|Kawachi Chiyo (Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo)|
Early Morning of March 31. For some reason or other everybody appeared at Narita airport with much
baggage. In fact half of it was old trousers for children in Cambodia.
Ten big cartons of old clothing that had been gathered in the social center
to be brought to Cambodia had been freely divided among all the participants.
No matter how abrupt the request was, people were very generous in sending
some beautiful children's clothing and I want to take this opportunity
to thank them again. We made sure that the clothing sent would reach the
children in the places where we planned to go. The departure was on time.
In Bangkok, where we changed planes, we picked up one more member who had
come straight from Fukuoka. Our arrival in Phnom Penh was at 8:00 PM. When
we left Tokyo in the early morning it was very cold and lightly snowing,
but Phnom Penh in the evening was hot and stuffy. Hiroko, together with
another member of our group arriving from Vietnam, came to meet us at the
airport with a wagon car owned by Jesuit Services. Mr. Mony, a JS staff
member, drove us to the hotel where, after holding a preparatory meeting,
we could finally have a warm shower and take a rest.
April 1. We started our day listening to a talk given by Sr. Denise, the Director of Jesuit Services. We got a general view of the Cambodian situation and the work JS is performing there. Children under the age of 15 constitute half of the population. Only about 46% of all villages have schools and it is urgent to build more schools and prepare teachers. We were told that about half of all children less than 5 years old are undernourished. Jesuit Services started assistance in Khmer refugee camps of Thailand in 1980 and later decided to follow the refugees once they returned again to Cambodia. At present JS continues working for peace and reconciliation, trying to prepare for their future. She clearly expressed that, no matter what the activities, love and presence to the people becomes the basis for everything.
From there we moved to a house in front of JS office that shelters disabled children. They all stared at a TV animation program. Our next visit was to a hospice for AIDS and TB patients run by sisters of Mother Theresa (Missionaries of Charity). In the afternoon, we paid a visit to the genocide museum "Tuol Sleng", formerly known as the Khmer Rouge Security Office 21. During the Pol Pot times, the place was a high school converted into a terrible prison. The buildings where we were standing had been used for torturing and massacring thousands of innocent people. The vivid vestiges of all that horror knocked me down and I felt a heavy depression as if I had swallowed lead.
After a short coffee break we went to the church for Sunday mass and sat down on the floor for one hour and a half. The big chapel was full of people and we were told that 70% were Vietnamese.
Early Morning of April 2. We took an old propeller plane to Battambang. Immediately after arrival, Mgr. Kike, former Jesuit superior in Cambodia who had become new bishop a few months ago, explained to us the situation there and the priority issues of the new diocese of Battambang. Bishop Kike in his rubber sandals showed us the facilities, such as a residence for children who commute to school from there. Due to the option to help the poor there is no definite date to rebuild the bishop's house. The day we arrived, over 100 youth coming from all corners of the diocese were getting ready for a Youth Synod. They were full of enthusiasm. Many of them were not Catholics, but Bishop Kike insisted on making them aware of their own identities and the need to be proud of their culture. He told them that he wanted everybody, especially the poor, to experience Christ and God. In other words, when persons unable to move walk again and those without education can go to school and to University, then hope comes alive.
After the noon meal we drove for one hour and a half on a rough road which we called the dancing road, because you could be thrown out of the truck if you did not hold on tightly, and we finally arrived to Ta Pung village. Returning Khmer refugees, many of them Catholics, settled there in 1992 when the government gave them land in that out-of-the-way site. Smiling children full of energy welcomed us with songs and joyful gestures. A lady catechist helped to form an well-organized Christian community where they supported each other. A young disabled mother, left by her husband with a baby, had to walk daily to a river far from the village looking for some fish to eat. People are poor and cannot build simple huts. The community helps people that cannot afford to build their shelters, we were told. We followed the steps of Bishop Kike who visited each hut, warmly greeting every single family under the scorching heat. The friendly children played around us and accompanied us everywhere. Because there was no electricity we had to leave early, but the whole village entertained us with a banquet outside in front of the church. We run and run again through the dancing road unable to take a quiet rest on our way back.
Early Morning of April 3. We flew back to Phnom Penh again and paid a visit to the Dove Center, a Technical School run by JS. The government owns the land and has sent an official to work in the main office. The school has sewing machines and carpentry to make furniture and wooden statues of Our Lady in a Khmer style. Besides that, it teaches welding, electricity, bike repair and basic computers. The school also runs a full production unit with more than 80 wheelchairs a month for landmine victims. Since they are for sale, the students must study tenaciously till they become skillful. Most of them never went to school and they told us that it was the first time for them to draw even a circle with a compass.
