Category Archives: cambodia

The Horror of the Past and a Generational Shift

Photo of Justin Trudeau and Melanie Joly at the genocide museum in Phnom Phen – photo from the prime minister’s Twitter page

Last week our prime minister Justin Trudeau and foreign affairs minister Melanie Joly attended meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Phen Cambodia.

I saw a photo online of them visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which is housed in a former secondary school that was used as a prison and interrogation centre during the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975-1979. It was one of the nearly two hundred torture and execution centres operating in Cambodia at the time.

I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum as well on one of my trips to Cambodia. Up to a thousand people were imprisoned there at a time. They were tortured so they would confess to being enemy agents or they would turn in family members or friends who might be opposed to what Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were trying to do.

In the various rooms, you could see the instruments of torture that were used and photographs and artwork on the wall demonstrated what happened to the prisoners in that room. It was very gruesome. 

We toured the small cells where the prisoners were kept.  They were photographed, interviewed and stripped of their clothing and possessions.  

They were chained to pieces of iron bar and slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets or blankets.  They weren’t allowed to talk to each other and were fed only porridge and watery soup.  

When the Vietnamese soldiers who freed Phnom Penh from the Khmer Rouge in 1979 first went into Tuol Sleng they found corpses still in shackles.  

They also found thousands of photographs of the people who had been tortured and died there and rooms full of written records detailing what had happened at Tuol Sleng. 

Many children were also imprisoned at Tuol Sleng and their pictures are perhaps the most haunting of the hundreds on display. 

During his time in Cambodia Justin Trudeau announced that Canada will be contributing millions of dollars towards helping the people of Cambodia build a better future. While looking to back away from trade deals with China where so many human rights violations are taking place, Canada is looking to invest in countries like Cambodia where the prime minister said “a generational shift” is taking place.

I was privileged to witness some of that generational shift on a visit to a high school in Phnom Penh where the students were being given hope for the future. Their experience was very different from the previous generation that had experienced such horrific things.

Other posts…….

Cambodia Revisited

Visitors from Phnom Penh

And the Crucifixion Has Continued

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Cambodia Revisited

first they killed my fatherI just watched the movie First They Killed My Father directed by Angelina Jolie.  Based on the first person account of a young girl who survived the brutal years of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia it is a moving and almost unbelievable story of survival. Shot entirely in Cambodia and in the Khmer language with English subtitles it features all Cambodian actors.  Sareum Srey Moch the little girl who plays the main character had no acting experience before shooting the film but she does an amazing job of bringing her character to life. 

mom and dad cambodian refugees

My parents attend a wedding for a member of their Cambodian family.

I knew nothing about Cambodia till 1985 when my parents sponsored a family from Cambodia to come to Canada.  I happened to be at home on maternity leave that fall awaiting the birth of my younger son so on weekdays I went to the home of the new arrivals to give them English lessons. My parents’ connection and involvement with the family continued and my eighty-nine year old father is still included in their family celebrations.  

It was that connection with a Cambodian family that prompted me to buy the book First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung when it first came out in 2000.   It was while reading this autobiography of a young girl who had survived the Khmer Rouge regime that I really began to understand what had happened in Cambodia and to have a much greater appreciation for what the family my parents had sponsored had experienced. 

Taking a guided tour of a landmines museum in Cambodia in 2004

When we moved to Asia in 2003 traveling to Cambodia was a high priority on my list of destinations.  In 2004 I made my first trip there and learned first hand how the carpet bombing of Cambodia by the United States led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime and how the devastating policies of that regime resulted in the deaths of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population. 

Photo I took at the Killing Fields in Cambodia

In 2011 I returned to Cambodia this time with a group of high school students. On my first trip I had only been to Siem Riep but now I visited Phnom Phen as well and together with my students learned so much more about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, the culpability of the United States in what transpired there and the lasting danger of the landmines that are an ongoing legacy of the war years in Cambodia.

I learned so much from this elementary school principal in Cambodia when I worked at her school

I also spent time with my students working in a local school in Cambodia and as I learned more about the lives of the teaching staff and students I realized how the legacies of the war and Khmer Rouge regime continue to impact people in Cambodia today.  

Watching First They Killed My Father brought back many memories of Cambodia for me.  But most of all it reminded me yet again of the futility of war, the never-ending legacy of war and the way war always has its most devastating effects on children.

First They Killed My Father is available on Netflix. 

Other posts about Cambodia…………

Visiting a Land Mines Museum

Visiting Another Land Mines Museum


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Visitors in Winnipeg from ICS in Hong Kong via Phnom Penh

dave and dannyWe had some unexpected visitors for brunch on Saturday.  We were very surprised when Danny Hein contacted us and said he, his wife Jessica and their son Joshua were coming to Winnipeg.  We taught with Danny for two years in Hong Kong but then he moved on to an international school in Phnom Penh Cambodia where he became the principal. dave with danny and son He met his wife Jess there since she was teaching at the same school. They have two daughters and this summer their son Joshua was born. They came to North America for the birth since medical services in Phnom Penh aren’t always very dependable or up to date.  dave and joshuaDave had lots of fun playing with Joshua during the few hours they spent at our place.

danny and daveDan and Jessica are on extended leave and are missing the first months of school this year but will return to Phnom Penh shortly. They had left their two daughters with Dan’s parents in British Columbia for the trip to Manitoba so we didn’t get to see them. Dan and Jessica were here to meet with a family who had taught at their school in the past and  also touch base with a donor who supports the work of their school in Cambodia. 

danny and marylou logos school cambodiaI had seen Dan in May of 2011 when I took a group of students from ICS, our school in Hong Kong, to Cambodia on a trip. logos school cambodiaI visited Logos School and Dan gave me a tour. danny logos schoolHe actually became interested in teaching at Logos School when he was on a trip to Cambodia with a group of Hong Kong students over a decade ago. 

storylines- ics history book Dan and Jessica spent some time looking at the history of ICS book since they had never received a copy. I interviewed Danny for the book and there were quotes and comments from him in several sections as well as a short story about how a trip with his ICS students had led him to teach in Cambodia.

