Enrique Figaredo Alvargonzalez SJ
(Apostolic Prefect of Battambang, Cambodia)
Chhuet is from Ta Hen, a village of some 200 families that lies about 15 km from the town of Battambang. He is 12 years old, the oldest of four boys. His parents are farmers. When he was three years old he suffered poliomyelitis in both legs, making him an invalid, unable to stand on his own feet or to walk. In his little wheelchair, he goes to study accompanied by his younger brother and dreams of one day being able to earn some money to help his family.
It was only in December 1998, hardly three years ago, that the Khmer Rouge factions laid down their weapons and surrendered to the government forces, thus ending the war in Cambodia. Peace is still a task for the future, but at least the systematic violence of armed factions now belongs to history. We can begin to take stock of the last years and look towards the future and its possibilities with new eyes.

Chhuet agreed to go to hospital for an operation to correct the contraction in his legs. Now he can stretch them out, stand straight and even walk with the help of orthopedic braces. Today at home he is learning, with enormous enthusiasm and tenacity, how to take his first steps, supported by two parallel bamboo bars constructed by his parents, and by the braces on his legs. Very soon he will be able to walk to school on his own legs like the other students from Ta Hen village.

Like Chhuet with his disability, Cambodia too needs a lot of specialised help. Yet at the same time it needs solidarity, friendship and love. In addition the impetus and desire for reconciliation are indispensable in order for the people to go forward together to a better future. Great ambitions are not so much needed as the desire to walk humbly and faithfully with the Lord (Micah 6,8). Only if we learn to give space to Cambodia's people and communities, seek to understand not only her history and her people, her dreams and her limitations, her experiences and her wounds, but also to accept how things are now in the country, only then can we dare to think in new perspectives for the mission in Cambodia. The suffering of the Cambodian people has been great. From that we learn to walk together in the here-and-now, carrying hope for the future.

"He showed them his hands with their wounds and greeted them in Peace. It was he, the crucified one, alive." (Cf. John 20, 19ff)

The wounds of the crucified one were cleaned. In his face there was no sign of reproach, or of revenge, only peace. This is not completely the case in Cambodia. The war and the wounds of war are the first facts that we must take into account in this Southeast Asian country of 181,200 square kilometres (the size of Britain), which has a population of 12 million and one disabled person for every 236 inhabitants.
In one way or another, every Cambodian has been touched by suffering, violence and war. The heart of this country is hurt. Every man and woman has been wounded by so many years of violence and revolution. Some, because they experienced it in their own lives; others because they are orphaned by it; others because they have been beaten and bruised in their bodies; others carry their wounds in their inner beings and in their hearts to the point of being unbalanced. Indeed in many cases the traumatic experiences manifest themselves in physical problems. This is common for the Cambodian people.
The social fabric of the country has also been deeply hurt. The ways in which people relate to one another are damaged. The traditionally sound social institutions were abruptly decimated, and a systematic distrust among the inhabitants of this country has become a widespread reality.
But to balance all of this accumulated pain and current suffering produced by the wounds of the past, we can also find abundant reasons for hope. There is the dynamic of life, and when you go to the basics, life is more powerful than the forces of death. The new statistics of Cambodia inform us that at least 50% of the population are 15 years old or younger. This new generation in Cambodia gives us hope for the future. Half of the country experienced conflict only during the tail end of the war, and not in its full brutality, when there were bombings and the systematic revolutionary killings or the extrajudicial settlements... A new life is emerging. Naturally it carries new problems and limitations, yet new life is nonetheless obvious. It is revealed in the vitality of the new society now rising from the ashes of war.

