The Desperate Need for Places of Learning
Through the years of revolution and genocide the educational system of Cambodia was systematically dismantled. Teachers, professors and all those with any significant education were executed. The system of accumulated knowledge gathered over the generations in Cambodia collapsed. In the subsequent years of international isolation, teachers could not be found and resources were virtually non-existent as Cambodian society survived on a day-to-day basis. Rebuilding an educational system so utterly devastated presents unique challenges. From the pre-UN days until now Ratanak International has sought out opportunities to assist in the base-line education of Cambodian children. For without a foundation of shared knowledge, no society can progress.
In the early days when infrastructure was non-existent, communities were unstable, fighting forced families in the countryside to be mobile and the capitol city fell besieged, there was little opportunity to assist. Brian McConaghy's (Founding Director) initial efforts to explore opportunities to be of help were met with a stiff rebuke from the communist government officials who were wary of western influences.
With the coming of the peace process Ratanak International was able to participate in several literacy programs based in Battambang (1992-97) and Mondul Kiri (2000-2007). Both of these projects were church based community programs. Despite the immaturity of the new, post genocide, church there was some structure and some hope to be found there. They were keen to learn and it was a thrill to be able to assist them.
In Mondul Kiri the literacy program served a vital function in addition to the direct benefit of reading and writing. It was set up in the tribal areas and funded for a five year period. The goal was to use the local tribal churches as a platform from which literacy could be taught. This would give the tribal communities the ability to better integrate within larger Cambodian society. This was necessary since these ethnic groups were isolated, powerless and subjected to persecution. As an intended "by-product" the churches would be able to communicate with the national church and have the skills and tools to support the community in times of persecution. This low key educational program was extremely successful. It consistently came in under budget. By stretching every penny they finally ran out of money a year later than expected and were re-funded for a further two years.
Schools . . .
As the years progressed and social structures became more stable more traditional school assistance and even building programs could be undertaken.
In 2004 a squatter community was forcibly removed from their shantytown on the banks of the Bassac River near Phnom Penh. The government was making way for development of that portion of the riverbank. The residents were transported out to an area called Sen Sok and basically dumped in a field. It was at this location that Ratanak International became aware of the plight of these destitute families. We became involved in many aspects of community development in Sen Sok, which included the establishment of Hope School. It was exciting indeed to see kids line up for their very first day of school. For many of the kids this was the first time they had experienced anything like this and it was a source of pride for both them and the community.
In 2006 Ratanak International was asked to assist the village of Roung in Takeo province. There was no school in the community. The government assigned school was several miles down a highway. The community, on mass, decided not to send their kids for fear of them being killed by the trucks. (If you have 'experienced' a Cambodian highway you need no further explanation!)
Several Christian women from Italy had taken it upon themselves to teach the children of this village. They were meeting under a large tree and had even managed to make basic wooden benches/desks for the kids to study on. But this was only workable in the dry season. When the monsoons came it was impossible. Ratanak International was asked if it would fund the building of a school for this community. We were happy to do so. When it was first opened approximately 100 children attended. It would soon grow to the point where a significant extension was required. Ratanak International again assisted with capital costs and provided funds for staffing. While fully accredited under the government system, this school not only educates the children but also gives them the opportunity to witness compassionate Christian care in the lives of the international and local staff. As is so often the case, this school has also become the local community center and thus has had an impact not only on the students but their families also.
In 2007 we were asked to explore the possibility of providing a school for the community of Bung Beng. Bung Beng is a fairly isolated area near the Thai border in the north west of Cambodia. It is one of the outer lying areas that has known the benefit of being serviced by the Hospital in Poipet that Ratanak International funded. It is an old Khmer Rouge area and there is, to put it delicately, a long and difficult history associated with many who live there. Christians are few and, at times, can have a difficult time. Yet through the compassion of a Christian & Missionary Alliance (CAMA) team this community has softened towards the gospel.
The original school at Bung Beng was in a terrible state of disrepair and would sway back and forth in the wind. It was only a matter of time before it collapsed on the kids. The local community indicated that replacement of the school was their first priority but they simply did not have the funds to build a new one. Several of the local teachers were Christians. Their faith put them in a very vulnerable position. So when we were approached to fund a new school we were excited to find that not only would this school be a wonderful gift to this village in itself but, if given in response to the request of the Christian school staff, it would be a means of providing them some much needed favor within the community.
