Oct 28,1978 and was tortured in ways that I will not speak out loud for fear of evil revisiting the world again. Mr Mey’s entire family was murdered, even his 2 month-old son.
In January, 1979, Vietnamese liberators followed the stench of decaying flesh to free the Cambodian people after half of the population was forced to dig their own graves and were then bludgeoned to death in 388 killing fields.
It was an honor to hear Chum Mey speak, not only about survival but also about forgiveness for his jailers who he felt would have also been killed if they didn’t follow orders. His testimony at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal resulted in the lifetime imprisonment of Duch, the man most responsible for genocide at Tuol Sleng.
It was a privilege to visit with Mr. Nam, a Viet Cong soldier who lived and fought every day in the tunnels for over fourteen years. He stood before an illuminated map showing military control zones and I held my breath, not certain of what he might say to the Americans sitting before him.
His first sentence was, “I never wanted to be a soldier. I never wanted to kill anyone.” He proceeded to tell us that his village was destroyed by US bombs and that he had to move underground. He met his wife, a nurse who took care of him when he lost his arm, and his children were born in the tunnels. He feels that he was protecting his family as US forces continued to bomb and tried to destroy where they lived. At the end of his talk, he said, “There are no winners here.” I asked him what made him the happiest and what was the saddest from that time. His answer was, “There wasn’t happiness and it made me so sad to see my friends killed.” The most heartwarming moment was when our veterans joined Mr. Nam in a moment of forgiveness.
How to Survive Peace?
Since 1996, COPE has worked in Laos with disabilities caused by UXO (unexploded ordnance or cluster bombs) as well as clubfoot deformities. 260 million tons of payload were secretly dropped over Northern Laos during the Vietnam war from 1964-1973. The airplanes couldn’t land with live bombs on board and the government in Laos asked for US help in trying to control pockets of communism along the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran the long border between Laos and Vietnam. The American public never knew.
Thirty percent of those bombs did not explode and remain today, waiting for one little mistake. There are still 300 accidental detonations resulting in 46 deaths each year. The war ended over 43 years ago. Because cluster bombs destroy a large area, the increase of collateral civillian damage is huge. The live ammunication can be dormant over many generations. There are hundreds of little bomblets in just a single casing. In 2008, the United States refused to sign a ban and we continue to use clusters in Afghanastan. (On a side note: In Afghanistan, the bomblets were painted yellow and so were the relief food packages dropped for civilians. Children thought the yellow balls were something to play with.)
Bombs and mines have hurt everyone in Laos. Our guide’s father built a fire near his field to keep warm. The heat was just enough to explode the hidden casing buried below him. There are instances of children finding cluster bombs the size of softballs and in innocence don’t know they are deadly. One toss. A child’s life taken.
These survivors picked up my broken heart and rebuilt it through their stories of heroism, grit, and courage. Their message was clear: Never forgot those who died at the hands of evil. Be vigilant that this never happens again. Forgive those who were manipulated, terrorized or lied to. We are all the same–we want peace and a chance for good health and prosperity for our families.
When do we stand united and simply say “No” to war and conversely, when there is a great evil like Pol Pot and Hitler, when does the globe unite to make sure genocide of an entire race doesn’t happen again? Are we paying attention in Syria and Mynamar?