The school also runs follow-up programs for the graduates, and outreach rural programs to build wells, roads, pipes and other construction works, such as small dams in the villages. The staff runs literacy classes and provides small loans for rural development. At present, 84 students stay in 10 cottages, built inside the campus of the school, living in community and doing their own cooking together. The students are landmine victims and in the case of the girls with both legs amputated, they use special rocking chairs to manipulate sewing machines by pressing their backs against the chairs. At noon, during the free time after meal, we had a joyful time visiting the students in their cottages. Some of them remained there, but I accompanied those who went to the market. We had supper by the beautiful Trensap Mekong River in a Chinese Restaurant. The ceiling was filled with wall lizards crawling around the room.
April 4. Once again we took an early plane to Siem Reap. At 8:00 AM, local time, we met with the JS 12-member staff and divided ourselves into 4 groups to be accompanied by them to learn about their activities. Five of us rode in the back of their bikes: Two went to observe rural development and literacy programs, two more to villages with a majority of landmine victims and the last one to villages borrowing small capital for rural development. The rest of the group went by truck to poor villages with school education projects.
I accompanied by bike Srey Mom, a lady leader of a rural development group, together with one more staff member to a very poor faraway village. We visited first a literacy class for two villages started last December by JS staff. In the morning class, a child pointed at a word written in Khmer on the blackboard and read it. Then the whole class recited the same word in a loud voice. That way they remembered Khmer words of vegetables, etc. The teacher of that village did not know arithmetic. A teacher that comes from the next village teaches arithmetic, making the students write the answers to the problems on the blackboard. There is a lack of teachers. In the village people who can read are only a few, but when it comes to writing only half of those who can read are able to write. Anyhow the Khmer language is not easy to learn. The classrooms were small but full of children who enjoyed studying there.
We stopped by the road and had our lunch sitting on the grass. It was so hot that I could only eat half of my lunch. Srey Mom offered to bring along the rest of my lunch. We arrived at a very poor village and she gave it together with another lunch she had bought to a family of seven. Most probably, that family did not have anything to eat that day. I felt a lump in my throat. In a different house we met a pregnant mother holding a baby. Srey Mom took powdered milk from her bag and taught the mother how to make milk. They only have well water, but is not safe unless they boil it for about 30 minutes. Nevertheless, since they do not have firewood they destroy their stomachs. In fact, they make children drink because of dehydration symptoms. We went from hut to hut, but the situation looked so pitiful that I could not take any photo. The faces of children were not smiling; many had great bellies due to malnutrition. We saw children with brownish hair, sick children with fever, children with mental disabilities and very small as if they were 3 years old, when in fact they were eleven. A lady who looked sick with red eyes complained repeatedly to Srey Mom about her painful life. I was moved to tears and could not bear to stay there. Srey Mom listened kindly and handed her some few Cambodian notes. People desire to do something but there is no work. They will be lucky if, during the season, somebody hires them to work in the fields. But, besides that, from morning to night there is nothing to do except to sit on the floor idly. Day after day is a matter of survival. Children suck the fruits of trees found somewhere. In all the places we visited the JS staff lend and collect small loans provided to the villagers. They are always doing everything possible.
Fierce heat. On the last day, sitting astride the motorbike I lost all words, exhausted, having in front of my eyes those villagers living a life of extreme poverty impossible to imagine. Thick clouds of vapor rose from the soil below our feet, at the risk of one's life, through narrow roads only bikes could go through. Srey Mom visits these places 5 days a week. Cheers to her.
A Glimpse at Cambodia. In reality, what changes are the Jesuit Service Cambodia producing there? Looking at the whole situation, after all, the JS efforts are nothing but drops of water in the ocean. But I observed that such drops of water could help actual persons to survive. I met such persons in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap. Persons with disabilities who could not leave their homes were able to extend their fields of action thanks to artificial legs or a wheelchair. Thanks to skills learned in the Technical School the disabled could make a living by using a sewing machine, by repairing motorbikes or as carpenters. People who had given up could borrow some money to start small business and that provided them new possibilities in their lives. Again, the ability to read and write could be an occasion to find a job. A can of powdered milk can supplement the nutrition of a baby for a few days. People in great need get consoled when others listen to their suffering and feel somehow relieved when others visit them and do not leave them alone.
Anybody who is able to develop his/her natural possibilities and thus becomes self-sufficient can live in hope and can make plans for the future. Christ himself made this possible for us.
Two months have passed since our journey to Cambodia. It is difficult to put in order the experiences of this journey. The actual persons I met in Cambodia are deeply imprinted in my mind. They are notably the hard working JS staff and those suffering from poverty and disabilities but surviving. Such persons, somehow or other, question and urge me to stand up with a clear vision.
April 5. Last day in Cambodia. Tour of Ankor Tom, Ankor Wat and Ta Prohm. Overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Khmer culture, we felt satisfied with a different face of Cambodia.
Next morning, April 6, we arrived safely at Narita and Fukuoka. All I can say is "thanks". One of the teachers went directly to his school from the airport.
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