Ratanak International has had the privilege of partnering with CAMA in this area for years and we have seen some wonderful changes in the area in general and in individual lives. Often we wonder how best we can communicate such sensitive work to those of you who donate and pray but don't have the opportunity to actually visit and see the lives we impact. Brian McConaghy, as Director of Ratanak International, had visited the school while under construction but was unable to attend the opening ceremony. Dave Manfred, the CAMA director for Cambodia, gave the speech copied below. On reading it we thought it would be encouraging for you to read what is actually said at such events. So as you read keep in mind the context: it is about 38 degrees, hundreds of people are listening who have never known love or compassion and many present have previously held revolutionary positions of great power. In this context every word is carefully chosen . . .
"Greetings to the Governor, His Excellency, Aun Sum, the Provincial Director of Education, the Malay District Chief, and the President of the Khmer Evangelical Church, and other honored guests. Thank you to the people of Bung Beng Commune that have welcomed us today.
Please be patient when I speak Khmer. This is an important occasion and I am afraid I will speak incorrectly. For example, I know a foreigner who was learning Khmer and they heard sad news. They wanted to say, I am sad but instead said, I am stinky . . . So, please forgive me if I say something that is wrong or not so polite or no so clear.
Today, I have a happy heart and great honor to share some thoughts as we dedicate the Bung Beng school. In truth, I represent two organizations today. I am the head of CAMA Services but I also represent Ratanak International. Ratanak International helped find the funds to build this school. They were not able to send a representative so I will also represent them. Both CAMA Services and Ratanak International are Christian organizations. We are not large organizations who receive money from any government. The funds to build this school came from many Christians in Canada and the United States who made offerings to help build this school.
CAMA services started working in Cambodia in 1923, more than 80 years ago. Since we are a Christian organization, we taught about Jesus and helped translate the Bible into Khmer. Since 1974, CAMA has helped a lot in the areas of health also. For example, the first building at the National Pediatric Hospital in Phnom Penh was built by CAMA. From 1979 to 1993 CAMA had many medical personnel who helped in many Khmer refugee camps in Thailand. We had doctors at site 8 also. In 1996 and 1997, I came to Phnom Malai and Bung Beng three times to research if CAMA could work with the Heath Center here. Unfortunately, that did not work out. But in 2003, CAMA began to work with the Health Department in Banteay Meanchey and, along with Ratanak International, helped build the Poipet Referral Hospital. In 2006, CAMA and Ratanak International helped provide an ambulance to Malai District. So CAMA and Ratanak International have some history with the people in Malai District.
Staff that came from CAMA Services and pastors from the Khmer Evangelical Church also helped start a Christian church in Bung Beng. The principal of the school, Mr. Khuen and several of the teachers are Christians. They were the ones who first let CAMA know about the need for a new school. CAMA Staff members, Lao Bounsoeuth and San Sarin researched this need and the Malai District affirmed that the need for a new school building was a real need. Why did CAMA Services and Ratanak International build this school? It is because we are Christian organizations. Jesus taught that there are two great commands: First to love God with all our heart, strength, and mind. And the second command is to love all people.
The word love is a word that many people use today. Many people think that the word love means romance. But the Bible helps us to understand that love has a deeper meaning. True love means to help other people who have needs... to help people according to their needs. This is the meaning of true love. If we love our family, it means we will help them in their needs. If we love our community, it means we will help according to the needs. If we love our country, we will help according to its needs.
This is the reason that CAMA Services and Ratanak International have joined with the community here to build this school. Because people in Bung Beng and the governing authorities showed clearly they have a need for a new school building."
Sunshine School for the Disabled
In a society that believes in Karma there is very little room for compassion. Basically in the teaching of Karma you get what you deserve. If life is good, you deserve it. If life is a struggle, you are being punished for deeds likely in a previous life and you deserve what ever you get. Forgiveness is totally foreign to such a system of belief. Thus when bad things happen to you or your family there is great shame since it indicates your family has bad Karma and is being punished for its wrongs.
