Ten years later, I showed up for the second time in that very same patch of jungle and red laterite roads where I spent time with the US Army. But this time, things were different. I brought a new me, with me. In fact, I had no idea that I’d somehow be back ten years later, although I had that country and its sad story stuck in the corner of my mind for the decade I was away. I had watched as the shitstorm unfurled in Cambodia, when Phnom Penh fell and the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975. I knew well the places that were bearing the brunt of Pol Pot’s terrorist campaigns.
In 1981, four years after being discharged from the Army, I was sitting around in the living room of my apartment in San Luis Obispo, California, wondering what “great thing” would happens next. I was looking for a clue – and I didn’t have long to wait. As luck would have it, or I should say, as Asian luck would have it, I picked up a Time magazine from the stack of papers and started thumbing through the pages. There was an article that immediately caught my attention. It was about the disaster faced by Cambodian refugees who were then streaming in huge numbers across the border from Cambodia into Thailand – into Aranyaprathet, my dusty little corner or God’s green earth. I ditched the article’s text and stared transfixed at the accompanying pictures. There, in the middle of the set of photos, was this one particular image. It was the karmic nudge I needed.
It was a picture of a long pit, and there were two workers on one side of this pit, one who was grasping a dead child by the legs, and the other held it by its arms, and they were swinging the child into the pit which was already full of other dead children. I burst wide open. The connection with that little patch of land had come full circle and had kicked me square in the guts.
By the end of the week, we had all of our crappy, worldly belongings stashed in a local mini-storage in Morro Bay, and I drove my Ford station wagon to the airport where I gave it away to a friend of mine from work. We jumped on a plane and the seven of us, my wife, five kids and I, took off for Bangkok. “We’re going to ‘do the right thing there,’” I mumbled like a Buddhist monk under my breath. I had no idea how I was going to support my family. It wasn’t as if I didn’t care. I simply had an abiding sense that all was going to work out OK, no matter what. I was right. But I was also crazy.
* * *
Working with Cambodian Refugees
You can always smell a refugee camp before you can actually see it. And the Cambodian refugee camps strung along the Thai border in the early 1980’s were no exception. Nong Chan, Nong Samet, Khao-I-Dang, Ang Sila, Chumkargo, Site I, Site II, and the list goes on. These were typically very large camps with between 50,000 and 80,000 people each. In its heyday, Khao-I-Dang, the largest refugee camp on the border, had over 160,000 souls living there. That much humanity crowded into relatively tightly-packed alleys of bamboo huts, with limited water and sanitation – and the penetrating jungle heat – could deliver some debilitating smells. On the drive up from Aranyaprathet on my first day of work for the INGO (international non-governmental organization) CARE, I kept looking at the bottom of my shoes, thinking I had stepped in something wretched.
But no, it was just the breeze coming in from Cambodian jungles to the east, fanning that nasty smell over our convoy of cracker-box Land Rovers, plastered on the front doors and engine hoods with UN logos and CARE signs. In the end, stench was no big deal. One gets used to such inconveniences such as fresh air. After all, the inhabitants of these places had seen and endured sensory assaults a thousand times worse since the West pulled the plug on Cambodia in April, 1975.
In fact, all the refugees in the border camps had escaped the horrors of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge when they took over the country in April 1975. The Khmer Rouge reset their clocks to “Year Zero” when Cambodia fell under their control – and that’s when all hell broke loose. During their brutal rule and genocide, an estimated 1.5 to 3 million were killed through starvation and execution – about 25% of the pre-April 1975 Cambodian citizens were either dead or missing. And in Cambodia, “missing” meant dead.
Ironically, it was the Vietnamese who finally broke the back of the terrorist Pol Pot and his cadre of monsters, when they invaded Cambodia in 1978 to put an end to the cross-border adventurism of the Khmer Rouge. On balance, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was a good thing since it effectively put an end to the scourge of the Khmer Rouge. Good, too, because the international community had failed to intercede and put an end to the genocide as they did later in Bosnia and Kosovo. It took our old enemy to destroy the devil and his legions in Cambodia. Nobody else seemed to give a shit.
