(Excerpts from Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia, a film by Ellen Bruno based on the memories and stories of Cambodians in the US and Cambodia. Unfortunately, the speakers and authors are not individually credited so I cannot do so.)
There will be houses but no people in them. Roads but no travellers upon them.
The darkness falls away and the room is filled with light.
From pain to memory.
People killed with cruel punishment and torture cannot die with their eyes closed.
When they killed they were afraid of nothing.
I returned to the city in search of my wife and children. My house was full of strangers. Each step brought memories. A wedding dance. A son’s birth. But no wife rushed to meet me. No children waited in the garden. I turned to leave. There on the wall was written in charcoal, “Husband, I am alive. Find me living in the old factory, near the markets.”
We returned to abandoned cities and towns, to the shadows of lives we knew. We who had the karma to live, blessed and cursed with our survival. We have grown silent. A silence born of fear and distrust. A silence born of uncertainty. We live from day to day. We plant no trees for who will have the pleasure of their shade. We buried the treasures of our lifetimes when we left the city. Family photos, diplomas, gold and diamonds. Two paces north of the mango tree, three paces east. But after four years, the mango tree is gone, maps forgotten and with each rain, our past sinks deeper into the earth. We have worn many faces, teacher, farmer, cyclo driver. Our names change and change again so we carry no blame for our past. How often in the market do we brush against those who tortured us. Who among us has bloody hands slipped quietly into life beside us. We are all in search of someone, in every crowd, on every train we look from face to face for the child lost, the husband lost.
This is a country of women. Our men are dead or gone to war. The widows, young and old, suffer from Pol Pot sickness. A life of endless mourning. We say a cigarette butt is still tobacco and a widow is still a woman. Our husbands now take widows as second wives.
There was an old woman, lonely and poor, who never found a man to marry. She went to market to buy and old mattress, but the mattress fell from the cyclo, and split apart. Out spilled a fortune in diamonds and with that money she bought herself a husband.
In Pol Pot time love was forbidden. The injured soldiers were given the beautiful girls in reward for their loyalty to the revolution. Now we say when the war is over every man will have 40 wives. We struggle to find husbands for our daughters for we must make marriages, mend our broken families.
My brother So Kahn came to me in a dream. He asked to be reborn in our family. Soon after my sister gave birth to a baby boy. The boy had the same face as So Kahn and the same long fingers. Children raised in Pol Pot time are like cotton stained with blood and dirt. They cannot be made clean again but those born to us now bring us an innocence we have lost. We make motions of life, wear masks of happiness. But we live in the shadow of memory. We look back to the time when we were together as family, when we trusted our neighbour, when we spoke without fear. But with each good memory comes the pain of it’s loss.
During Pol Pot time she fled her lovely motherland but her memories always return to trouble her. Please welcome Miss Comrade So Savoeun!
She is a messenger from our past. From the days when we knew peace. From the crowd a young girl shouted, “Mother it’s me.” She was a daughter lost. The child left behind, thought dead for many years.
Step-children to those we have called enemy for generations. We say it takes water to make rice and it takes rice to make war.
We are at the mercy of the sky.
The rice we plant is all we have. If it doesn’t rain, we will starve. We plant the rice and hope to harvest but the fields are dry. Everything is dry. We have worked so hard. We would be sorry to throw the seedlings away so we plant in dry fields. We pray for rain. Everything depends on the sky.
The train is our passage to the border. To the black market where we trade gold for medicine and supplies. The first cars are filled with sandbags to absorb the explosion of mines. These cars are free. Only the poorest dare to ride them.
There are few paths we can walk without fear. Soldiers on every side of this war plant mines. Armies come and go but mines are left behind.
This young girl was in a train accident. Her family was killed. A mine exploded and the train went off the track. We had to amputate both legs because of gangrene. She will not eat at all. She doesn’t want to live. She has no family. She is alone.
A land of perfect peace where this is no greed, no anger, no ignorance, no suffering and no darkness. There is only the light of wisdom and the rain of compassion.