In a cardboard box in my basement, wrapped in a small plastic bag, is a human bone. A fragment. It shocks me when I see it, even though I am the one who put it there.
I tucked it away, out of sight, not because I wanted to forget about it, but because I wanted to remember it. I didn’t want it to lose its power. For a while, I had kept it on my desk, next to my Mac. Doing so seemed somewhat disrespectful, but I didn’t mean it that way. Instead, I felt I was honoring the dead, for each time my eyes rested on that weather-worn bone, they filled with tears again.
But over time I “got used to” seeing it, and the shock wore off. So I put the fragment away.
Every once in a while I’ll hear a news story about Cambodia, or a mention of the Khmer Rouge, or a reference to “The Killing Fields,” and I’ll remember my trip to Cambodia more than 10 years ago. I’ll think about the plastic-wrapped bone in my basement, and my eyes will well up again.
Trying to understand
It was a powerful trip, full of life and death, hope and despair. During the weeks before leaving, whenever I would tell people I was going to Cambodia, the response was usually mild confusion, something along the lines of “Cambodia? Why?” My father asked, “It’s not really safe there, is it?” A co-worker half-jokingly labeled it, “The Trip Nobody Else Wanted.” And a lady at my church hugged me goodbye, wished me a good trip, and cheerfully advised, “Don’t step on any landmines!”
I prepared for the experience by watching “The Killing Fields,” which tells the story of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, who was trapped within the country when Pol Pot came to power. I also read Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, a book by Dith Pran, who gathered the stories of fellow Cambodians who were children when the Khmer Rouge took over.
To this day, I don’t understand all the politics behind the war that spilled over into Cambodia, but my trip brought me face-to-face with the effects. The Khmer Rouge murdered or banished the wealthier, educated professionals and businessmen of Cambodian society; the remaining population were reduced to brutal slavery; cities were bombed; and a lush countryside was littered with the bodies of millions of victims.
The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror lasted from 1975 to 1985, and Cambodia remains scarred and crippled today. There has been very little development in the past 20 years. Streets are unpaved and rutted, buildings are worn, and the people seem worn as well.
Smelling the fear
Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, is a compound of five buildings that had been an elementary school before the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Comrade Duch, a Khmer Rouge commander, turned the school into a prison where people were brutally tortured and killed. Each of the classrooms was turned into a cell. Some housed individual prisoners; others held large groups at a time.
What makes this museum so powerful is its simplicity. Most of the rooms and artifacts have been left exactly as they were found in 1979 when the Vietnamese forced the Khmer Rouge out of the city. The Vietnamese found in each room a body chained to an iron bed, left there to rot when the persecutors fled. The officers took a photo of each body before burying it in a plot next to the building. Those photos now hang on the walls of the rooms, making each room a sort of shrine to the victim who died there. A few signs have been added to explain what happened, but nothing is roped off or under glass. You can walk into each room and touch the shackles that held each prisoner; you can see the blood stains still on the floor; you can grip the barred windows and feel your heart pound.
In a separate building are displayed some of the torture devices the Khmer Rouge used. The perverted creativity these people used to kill their victims is almost incomprehensible. Seeing the different tools and machines they invented, you sense that these killings were sport to them.
I kept trying to understand this place, kept trying to wrap my mind around the reasons people would do this to other people. And I couldn’t. Whatever political or ideological motivations Pol Pot had, they are simply inadequate to explain why. As I looked at the photos, read the history, smelled the fear and death in the air, I kept coming back to the question, How could this happen? No answer seemed satisfactory.
Tuol Sleng was a place where many of the city people—educated business or government people—were killed. After lunch we drove out to one of the killing fields where thousands of peasants had been slaughtered. Again, the site is haunting in its simplicity. Looking across the field, you see only grass and trees and paths around a number of large pits. It doesn’t look like much, and there are few signs or explanations. But slowly you realize that each of these large pits was a mass grave for hundreds of victims. When you look closely along the worn paths, you find fragments of clothing, bones, and teeth.
That’s where I found the bone that is now in my basement. It was nestled in the grass along the edge of one of those pits. I hesitated to reach for it, not wanting to dishonor its owner any further. But it seemed less honorable to let it lie there, forgotten.
The bus ride back to town that evening was very quiet. The group had been stunned by the enormity of the genocide that had decimated a once proud nation of quiet scholars. And the fact that we had known so little about these atrocities beforehand made us feel even more helpless and guilty.
Redeeming the remains
When people ask me how I can believe in a God who allows evil to happen, I think of Cambodia. I think of the one-legged children begging in the streets, victims of mines that still dot the countryside. I think of the social workers trying to rebuild a nation whose teachers, professionals, and older generations have all been wiped out. I think of how heavy the hopelessness felt as I stood in the shadow of a tower of skulls.
But I also think of Vannary, a bookkeeper in our Cambodian office. Vannary lost her whole family to Pol Pot’s horror—father, mother, sisters, brother—killed in front of her eyes. Vannary was with us while we toured Tuol Sleng, but she stayed on the bus. She didn’t want to interrupt our plans, but she was not able to face what she knew had happened inside those walls. Certainly not in the company of a group of tourists who were mainly oblivious to her country’s plight.
After supper that evening we gathered in the hotel conference room and sang a song together:
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because He lives, all fear is gone.
Because I know He holds the future—
and life is worth the living just because He lives.
Vannary was singing too. In spite of the horror she has lived through, she sings. In spite of the fear that still threatens her, she sings. In spite of the death all around her, Vannary sings. She courageously believes life is worth the living because her God lives, and He has conquered death.
Why do I believe in a God who allows suffering? Because He is also the God who overcomes it. His answer is not always to protect us from it. But He does promise to walk with us through it.
Much like Vannary, Cambodia remains broken, fearful, scarred. But the tears glistening in Vannary’s eyes reflect her hope in His resurrection power.
And that glistening hope is what we are working to share throughout Cambodia. Throughout the world.
Is there any greater calling than that?