And as the Vietnamese swept westwards, they freed the Cambodian people. Hundreds of thousands of ragtag and starving remnants of this nation then fled into Thailand. By and large, the Vietnamese went after the remaining pockets of Khmer Rouge military resistance which, by that time, had fractured and splintered. Still the Vietnamese persisted. Until 1983 they persisted. And when they drew near the Thai border, the refugees who hadn’t crossed with the first wave into Thailand when the border was still open, were pinned down there. The incessant barrages of 130mm Vietnamese artillery, aimed at Khmer military factions which had cloaked themselves in the refugee camps along the border, were incredible. The sustained shelling would last for hours – and then days. The ground and air pounded with non-stop reverberations and concussions.
The circumstances of the Cambodians were both frightening and fascinating. It was the proverbial train wreck one’s eyes cannot turn away from. Here were folks who had suffered unthinkable atrocities at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and yet managed to escape that hell in search of the fundamental elements for their survival such as food, shelter, and security. It was as if Hell itself had coughed up these miserable survivors who, if they lived to speak, would recount their own tales of horror. Starvation was commonplace. We were there to help and getting food to refugees who had fled the holocaust in their country was our principal aim. But none of us was initially prepared to see this level of human deprivation, let alone to do something about it. We were at once stunned and humbled, but we got on with it – and in short order.
Enormous logistical engines were put in place to bring rice and necessary food rations from all parts of Asia to the Thai border where it was then distributed, right down to the individual level. These operations were enormously complex and yet the wheels started turning, food literally flowed up and into the border, people were fed and lives were saved, and life was beginning some semblance of normalcy and human flourishing: babies were being born; weddings were performed; Khmer artwork, including high-form classical dancing, reemerged from hiding and performances were staged in bamboo theaters. Years passed by. The corner was being turned.
And yet, on the personal level, even “selfless” work can lead to self-adsorption and conceit, where focusing on macro or strategic goals replaced the initial zeal and love for personal, human-to-human contact. I got caught up in that ever-descending whirlpool. And it hard to say exactly how, after three years of working in the relief efforts, that I would grow tough and calloused towards the plight of these refugees. It was in many ways similar to the experience I would later have in UN Peacekeeping where I found myself growing used to being in more-and-more dangerous situations until they seemed normal and second nature, and one is no longer aware of the real danger that exists. And then one day, when you think you can handle an even more risky activity, you are caught out – out on a limb with no reasonable chance of escape or evasion except by some miracle (and you reach for our rosary beads).
Although the refugee work was not inherently as dangerous as peacekeeping, a similar pattern emerged. One became inured and toughened to what was occurring around you, usually by burying your humanity way down deep inside or trying to snuff out any flickering little flame that may have remained. It was simply too painful to have thin skin in circumstances where you could – and would – see such suffering and human deprivation. In this way, you could easily turn your back on one or two starving people for the sake of feeding hundreds. It would not leave a mark. The mind would shut this out and erase their pleas. After all, the rational mind would say that, “we are bringing food to meets the demands of about a quarter million people” – but this thinking used some kind of diabolical scale to measure things.
One’s skin grew incrementally thicker and the callouses extended down into the soul. I was machine-like, efficient and somewhat ruthless in dealing with the one-off cases. The answer to individual pleas was usually, “No, now go away!” We had a whole nation of survivors to feed – or so we thought. It was as if a premium had been assigned to have large numbers of beneficiaries at the expense of the few, and this was a sinister form of madness and conceit. But the worship of “numbers” and the grandiose notion of nation-saving would soon come crashing down as the day of reckoning approached. And that day would prove to be providential. It was otherwise morally unsustainable.