Today Cambodia's fields, streets, markets, and countryside are full of children. A view in any direction looks like the exit of a rural school or college at the precise hour at which the children and youths are pour forth in all directions, moving, noisy, lively, laughing. As Helder Camara said of the youth, "they are the masters of enthusiasm and of hope."
In order to situate us in the current context of Cambodia we must acknowledge and take note of its history. Call to mind the ulcers of the war. Some wounds are on the inside while others are external. All intertwined these wounds are part of the contemporary life and they bring us into contact with a story of suffering. The memory of suffering and of the victims of violence is an ever-present reality, yet these very memories mobilise us for life.

a. - The social and physical destruction of the country is clearly evident for all. As far as external things go, we can see that the roads could not be worse, and the lack of any infrastructure for communication only serves to help a visitor imagine more easily the time of war from which we are still only now emerging. The destruction of the irrigation system, the ruin of the few constructions of a previous era, the way cities were abandoned during some three years, and the exploitation of everything for military purposes, have all ensured that the physical damage to the infrastructure of civil society is impossible to measure.
On the other hand the social tissue is also ruptured and wounded from within. Cambodia was traditionally an agricultural society where ownership of land, the harvest and the seasons of the year defined the social relationships. Yet all is now come to nothing. Many traditional values, ways of life, and traditions are now destroyed and do not help life get back to normal. The country has been emptied of the institutions that promote confidence of its citizens in one another. There is no functioning legal system. The judicial system deals injustice. The laws, such as they are, remain unobserved, while the traditions ruptured by war are simply inadequate for a society such as Cambodia that is under the impact of the contemporary forces of globalisation.

b. - It is not easy in Cambodia to find a family that is whole, with grandparents and grandchildren. Nor is it easy to find a family photo and to say that everyone represented there is still together today. Families are broken for many reasons. The loss of family members by violent death or sickness is normal. While families have suffered external wounds from the violence of war, it is also easy to see that the constant change of regimes and the consequent forced migrations provoked family separations. As a result of these dislocations, we can find today people who have been married two or three times, with children from each union. All this, added to the poverty and the constant urge for survival, not only provokes divisions, and difficulties in inter-personal relations and in behaviour, but also a lack of responsibility of parents towards their children. They lack the means but they also lack stability of relations.
The ways in which families have been wounded leaves individuals and society wounded from within. Conflicts, lack of stability, poverty, and changes in lifestyle are due to the way in which the regimes changed quickly and frequently. Moreover customs and culture are not static. Thus basic social institutions are wounded from within. Roles are not clear and there is no sense of belonging.

c. - The presence of antipersonnel mines and the lack of vaccinations have a deep impact on this country. Many people carry the physical wounds of war. In Cambodia one in every 236 persons is disabled. And in some provinces such as Battambang, the figure is one in 90. The number of crippled, and polio victims is far greater than in any nearby country.
Nonetheless the internal wounding is even more profound and touches the very core of the people. The physical wounds of war are in many cases an external historical marker for the deeper wounds of the heart, which lead people to have quite complex psychological make-up. In some cases they manifest quite unbalanced reactions to situations that could remind them of some difficult or painful experiences that they have not yet been able to absorb.

