Today is the 36th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea, known more commonly today as Cambodia.
Shortly after the fall, and after Vietnam occupied Cambodia, I went to the country to produce a film on reconstruction. Cuban hydrologists and Polish veterinarians went into Cambodia under an ecumenical partnership brokered by ecumenical leaders including Paul McCleary, head of Church World Service.
The people were still reeling from the trauma. It’s estimated that up to one-quarter of the population died in the genocide. Led by Pol Pot, the revolutionaries attempted to create an agrarian, collectivist society.
Instead, they created hell on earth.
The killing fields
At first dissidents were killed. But the attacks enlarged to include the educated and even those who wore glasses because they might be intellectuals. Teachers, lawyers and professors risked identification as part of the anti-revolutionary elite.
Under coercion, neighbors, family members and even children reported on those presumed guilty of anti-revolutionary acts or thoughts. Families were divided. People were uprooted and forced to labor in collectives. Mass murders were common.
This was the time of the killing fields.
The country’s infrastructure was dismantled. Telephone lines were torn down. The electric grid was destroyed. Modern technologies were counter to the idealized rural society the revolutionaries envisioned.
The teams put in place by the ecumenical coalition helped to restore the national cattle herd and reconstruct destroyed canals in the Mekong Delta. The canals irrigated rice paddies, which were the basic food source for the region.
U.S. carpet bombing during the war with Vietnam had caused massive destruction to the countryside. The Khmer Rouge made it worse.
The 1978 invasion by Vietnam had freed the country of Pol Pot but added to the damage. But for the Vietnamese administrators, Cambodia was a non-functioning country, driven backward into pre-modern status.
Land mines, laid during the war with Vietnam, were still in the ground, causing injuries and death. A grim census was underway exhuming bodies from mass graves.
Tensions between the occupiers and the Khmer were subtle but strong. Trust was broken. Hatred for the U.S. government was mitigated only by a more intense hatred for the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.
We traveled the country, under a curfew and tight regulation. We went to killing fields. In one particularly disturbing visit, we watched a worker exhume skulls and other bones. The odor of decay made the scene all the more horrific.
At a city hospital in the south, a modern stainless steel sterilizer for medical equipment sat upended on three rocks. Now it served as a boiling pot above a wood fire in a former operating room.
The building was a skeleton of its former self.
The work of the ecumenical coalition was controversial at the time. Healing after the war between Vietnam and the U.S. was still in the future. But the ecumenical team was doing pure humanitarian work. It was the work of reconciliation and healing.
As in all wars, the suffering is not limited to the combatants. Those caught between the guns bear a tragic burden as well. This was especially true of the Cambodian people.
To enter Cambodia we had to pass through Vietnam. Vietnamese officials were suspicious of our film crew, but the Vietnamese people were hospitable and gracious.
The Cambodians were fearful we would make a misstep and cause problems for them with the Vietnamese occupiers.
U.S. authorities had sanctions against both countries. They required special approval for licenses and visas. And they confiscated and held my film for a brief time upon our return.
Eventually, however, the State Department purchased copies to place in libraries around the world as an example of the humanitarianism of the U.S.
Vision for a different world
Imagine how different the region is now. Cambodia is recovering from near-Stone Age conditions that prevailed only 36 years ago.
Vietnam is becoming an economic success story.
Thailand, despite disruptive political divisions, is a strong economic power and a tourist destination.
And Laos continues its reconstruction.
On this anniversary, I’m grateful for the courage of the ecumenical partners who carried out this humanitarian work of reconciliation and healing. I’m especially grateful for leaders who had the vision, perseverance and commitment to see the world differently, through a lens of compassion and reconciliation, and to carry out the vision.