* * *
The Bamboo Monkey Baby
In 1984, the Nong Chan Camp refugee camp straddled the Cambodian-Thai border and was home to some 70,000 Cambodian refugees. And it was “feeding time” so the refugee women and children had lined up in a row about as far as the eye could see. They were dressed in their traditional scarf-like wrappings (“khramah”) in typical colors of purple, yellow and red block patterns, but all were severely faded by years of constant use and being hand-washed in muddy streams. The scarves were blanched and subdued, wrapping their thin forms and offering some dash color to the otherwise red, dusty world they inhabited. Kids were screaming, tears flowing, buggers running down faces, dust being kicked up by the shuffle of feet as they made their way to the bamboo and chicken wire feeding center. This building was of pretty good size. Perhaps you could fit a standard basketball court inside with some room left over. It was made entirely out of bamboo and thin bailing-wire, covered with thatch and the ubiquitous blue UN plastic sheeting that could be seen everywhere in refugee camps.
We were conducting feeding operations on an industrial scale. Everything was done in large measures. And this feeding center was casebook institutional feeding. Large-scale, with many people moving through the facility with a fixed serving line. Our staff’s main activity was to bring prepared food forward from local kitchens, or food that was transported from several kilos away in the Khao-I-Dang camp, where huge kitchens prepared food for tens of thousands of special case meals each day. I’m not sure what was in the soup pot that day, but whatever it was it didn’t matter. It was no-doubt well-prepared and nutritious. And the smell of food, at least for a few minutes, would displace the otherwise unpleasant odor that lingered over the camp when the monsoon rains stopped falling in October/November.
The “beneficiaries” had expectations about warm food and had brought their dingy plastic bowls with them, held by fidgeting boney fingers at the end of withered arms. I remember thinking that you wouldn’t feed your dog in a bowl that dirty. I was there that day as the Programme Administrator for CARE, supervising field operations for their refugee programs at the border; this included rice distributions and “feeding” at the border camps with cooked meals aimed at certain, at-risk, targeted groups. At Nong Chan these were the hard-luck cases requiring special meals: malnourished children, pregnant women and lactating mothers, the sick and injured. I didn’t know it when I got up that morning, but this was the day I would meet the monkey baby in that bamboo building. This would be the day that everything would change.
I was standing in the feeding center entrance and looking at the throng as it shuffled from outside the center, along the dusty road and snaking its way into the center, to feeding line where portions were served, and then outside again to their huts, or to gather under shady broadleaf trees and sit with friends and neighbors to consume the daily ration. From time-to-time, I would grab a ladle and place a dollop of food into a beneficiary’s bowl. Then, with all the ensuing chaos, shouting, crying and dust, there came a tug at my shirt sleeve. I always wore long sleeve shirts, rolled up at the elbow. I figured it kept the malaria mosquitos away from the sweet spot they always seemed to go for, right on the inside of my elbow. But this tug wouldn’t go away. It was like some engineer was pulling the train whistle and they wouldn’t stop until the steam and sound came out. So, I turned, and I saw a rather small Cambodian lady, perhaps 20, or perhaps she was 50, it was impossible to tell. The ravages of the Khmer Rouge era had stripped her of any natural age demarcation.
She looked at me, but not at my face. She was staring at my chest. I wondered if my Buddhist amulet on its gold chain was showing. She never said one word to me, like “look at this” or “what do you think?” as she lifted her bleached-out purple scarf to uncover something she was cradling in her arms. I thought at first it might be a small statue or something else she might be trying to sell to me. I recall being annoyed at the idea that, like hundreds of times before that, here was someone hawking something I could never use. And more annoying still, we had perhaps a thousand more people to feed that day. But as she lifted the scarf further, she raised up the object she had cradled and, although it was bright daylight outside, I couldn’t really make out what I was looking at. And then it started to come into focus. It was a baby monkey, a baby monkey from the forest. It had a very small face, and deep black spots which surrounded its eyes. Yet it had no fur. It had no paws. Its skin was close to human texture, but more black-and-blue – an overall bruised color. It was breathing in short raspy breaths. But this was not a monkey. It was a monkey-like creature – but it was human. It was a human baby!