Imagine what it must be like for a child with physical or mental disabilities to be born into this environment. These children must live with the knowledge that they are a source of shame and disgrace to the family. They are shunned and suffer terrible taunting and even physical beatings at the hands of other children.
Into this situation comes Sunshine School. This is a component of a larger Christian program for disabled children. However, it is not just a program for the kids it is also for the parents. They are taught that their children are of value and to be loved. (Something they have always known in their hearts but have never been told.) They are taught that the Creator God who made them does not seek to punish them but actually loves them also! This is revolutionary thinking for such families that brings both freedom and works to improve the circumstances of all the lives involved.
Ratanak International has been involved in the ongoing program for many years. We continue to support the tremendous work done with kids that would have no hope without the care of the determined Christian staff. Physical, psychological and spiritual issues are dealt with. This program provides an education for disabled children and, where possible, brings them up to a level where they can start to attend regular school.
Preparation for attending regular school involves tackling bigger community issues. The staff aggressively seeks to change the environment in which these families live. There are frequent negotiations where schools are offered toilets, sanitation systems and better drainage as incentives to accept disabled kids. This includes educational programs in the regular schools to encourage both staff and pupils to accept and not despise those who are disabled. We have known some tremendous success in this area but there are also real struggles for some of the kids as they try to integrate. This little program continues to be an example to the entire community who would typically reject and ostracize such children.
On one occasion a youth group from England came, funded and ran a Beach Camp for nine of the children. We have no concept of how significant a gift this is to such children. They would never have a chance or expectation of even seeing the ocean in their life time let alone knowing the thrill of being helped into real live salt water waves! Three of the mothers/grandmothers became Christians on that trip. I am not surprised. Compassion and tenderness is a powerful, powerful thing especially to those who have never known it!
He Survived The Killing Fields Of Cambodia
His family didn't! Could he forgive?
Sokreaksa (Reaksa) was a young member of a large family in Siemreap City, Cambodia. When the country fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975 his family was forced to join the exodus to the jungle villages.
As the young Khmer Rouge soldiers consolidated their grip, the deaths increased. Anyone who complained; anyone educated; anyone an informer disliked: all were "sent to study" - killed. Teenage boys were brainwashed into amoral, vindictive thugs.
Finally the day dawned when the whole family was marched to a grave, already dug in a jungle clearing: one by one they fell, as the hoes were hacked down upon their necks. Reaksa, gravely wounded, was covered by the bodies of his brothers and sisters. His executioners walked away, laughing.
That morning Reaksa climbed from the mass grave. Hatred burned in his heart. Could he possibly forgive his family's killers?
Reaksa survived the Killing Fields and escaped to a Thai refugee camp. He later came to Canada and has written two books. In his first book, "The Tears of my Soul", he describes his journey from horror, suffering and loss into freedom, faith and new purpose in life. His second book, "After the Heavy Rain", describes his journey of forgiveness and reconciliation to the people who killed his family - "Forgiveness is the spiritual power that breaks the chains that bind me. It quenches the fire of bitterness and digs out the roots of anger. I have been released from the emotional bondage that hampered me for years."
Reaksa, with his wife and children, serve as missionaries in Cambodia, incarnating the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ for those who destroyed his family. His work involves church planting and he has planted several churches. One of the churches is in the village where his family was killed. His mission message is very simple, "Cambodians have suffered so much emotional and psychological pain, nothing will ever make them whole again, except the healing message of the hope, love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ."
Please join Reaksa in prayer support as he continues his work in Cambodia. Ratanak International is privileged to partner with Reaksa in supporting his work. Donations can be made to Ratanak International with project designation noted as "Khmer Christian Centre (KCC)"
Our Projects with Reaksa
Ratanak International is currently partnering with Reaksa and has built a school in the community where his family was slaughtered. Some of the children of the Khmer Rouge killers currently attend the school. This is not just about providing improved education to the children of this community, it is also about speaking compassion and forgiveness into the lives of this tragic village. We have also partnered with Reaksa in building a community library which can be accessed by 6000 local children for both recreational programs and literacy improvement in a fun and safe Christian environment.
Visiting with Killers
The following is an excerpt from Brian's daily journal while in Cambodia in November of 2007. Brian was introduced to several of those responsible for the killing of Reaksa's family, and it was Reaksa who introduced them!
