As we walk down the road I seem to be constantly talking with people, if not my son. I wave at every kid who walks to school. I talk to teachers coming out of schools. I greet everyone on a bicycle. I say hello to people who watch little stalls and sellers in markets. Pretty much the only people I don’t talk to are the people who wiz by in those fancy Lexus or Range Rover SUV’s. I am pretty sure that my son and I are tourist attractions here in western Cambodia. Everyone looks as us as they pass . Everyone who asked why we are walking I tell the story of my wife. As I talk a crowd always grows. Sometimes we sit and talk awhile, other times I am able to have more private conversations. Everyone over forty is still terribly traumatized by the atrocities which took place under the Khmer Rouge and they readily tell their stories of survival. Usually, a rest breaks along the road are tearful times.
Today I met a friendly lady. I never found out her name, but I just politely called her “Aunty”.
I was happy to meet ‘Aunty’, but I was sad at the same time because I can see she is still suffering from what the Khmer Rouge did to her. Her life and her family has been decimated. She has no purpose or hope in life. Her entire family was killed by the Khmer Rouge. She is only slightly older than my wife, but looks more like my Iowan Grandmother who is 101 years old. She told me that three times she was beaten by the Khmer Rouge and left for dead. Her crime was she was born in Takeo province. Takeo province was decimated by the Khmer Rouge leader called “Ta Mok” who was so ruthless he is the only Khmer Rouge to be given the nickname “The Butcher”, though as many as three million were killed. He made it his purpose to murder everyone in Takeo province. . . everyone. This little Aunty was one of the survivors, yet her body and mind have been broken. She only weighs 29 kilos (about 60 pounds). Physically she has never recovered. She said that sometimes she goes crazy and cannot talk to anyone, but then after a few months, she will be ok. Right now she was ok. She is alive, but she suffers every day. She is alone. She has no one to care for her; No one to love her. Again, all I could do was cry.
All along my journey I have met countless victims of the Khmer Rouge. The pains are still fresh in their minds. They still suffer the losses every day. Some are physically or mentally permanently scarred. I know that Jesus loves them and has the power to help them. Honestly, apart from Jesus, there is little hope for the victims of the Khmer Rouge who still are hurting today.
- Just today I met two ladies who were held near the place my wife was. Their entire family was killed, except for another brother. The siblings barely survived, though their mother, father, five more siblings, all their aunts, uncles and cousins were either killed in front of them, or died of starvation.
- I met another man who is a policeman today. He said his legs were so swollen from starvation he nearly died. He talked about where he was held they had only one cup of rice for 100 people. Soon they all died. He doesn’t know how he survived today. He warned me that we are walking through a poor area and so bad people might be tempted to rob me just because I was a foreigner and they knew I had money. He asked me to be careful. The Khmer people would never want to hurt a foreigner, but just poverty makes the young people do bad things. However, he would radio ahead to the police to watch for me walking. I was grateful. I know the Khmer people would never hurt me.
- I met another lady who is actually what we call “Kampuchea Krom” and was born in Chao Doc province in Vietnam. She is ethnically Khmer, but born in what is today Southern Vietnam, although historically it was a part of Cambodia. She was captured, along with other children in her village at about 5 or 6 years old, by the Khmer Rouge inside Vietnam. They forced them to be soldiers and workers. She has never seen any of her family again in her life. Her husband recently died of cancer.
- I met another lady who is the same age as my wife. She described everything my wife did, but she said she found a way to stay alive. Each night she was afraid the Khmer Rouge would come to kill her, so she would sleep next to dead bodies so that the Khmer Rouge would assume she was dead too. Nearly every night she slept with corpses. This was her strategy to stay alive.
- I met a man who is letting us stay in his home tonight. He is very small. He was taken by the Khmer Rouge and used to build water canals and plant rice fields. Even if they stole a leaf from a tree they would be executed, so he is not sure how he survived. In April of 1979 when the Vietnamese Army came he also walked back to his home, the home we are staying in now. There was nothing left. The Khmer Rouge destroyed the entire home. He only had a pair of black elastic pants, no shirt and no shoes. All of his family was dead, so for the past 34 years he has been trying to rebuild his life. He is still trying.
Walking the Freedom Walk has been an emotional struggle as much as a physical one. I have met beautiful people nearly every step of the way, but they are broken people. They are people who have been to hell. Yet, time and time again, I have been told, “The young people don’t believe what happened to us. They don’t care.” I tell them that I care and I promise to tell their stories too. Even today, the road to Phnom Penh is a path lined with victims of genocide.