Vicente Bonet, SJ

Just ten days before our departure, we were faced with the strong possibility of having to cancel this year's tour. On Jan. the 29th suddenly violence against Thailand broke out in Phnom Penh, and all the Thailand's airways flights going there from Bangkok were suspended indefinitely.
Since we were planning to fly from Bangkok to Phnom Penh with Bangkok Airways, we could only just hope for a quick return to normality. Fortunately five days before our scheduled departure only the planes from Bangkok Airlines resumed flights and we could leave Narita and arrive safely at Phnom Penh as we had planned.

In Phnom Penh we spent two full days. Our first visit was to Tuol Sleng, a former school whose buildings and school ground were used as a detention place for more than three years at the time of the Pol Pot regime. Through the photographs of some of the people killed there (more than 20 thousand), the solitary confinement cells where the prisoners were kept (classrooms divided with bricks and logs into such small places that they could not even lay down straight in the floor), and the tools used for torture, we saw how cruel and inhuman man can be against other men, women and even children. The sight was such that we were tempted once and again to avert our eyes.
On the same day we went to the "Mountain of garbage" and met the people, especially the children, living there. In his encyclical letter "Populorum Progressio" Pope Paul the 6th wrote that authentic development "is for each and all the transition from less human conditions to those which are more human" (n.20). The smoke from the burning garbage, the foul smell and the countless number of flies clung to the food, the children's bodies and everywhere do not appear in the photograph. But anybody that would see it and feel the smell will certainly admit that these utterly are not human conditions. For these people, especially children, that having no other place are compelled to live there, these living conditions, though in a way different from the time of war, can be called cruel and inhuman, a kind of everyday torture. In fact, if I would be compelled to live in such an environment I would certainly feel that way.
The Mountain of Garbage

We felt the traces of war and poverty again in the "Children's Home" we visited next. Children with impediments, who could not go to the hospital nor to school if they would stay in their villages, live together in a spirit of mutual cooperation in this house under care of Jesuit Service Cambodia, and commute from there to the hospital and to school. Using paper balloons, soap bubbles and folding paper we played with these children who lost either one leg or one arm, hearing or sight due to land mines and lack of care when they were sick. Through the children's happy faces, their thoughtfulness towards each other and the spirit of harmony of the whole house we could see rays of hope for the future.
We began the following day with a visit to the institution where the Missionaries of Charity (the religious congregation founded in India by Mother Theresa) take care of HIV and tuberculosis patients. The painful sight of the terminally sick people and the cheerful, warmhearted way the sisters treated them, left a deep impact in all of us.
From there we went to the "Center of the Dove", a technical training school run by Jesuit Service Cambodia. One hundred young men and women with impairments due to land mines and other causes get training there in agriculture (everybody), and in one other technical skill (repair work of bicycles and motorcycles, sewing, weaving, electrical or woodwork, etc.). During the training they live in groups of about ten people, in cottage like small buildings, where they themselves cooperate in taking care of their own daily life. Both their living and training quarters are wheelchair accessible.
There I could not but wonder why in Japan, a country by far much wealthy than Cambodia, it is so difficult for people with disabilities to move around.
The director of the center, Fr. Hoaki, told me that up until now the UN Food Program provided them with the rice needed for the 100 trainees but that, most probably, from now on they will not receive any more help. Recently this UN organization changed its policy regarding the institutions they will help. How to get the money needed for the rice for the trainees (more than 6000 dollars per year) was for him a new source of concern.
Our next visit was to the Central Office of the Jesuit Service Cambodia. There the persons in charge of each section explained to us their activities and answered the many questions brought up by the members of our group. We were amazed by the amount of work they accomplish with such a small staff. Since we could see directly these activities in our next destinations, Battambang, Sisophon and Siemreap, I will write about them in the next paragraphs.