"12 November 2007 is one of those days that is almost impossible to express. Today I was picked up at my hotel in Siem Reap by Reaksa at about 6:30am. We were delayed leaving by a certain gastro intestinal situation but I was soon able to progress on to the rest of my day. Reaksa, a dear Christian brother for whom I have the utmost respect, was taking me out to see the new school that we had helped fund at Kokpreach, a village about two hours north west of Siem Reap. Walking around Kokpreach is no different from walking around any other village. I have visited many villages many times and this time would be no different - except I was going with Reaksa. For the first time after many years of visiting and working in this country I would have some access the to those unseen undercurrents that I have always known were there but have never been able to see.
Kokpreach is an ex Khmer Rouge village where, in 1976, Reaksa's family had been marched for slave labor and where they ultimately were hacked to death before Reaksa's eyes and where he too had been left for dead in a mass grave. His books (Tears of My Soul and After the Heavy Rain) recount the gut wrenching trauma of systematic torture, starvation and ultimately death at the hands of the indoctrinated young soldiers of this brutal regime.
Today Reaksa was to take me to meet the killers! After many years of wanting to kill them Reaksa has now hunted them down, but not to kill them but rather to forgive them and to be a blessing to them and their families. It is Reaksa's actions that are truly revolutionary not those of the Khmer Rouge. Despite my supposed spiritual maturity, I am left bewildered by his actions. I know the theory of grace and forgiveness, and I believe in its truth but its application in such a jarring and intensely personal way is, I'm sad to say, foreign to me. I spent the day trying to get my mind and heart around the implications of my own faith. Reaksa, by living his faith, so clearly demonstrated the glaring deficiencies of my own Christian experience.
Before we arrived in the village proper, Reaksa set the tone by pointing several things out as we drove along. "Over there is where they killed my older brother", "that is where I would mind the water buffalo", "This stretch of road is where they killed another brother". Through his seemingly matter of fact observations, I grew to feel what I had felt years before in the days of the civil war. A profound sense of this being somehow holy ground impressed itself on me. This was a day when all things superficial would flee from my mind and I would fall silent, ill-equipped to offer any counsel, wisdom or comfort. Today I would simply observe and process.
We arrived at the new school building which was lovely and being well used, but I was distracted. When I first got out of the truck, Reaksa casually said "this is Mov, my foster father" and walked on. It took me a while for it to sink in. This was the Khmer Rouge man who had been tasked with killing Reaksa, after he survived the slaughter of his entire family, but who had instead hid him in the jungle. I was hardly out of the truck and was already playing catch up, trying to comprehend the deep issues of this relationship. Off we went into the school to see the kids all in their nice uniforms recently paid for by Sue and Stew McKercher, (the Ratanak Reps from Saskatchewan) and to watch Reaksa distribute tooth brushes to the kids.
Following this we went for a walk around the village. We were saying hello to people who had known Reaksa and his entire family before their execution. We would exchange the usual "sompeah" greeting. (Sompeah is to place the hands together as if in prayer and bring the finger tips up roughly to the lips and do a slight bow or nod) I marveled at Reaksa's calmness as he moved around.
I had the privilege of meeting a lady who at the age of eight was evacuated from Phnom Penh by the communists. She was separated from her parents and had been sent here for slave labour. She had survived and now this was her life. So, here she still lives among those who terrorized her, her simple country life, in a thatch house, discussing the fact that she was once the daughter of a business woman in Phnom Penh - in a previous life. It was like a strange time warp for me - for here was one of the "new revolutionary" people still displaced - yet this was now her life. She had nothing to return to in the capitol.
Reaksa, in his usual playful way wrestled with a man, and then introduced me to his buddy - when they were boys together in the killing fields. I contemplated my holiday to cottage country on Lake Simcoe in Ontario in 1976. I remember it well. While I was goofing off in the water, Reaksa was in this place desperately trying to survive and his family had months to live.
We then walked into an area at the front of a house. We were greeted by children. From around the side of the house came a man with a cow and calf. He smiled and started to chat with Reaksa. However he did not 'Sompeah' and I sensed a subtle tension. I knew his face from the book. This was Mao the killer of Reaksa's father and some of his siblings and the guy who had tried to kill Reaksa himself. Reaksa's detailed description of the butchering of his family flooded my mind as I stared at the man's hands. How could these hands have done such things to so many men, women, children and even babies? I have met many murderers in my day but none like this one and none in the presence of a Survivor.