I all my years there, I cannot recall seeing such a pitiful thing. I don’t know how old it was, 5 months? A year? Again, the ravages of war distorted notions of age. I think I said something like, “Sweet Jesus!” and if I didn’t, I should have. I didn’t know what this woman wanted me to do about this baby, but whatever she had in mind, it didn’t matter. I grabbed one of our drivers who was helping out in the food line, and he, the woman and her baby and I bee-lined it to the Red Cross field hospital about three klicks away. We flew down the laterite road to the hospital. I couldn’t keep my eyes off this pitiful creature. I knew it was human, but only just barely resembling one. We rolled up to the hospital and fell out of the Land Rover and raced inside. All of us except the mother stood inside the examining room as the doctor looked at the baby. As the attendants removed the scarf, we could now see that it was a shriveled up little baby girl. The raspy breaths were her death rattle. Sweet Jesus, indeed.
I was thinking about my daughters and how small they were when they were born, yet at birth, larger than this baby. And I’m not sure if there was an accompanying sound, but seeing that child die there like that, I felt something about the size of a tree branch breaking-in-half in my head. I was, on the spot, immediately rescued from my own inward spiral. My calloused soul had sluffed off all that thick skin. It was a stone-cold epiphany and I stared at that lifeless form for a long time. I don’t think I said a word to the mother. The child for her had died long ago. I slid out the front door of the hospital and went back into the car. I couldn’t work up a tear since mine were all dried up a long time ago. But in that instant, I realized how far I had wandered off the beaten track. I was a spent bullet. I no longer belonged there.
* * *
To put my ghosts to rest at the end of these recollections, I’m left with some humbling thoughts. Although I am weary of these two old ghosts, I am also glad that they come to haunt me from time-to-time. They remind me, with certitude, that these extraordinary experiences actually did take place. The drama during my Army days was a farcical comedy. The drama during my work with the Cambodian refugees began as a tragedy and ended with hope. And the connection between the events during these two periods had everything to do with the plight of the Cambodian people. They also passed through this same plot of land as I did, but they were not lucky enough to be plucked out for a ten-year hiatus.
In the Army, the world was upside down. In refugee work ten years later, that upside-down world, was turned right-side-up. In that period, many relief workers were somehow “converted,” given over to making connections with destitute and marginalized people, to lives reoriented and dedicated towards altruistic careers. The advice from the old folks when I was drafted into the Army was that it was, “…a good place to get some experience. To become a man. To “grow up.” Some of that was true –and there was ample opportunity for flexing one’s testosterone during this rite of passage.
But in refugee work, you tended to “grow up” in different ways. Refugee work was always complicated and stressful, true life-or-death situations were being dealt with daily, and we had our hands on all the buttons and levers. But I seemed to thrive in those settings. I don’t exactly know why, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the evaporation of ambiguity in those clutch situations. There was also an abiding and undergirding notion that we were “finally doing the right thing.” We were immersed headlong in a triumphant enactment of the virtue of compassion. It was sharp and clear. We were novices who went down into a baptismal river of crap with our own sense of privilege and inexperienced lives. And yet the hearts of an unlikely collection of foreign interlopers emerged transformed. It was true virtue at work, and not merely resting in contemplation. It was a virtue that would be unrecognizable to authors of thick theology textbooks.
* * *
For some odd and inexplicable reason, I was fated to cycle through that little part of God’s green earth every ten years. In addition to the two periods mentioned above, I came back in 1992, again in 2000, and most recently in 2014. I have been caught up in some kind of karmic tide, on a ten-year cycle. This was a notion of karma would initially be problematic for a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic like me. But I have concluded that I was merely an unwitting agent, washed into the scene and then drawn out again, only to be washed back in again next decade. That may sound a lot like Buddhism phooey. Buddhism, yes, I suppose so; phooey, no.
I was happy to suspend my Judeo-Christian thinking to account for this interconnection of events in that particular location, and the ten-year cycle. I’m now pretty sure that the notion of a “karmic tide” offers the best description of the pattern of these dates, of my ritual-like returning to that location every ten years. I don’t claim to understand its inner workings. Spiritual forces of both good and evil have washed across that place from the days of the ancient Angkor Kings to Pol Pot to present times, and I was merely caught up in that human flotsam and jetsam.