While moving by car in Battambang I had several opportunities of speaking with the Apostolic Prefect, Mons. Enrique Figaredo (Kike). Many people ask him to rebuild the church (cathedral), but he stresses that first he has to support the people, in other words, that is to build the living church. And then he will build the church as a building for these people. I was so much impressed by his constant and energetic activity that I asked him from where did he get that energy. And he, without an instant's hesitation, answered that it comes from the children of the Arrupe Center which is on the Apostolic Prefecture's premises.
All these children have disabilities due to land mines, polio or other sickness, and from there they commute to the hospital and school, either in wheelchairs or walking as if dragging along their wounded feet. We met them when they arrived back from school in the afternoon, and with a few words of greeting in Cambodian, English or Spanish we could feel their cheerfulness and the great living power each of them had. Later at night the same day, these children, already in their pajamas, were waiting for us when we came back from our visit to the Tapoon village, and offered us an enjoyable performance, either individually or in small groups. Tired as we must have been after our visit to the Tapoon village, where we played with the children and listened to the problems faced by several families, we felt a new strength coming to us from these children, just as Fr. Kike says he always feels.

The children of the Arrupe Center

On our way from Battambang to Siemreap we made a short stop at Sisophon, a village near the border with Thailand. The staff of the Jesuit Service office there explained to us their activities in that area. We were deeply impressed by the very detailed records they keep about the situation of each village, their needs, and how their projects are progressing. Precisely at that time, they were holding a study and training seminar for the teachers of the literacy schools of the villages the Jesuit Service is giving support to. They have these seminars four times a year. We could see the colorful drawings and other teaching materials they prepare for the children, and meet the teachers, most of whom are persons with disabilities.
In Siemreap the Jesuit Service has so many projects and in such distant places that it was impossible to visit all of them together. So what we did was to split into three groups to go, either by car or motorbike, to visit different places. Since it is not possible to go into details here, I will just mention some of the many activities they have.

* Supplying wheelchairs for the poor people who have disabilities due to land mines or other causes, and repair those wheelchairs when necessary (this covers about 200 villages), health guidance, providing hearing aids, etc.

* Support for the people with disabilities living in a village provided to them when they were evicted from around Angkor Wat, because they were considered a "nuisance" for the foreign tourists.

* Starting literacy schools (very often it is just a roof and simple tables and benches) in the villages where there is none. Looking for the teachers and checking periodically how the schools work (situation of the children and their families, number of children attending regularly, reasons of the drop outs, etc.).
* Support for the building up of new villages. This support depends on the situation and needs of each village. For example, if it is a completely new village, starting from scratch, they need materials for houses and wells and seeds to plant, but the people themselves have to decide their priorities, build their houses, dig the wells and plow the fields. The first place that our group went to was such a village (in fact there was no village at all yet), where Jesuit Service was going to start its supporting activities.
The first thing the Jesuit Service staff did was to get together the people of the village for a meeting to elect their delegates. Since there were people not able to read and write, and since they had no experience at all on how to hold an election, I felt a deep interest on the way they would carry it out. Here I cannot give a detailed explanation but, using a different color for each candidate, everybody could vote even if they were not able to read or write.
Next we visited another village which the Jesuit Service has been supporting from its very beginning two years ago. There, the houses, wells and the variety of fruits growing showed us clearly what a true support can do in two years.
We went also near the border with Thailand, where many land mines are still left, and visited the land mines museum in Siemreap. We could not help but feel once more the foolishness of war.

The number of places we visited, the people we met and the experiences we had were so many that it is impossible to write about all of them given the limited space available. To add a final word, I would like to say that I felt "freedom". We are inclined to think that we are free. But in Cambodia I felt they are not constrained by time as we very often are, so that they can be free to care for people.
Also I felt freedom from the so called common sense, the public eye, administration and all kinds of regulations that so many times make it difficult or even impossible to help and support people really in need. This tour helped me to think that, what takes away peoples' freedom may be is not so much the war scars, disabilities or poverty, as the unlimited desire for material wealth.
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