Reaksa asked questions about the kids. He was concerned for them. Were they OK? Were they going to the school? Mao chatted and laughed in Reaksa's presence, but was tentative in his responses for he knew that in this society Reaksa could and even should take revenge and kill him. I took Mao's picture feeling uncomfortable but not knowing why. Mao, while not understanding it, is growing to trust that Reaksa is sincere and means him no harm. However he has no understanding to the years of struggle - psychological, emotional, and spiritual - that had brought Reaksa to this point. Mao, by the grace of God, has been forgiven by Reaksa and today I simply had the privilege of witnessing spiritual strength and discipline that is way beyond anything in my own experience.
Next we wandered on to another property where a man was sitting below his house threshing his rice. It is very interesting to me that I had much more difficulty with this individual. As we walked up the driveway Reaksa mentioned that this was Syl the man who tortured his younger brother. For some strange reason this has always been the hardest part of the book for me. Perhaps the actual killings are so beyond my experience that they remain abstract. Perhaps the beating and torturing of a ten year old boy, to the point where he can no longer be recognized, hits home since I have a ten year old Khmer son of my own. Perhaps the description of helpless parents forced to watch such a spectacle, knowing that they will all be killed instantly if they so much as say a word, is just too close to home for me. For whatever the reason I took an instant dislike to this man. He chatted with Reaksa and I took pictures all the while silently burning with anger against this man.
Every, probably innocent, mannerism I interpreted as arrogance. Every gesture seemed dismissive, every smile manipulative. It was truly easy to hate this man. Yet these feelings existed with the full knowledge that I was likely misinterpreting his every move. But it felt good to hate. It felt satisfying to climb the self righteous podium and point the finger. All this and I wasn't even there. It wasn't my family - I was jumping around in Lake Simcoe! Today, I was a guest of Reaksa, my dear brother for whom I have such respect. I came in hopes of being a blessing and encouragement to him yet, I, a non participant, was demonstrating the very hatred that he, the real victim, had given to Christ and replaced with love and compassion. I felt humbled and remained quiet!
We walked slowly back up the little dirt road towards where Reaksa and his family had lived. We passed another house where another old Khmer torturer sat in ill health in his hammock looking decrepit and pathetic. Reaksa described his struggle along this same path in his malnourished state as he carried the battered body of his little brother home. This little brother, and the rest of them, would only have months to live anyway. I walked silently, but inside was overwhelmed. We said our goodbyes got in the truck and headed back to Siem Reap.
In a bizarre end to the day we drove out of Kokpreach with Mov (Reaksa's foster father), now a Christian, to go to a local police station where Reaksa was to assist in negotiations with local police to allow the return of Mov's son, who had recently been wrongfully accused of stealing cows. He was brutally tortured by soldiers and escaped to Thailand!
So what am I to take from today? It will be awhile before I fully process it. One thing is very clear - my understanding of forgiveness is infantile, and I will have to deal with the challenge that Reaksa's example provides. I confess to not even knowing how to do that.
For years now I have maintained that to understand and know the Khmer (as much as any western person can) we need to understand the Killing Fields. There are many supposedly experienced people who disagree. We are told we must look forward and not be concerned with the past and what is rapidly becoming history. I have always totally disagreed with this. Today confirmed and amplified my convictions on this matter. Cambodia is a nation of people who have known great trauma. They have had no process of healing, no national grieving, and no acknowledgement of the pain. The victims live among the perpetrators and all is swept under the carpet. How can a country re-build? How can a nation be whole under these circumstances? I don't think it is possible.
I have walked through many picturesque villages in Cambodia. I have always known that there is a profound all pervasive grief here. I have always felt there were powerful and destructive social and spiritual forces at work here. But I have never been able to see them. To the "barang" (westerner) such things are in the darkness. We may know they exist but we can not see them. Walking through the picturesque village of Kokpreach with Reaksa was like being handed night vision goggles. For the first time in 18 years of coming here I looked into the darkness and could see some detail. It was disturbing. My respect and admiration for Reaksa grows.
And as for me... I have learned to be silent!"