The Kingdom and I: The Country I Came To

by Sarah Stonier

On April 17th, 1975 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge army overtook Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia; further extending the

A hallway of S-21

A hallway of S-21

ongoing terror of mass genocide, torture and labor onto the Cambodian people.  A civil conflict that would wage on until January of 1979 when Vietnam would assist in driving out the elitist leader from his place of power.  An article from the New York Times[i] states that from that moment on a decade long jungle warfare ensued; inflicting the deepest of wounds onto a country and a people, stealing from it millions upon millions of lives.

On April 1st, 2012 I traveled through the seething, vibrant traffic of Phnom Penh to Tuol Sleng, the former S-21 prison now turned into a Genocide Museum.  It is quiet on the grounds, as if the very cacophony of the city chooses to show its respect to the tortured and the fallen. When the Vietnamese overtook S-21 they photographed each cell as they found it, and each photograph hangs on the wall of the cell, a silent memorial to the silenced victim. I gazed at each yellowed aging photograph on the wall seeing for myself the twisted and inhumane manner in which the prisoner had been left lying on the very metal bed frame in the middle of the room before me, now emptied of it’s horror. Genevieve, one of my oldest and dearest friends,  explains to me the reasons people were arrested and detained; they wore glasses, they had soft hands, they were intelligent or religious. Imagine for a moment if 1 in 4 Americans was killed by another American and you have a slight understanding of The Khmer Rouge.

mass graves

Mass graves at The Killing Fields. Not all of the graves have been dug up, therefore it is very common for rainwater to wash up fragments of bone and teeth. There will never be an exact number of lives lost.

In the second building a number of rooms are filled with rows and rows of black and white portraits; before each prisoner had been transported on to The Killing Fields, the Khmer Rouge had taken their picture. I have no idea why, if their motivation was to catalog the disposed or display the trophies of their tyranny.  We come to the last room where a statue sits cross-legged with offerings and candles flickering in front of him, maps of all the located mass graves to his left, rows of shackles to his right.  I leave, sadness and anxiety over what has happened to this country filling my lungs as densely as the incense burning in the vase of golden tulips at the foot of the statue. Duch, the head officer of Tuol Sleng, I learn; has been given a life-sentence for his crimes against humanity, on February 2nd, 2012. A mere two months before I walk the same halls he did. I am stunned, this is not a trite paragraph I’m reading in a history book; this is a reality still teeming beneath the surface of a seemingly stilled society.

We follow the same route the prisoners would have taken to The Killing Fields; I however, am going to learn about the past while they were going knowing their very future would end in death. As you travel through stations with headphones a gentleman explains to you- whether it is in German, Spanish, Russian or English- of what happened at each numbered location. Genevieve sits on a bench outside; The Killing Fields tour is not one to repeat too many times.

A collection from some of the mass graves

A collection from some of the mass graves.

The translation of the prison rules.

The translation of the prison rules.

 

I’m walking in my own solitude, listening intently when I notice a young boy waving at me from outside the fence. I take my earphones out and am surprised to find I continue to hear English. I comment on how well he speaks English and he beams, informing me that he attends a school where he gets to practice.  He tells me that he is the oldest in his family and that he is 14 years old. He then interjects by asking if I’d like to take his picture. Always shutter-happy and camera ready I happily oblige, only to realize by his next question that this is a form of income for him. I kneel down in the warm dust deciding that I will of course give him money. I tell him that yes I will pay for the picture, but if he would let me, I’d like to tell him about something so much more valuable than money. He held my gaze; though I don’t know if it was intrigue at my statement or his willingness to do whatever it took to receive the monetary gain of American dollars, 1$ of which is equal to 4,000 Riel.

“Do you know who Jesus Christ is?” I ask, and when he says no, shaking his head at an unrecognized name my heart begins to race.  I can hear the blood pounding in my ears; I have never once met someone who had never heard the name of Jesus Christ and the responsibility of such an opportunity is now ever apparent. What if I stutter? What if I don’t include all the sections of the “Romans Road?” What if I don’t explain the Gospel adequately? “Give me your strength O God, and courage to speak,” shoving the flurry of fears down I draw a breath, and there, on the edge of The Killing Fields, where the grass was stained with the blood of his people and the deep depressions in the earth are a testament to mass graves filled with a generation; I tell him of one death, one resurrection and one empty grave. The boy listened and upon receiving the money he waited for so patiently, smiles and disappears into the tall wheat field from which he had emerged.

The Harvest is Plentiful

The picture of the boy in the story

The picture of the boy who heard the name Jesus

Jesus Christ, is the sweetest name I’ve ever heard.  His grace is the most beautiful word I can speak. I am used to explaining to people why I believe in Jesus, or defending Jesus or even correcting misperceptions of Jesus, but to introduce my Father to someone for the first time was terrifying as it was thrilling. I prayed before I left for Cambodia that I would be able to share the Gospel. I didn’t want to travel 8,999 miles from home in an attempt to meet someone’s physical needs and not have the opportunity to share The Living Water, and The Bread of Life. God answered my prayer when I had been in Phnom Penh for less than 12 hours. As I finished the tour I only half listened to the rest of the sound bytes, humming instead to myself the song “I once was lost in darkest night, yet thought I knew the way, the sin that promised joy and life has led me to the grave. I had no hope that You would own a rebel to Your will, and if you had not loved me first I would refuse You still. Hallelujah, all I have is Christ Hallelujah, Jesus is my life.”[ii] Being hit with the realization that there are so many people who don’t even know the name of Jesus and haven’t been told about the freedom in Christ is overwhelming. For me to look at the numbers etched above the mass graves indicating how many each grave had held and not knowing if they were also brothers, sons, mothers and daughters who were never told about Jesus crushed my heart.  I was, as Lewis spoke of, feeling the weight of Glory.

Genevieve and I closed my first day in Cambodia with dinner at “FRIENDS”; a restaurant known for bringing in children off the streets and training them to be cooks and wait staff. Genevieve and I sat at a courtyard table surrounded by the melodies of other languages and the rhythms of distinctly different accents. Our own conversation leant itself towards romance, dreams and adventure; the same theme it has held for the past ten years. Tomorrow she will go to work and I will go to work in an AIDS Orphanage; an experience I am doubly excited to share with you in an upcoming article! As we leave I noticed rows and rows of black and white portraits. Each child that had come through the program and graduated successfully was given a place of honor on the wall. I was struck by the stark contrast to the photos I had seen earlier that day; instead of a display of tragedy, here was a declaration of triumph.

It is quite easy to say that Cambodia stole my heart; her sounds, the way she smelled, the graciousness of her people and the joy of her children. I hope over the next series of articles of sharing my adventures you too will come to know this beautiful piece of Southeast Asia, and will also be burdened to pray for “Kampuchea”; the country I came to.

 

 

 

 

 

 



[i] Staff, “Khmer Rouge” The New York Times, updated Nov 23, 2011. http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/k/khmer_rouge/index.html

[ii] Jordan Kauflin, “All I Have Is Christ”, Next Live, Sovereign Grace Music®, 2009

 

 

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One Comment to “The Kingdom and I: The Country I Came To”

  1. amy m says:

    Thanks for sharing, Sarah. Your heart for the Lord & people is beautiful!