Loung Ung penned article 2
I spent the first ten years of my life in Cambodia. I have precious memories of my childhood there before my family was forced out of the city in a mass evacuation into the countryside. Cambodia will always possess my heart and soul. Before the war, my early years were filled with innocence, magic, and family. And now, somewhere in the Cambodian soil lie my parents’ bones. I imagine their souls flying freely there. Recently I bought a little piece of land in Cambodia. I dream of going back one day, building a shack on my piece of land and living there. I was twenty-five when I went back for the first time on my way home from attending the Beijing Women’s Conference. I had to revisit Cambodia to start the healing process and to overcome the fear of war that I carried in my heart, mind, and soul. If you leave a war-torn country, you take the images of war with you. But when I went back, I saw that things were different. Returning to Cambodia not only allowed me to reunite with my siblings but also with my culture. Though they are no longer with me, I also felt like I was reconnecting with my parents through their spirits that were so tied to the land. It was a deeply spiritual journey. Now after twenty trips or so back, I have replaced many images of war with wonderful new memories.
Going back changed my life. When I returned from my first trip, I knew that I wanted to spend my life working on issues related to Cambodia and the landmine crisis. Within months, I had left my job as an advocate at a domestic violence shelter, packed my bags, and moved to Washington DC. I found the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, and was hired as a spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine Free World (CLFW). My mission now is to give people who have survived wars a chance to survive peacetime. Since 1980, I have benefited from living in America. First of all, I haven’t had to fight soldiers, go hungry, die from curable illnesses, or get blown to bits by landmines. In America, there was no question that I would survive the peace time. America has given me a home and I love it here. I love my friends, the generous people with whom I work, the culture, and the freedom. There are so many things that are 'right' here. But I also love Cambodia. In Cambodia, it takes a village to raise a child. Many people in my sister’s village of 2,000 know each other. The villagers look out for each other's children. Anybody’s parents can tell kids “don’t pick up that stone and put it in your mouth.” The wooden doors are kept wide open. There are no glass windows enclosing airless rooms.
When I go back, I visit my sister’s village. There are difficulties in the village, poverty, and not enough business for sustenance. People are poor but are eking out a living. City life can also be difficult with AIDS, the sex trade, and corruption. I wish I could get involved with the other fights as well but I cannot. I try to assist, connect people, and do what I can for those other battles, but I have chosen mine: the battle with landmines. What I miss the most about Cambodia is my family. And the food! I miss getting up in the morning to a steaming bowl of noodle soup. I miss eating fruits that are picked ripe from the tree. I miss the rainwater and people who find joy in its free fall. I miss people who dance and sing with joy just because it’s raining and because they don’t have to walk miles to find water. I miss the non-verbal language, the communicating without words. I miss women being really close and holding hands, and men caring for each other and giving each other hugs. I miss being able to pick up kids and being able to kiss them with affection. I miss the sight of five little shacks that sell the exact same thing - all nuts and bolts. Who you buy from is all about relationship and who you know. The competitors are often friends and do not talk badly about each other. I miss the music. I miss the hauntingly beautiful flute notes that stir the heart and move even the stones in the temple ruins of Angkor Wat. I miss the songs sung by the lips of children who never tasted war. I miss the bells - little hand bells, finger bells, cowbells, and anklets - the sound of those bells, that’s music to me.
I dream that someday Cambodia can become healthier and happier both spiritually and economically. I hope that the Cambodians will get the financial help they need on their road to progress. I hope that the wounds caused by the ghosts of past wars will heal. For human beings, healing is a natural process, and the Cambodians are slowly becoming conscious of their healing. I believe the first generation of babies born healthy after the war is helping us in this healing process. I believe Cambodia is learning to live in color again. In the times of Khmer Rouge, we were given black pants and black shirts to wear. It was as if the country was in mourning for four years. Black was the uniform in our prison without walls, black was the terror that pierced our hearts when the soldiers came for our fathers, black was the earth soaked with the blood of the innocents, and black were the silent sentinels of death in the form of the landmines littered in our beautiful land. But we, the survivors, are learning to wear colorful clothes and wear them fearlessly, proudly, and with strength. Our colors will overcome the black. All of us have such incredible power to bring color into this world. But we cannot do it alone. I am but one person, but together, in numbers, we can work towards building powerful campaigns to make a difference in the world today.
(As told to Ramya Ramanathan, Global Editor, World Pulse Magazine).