In this context of a society transformed by suffering, hunger and war, we see also a very young and dynamic country. Here is an emerging Cambodia that is new and different from the past. No one knows where it is heading, but it is clear the former picture of a traditional rural society will not return.
Today in Cambodia we can find so many contrasts. Side-by-side with Internet cafes and email, Karaoke bars and the new aspects of globalisation evidenced through the Latin American tele-novelas, we find buffalo carts, hand planted rice, seasonal flooding and a succession of natural disasters. For any person coming from a developed country, Cambodia is a sea of contradictions, because here alongside the most sophisticated systems of communication we find the lack of the most basic means of survival.
The government is now making a huge effort to bring education to every corner of Cambodia. Nonetheless many villages that lie far from the provincial centres have neither sufficient schools, nor enough teachers for the number of children that we have in the rural areas. Education is of poor quality and does not manage to respond to the new challenges that this society faces in a new millennium.
On the other hand, the recent stability in this young country has begun to attract new investments, principally from Asia. A new economy is taking shape and new industrial patterns are being created. Balanced against this is the fact property titles are rarely 100% clear, above all for those who do not profit from their contacts with the group in power. Money is now coming for investment and speculation in a Cambodian economy in which land, which just three years ago had ridiculously value can now carry even thirty times its former worth.
Most of all, industries that require intensive unskilled manual labour, such as textiles, have appeared in strength in Cambodia. Around the outskirts of Phnom Penh, new factories are growing like mushrooms and the rural youth are drawn to these new industrial poles in immense numbers.
Foreign companies that have links to those in power in the country are exploiting all natural resources such as timber, the fish of the huge Tonle Sap Lake, and the precious stones of Pailin.
Tourism is also giving rise to a new economy. The temples of Angkor Wat, situated in Siem Reap Province, attract an enormous number of visitors of all types, from the most luxurious to the back-backers who take several months to visit all the countries of the region. At the same time, casinos, bars and the low cost of living attract a type of tourism that is not tolerated elsewhere. In Cambodia they freely seek out what is forbidden in their country of origin: gambling, sex and drugs.
Cambodia is a poor country without a legal system that protects its own poor citizens, a fertile garden for all the social ills not wanted in other countries. The abuse and trafficking of children in the sex industry is a scandal, prompting enormous efforts by the groups that struggle for the human rights of children and of women. They are very busy, but the results so far are minimal.
HIV/AIDS has already revealed its most terrifying face in Cambodia. AIDS is a social disease that becomes progressively more widespread and devastates the rural areas as much as the city. Deaths because of AIDS are unremitting, and the children orphaned and affected by this plague of our century increase in such proportions that Cambodia now ranks at the top of the lists of Asian societies affected by HIV.
In face of all this there are many networks of people who look towards Cambodia. There are many individuals and groups who seek to unite themselves with Cambodian people in the construction of a society, which reveals the features of the Kingdom of God, such as joy, justice, hope and peace.

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to announce to the poor the Good News; he has sent me to proclaim freedom to captives, to give sight to the blind, and to give liberty to the oppressed and to proclaim a year of favour of the Lord." (Luke 4,18-19; Is 61, 1-2)

Let us first briefly identify some points whose light may help us discover what can be the Christian mission in Cambodia, and then shortly we will present some priorities for our concrete situation.

It is important, I believe, to establish first the vantage point which will help us view the new features that Cambodia reveals and from which we will reflect on its evangelisation.
1. - The Spirit of the Lord goes ahead of us, opening up the way, inspiring us and supporting us. We follow the Spirit whom Christ has sent. We are called and gathered to places that are foreign for us, but not foreign to the Spirit of God. We are simply the discoverers of the new ways in which the Spirit is already over there waiting for us. When we reach a place we do not bring the Good News as one would bring a newspaper from the capital city out to the provinces. That Good News is already here long before us, and we discover the Life in the life of the people. We may help to reformulate it, but it is already living in the historic events, living in the sacraments of the lives of simple people.

2. - The proclamation of the Good News is not only the proclamation in words of the Word. We proclaim the Gospel essentially by our lives, through our attitudes, activities, services, through our love for the poor, through our prayers and sometimes through our words. The Word of salvation is much more than preaching and much more than an integral pastoral plan. The Word proclaims itself by living and being witness to Him there where he is now living.

3. - To attempt to respond to the relevant problems of the society in an integral way is the whole point and meaning of evangelisation. Any plan of evangelisation, any pastoral program, is a way of saying that the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus requires us to give careful attention to the problems of his people. This is necessary so that the Word will maintain its force in the actual lives of the sons and daughters of God.
The responses to their crucial or relevant problems can be given in many ways, but I believe that in Cambodia some elements are essential. There must be joy, flexibility, teamwork, and suspension of judgement; there must be forgiveness over and over without fully understanding, yet with an attitude of accepting and considering always the positive aspects in ways that give life. In the most complex situations we must be open to that spark of something different. We must focus on what is good even amidst abundant problems, some of which may admit no other solution than to be called to live and share them together.
Jesus of Nazareth did not do anything different in his life; he did not show us any other way through his own life and his word. From his profound Faith in a God who gives love, mercy, and pardon, and who has invited us to call him "Abba" (Dad, Father,) he responded to the problems of the Palestine of his time, giving life from his own faith and reconciling a world that had been separated from God. (To be continued)

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