It was great to see the Heins and catch up on one another’s lives. Teaching abroad has given us connections with people all over the world and we are always surprised at how many opportunities we have to reconnect with them. 

Other posts about meeting with former Hong Kong colleagues……..

Visiting the Hubbards

Visiting the Wongs

Visiting the Weiss Family

ICS Colorado Reunion

Visiting Karen Lee

The Burnetts and Tad Visit

Rebekah Visits

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De Ja Vu at the United Nations

We took a tour of the United Nations and almost everything I saw was a connection to another place I’d been or something I had seen before. This sculpture called A Sphere Within A Sphere by Arnaldo Pomodoro was a gift to the United Nations by the country of Italy and sits in the courtyard just before you enter the UN.  I took a photo of a very similar piece by the same artist when I visited the Vatican in Rome.A Sphere Within A Sphere- the United Nations To me the sculptures represent the world cracking apart enough for us to see it’s working interior. I think this gives us hope that it is possible to get the work done that we need to accomplish if we want to repair our fractured world. My husband Dave is chatting with a woman outside the United Nations who wanted people to sign a petition protesting the Chinese government taking over people’s land without giving them compensation for it.

She reminded me of a woman from Hebei province I saw praying to Mao’s picture when I visited Tiananmen Square in Beijing. She said her family land had been confiscated without proper compensation and when her husband went to government officials to protest he was arrested.  A stained glass window by Marc Chagall sits just outside the chapel at the United Nations. It was presented by United Nations staff members and Chagall as a memorial to Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary General of the United Nations who died in a plane crash in 1961.  The window contains various symbols of peace and love. The musical notes in the window are a connection to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony a favorite of Mr. Hammarskjold’s.  I took this photo of a Chagall window in Mainz, Germany. It is one of a series of windows in St. Stephen’s church. The windows depict scenes from the Old Testament. Chagall made them after World War II to help Jews and Christians to remember the part of their faith story they share. He hoped this would aid in the reconciliation between Jews and German Christians after the Holocaust.  At the United Nations you can view a presentation about the need to eliminate nuclear weapons from our world. They have these clothes on display from a victim of the bombing of Hiroshima. It is to remind United Nations visitors of the horrible impact of nuclear weapons.  It brought to mind this photo I took in Hiroshima, Japan at the Peace Memorial Museum showing some of the victims immediately after the dropping of the bomb. These are home-made prosthesis made for victims of land mines in Cambodia. The United Nations is part of a world-wide mission to eliminate landmines. According to this United Nations website land mines still kill 15,000-20,000 people a year.  The United Nations display reminded me of my two visits to land mines museums in Cambodia. At one our guide had lost his arm to a land mine.  According to our guide the United Nations has been working on finding a solution to the question of Palestine since the first special session of the General Assembly in 1947. It reminded me of my visit to a Palestinian refugee camp with twenty-four of my students from Hong Kong. Here the guide shows us bullet holes in the wall around a soccer field where school children were playing. My husband Dave is listening to the audio description of a mural at the United Nations that depicts the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.  The mural reminded me of our visit to the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, Ukraine. I took a picture of this photo collage which shows the faces of children who were victims of the disaster. Out of the 3 million people the Ukrainian government recognises as victims of Chernobyl, 642,000 are children. Our visit to the United Nations prompted me to make connections with many previous experiences we have had. It evoked memories of other places we had visited around the world. Since the organization’s mission is to build positive connections between countries I guess that’s not surprising.   Dave poses on the steps across the street from the United Nations. On the wall behind him is a verse from Isaiah 2:4   “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. “

If you enjoyed this post you might also like…….

Land Mines Museum- First Visit

Questions at the Vatican

I Never Got Used to the Guns in Israel

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Landmines Museum- Second Visit

I made my second visit to a Cambodian landmines museum in May of 2011 with a group of my Hong Kong high school students. Two other teachers and I were chaperoning a service and learning trip. Here is my journal entry about that visit.

After a six-hour drive from Phnom Penh along a national Cambodian highway that was sometimes reduced to one lane and was always bumpy and full of potholes, we arrived at the Siem Reap landmines museum. I had visited this museum in 2004. The museum moved to a new location in 2007. This new one is much more organized and professional looking but I missed the rustic simplicity of the old one.

The cage in the photo holds some of the thousands of land mines that have been discovered and detonated by Aki Ra, a Cambodian man whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. He was raised in an army camp with other children, given his first weapon at age 10, and during his career as a Khmer Rouge soldier planted thousands of land mines himself.  

When the United Nations came to Cambodia in the 1990s to try to help restore order in the country Aki Ra began helping them with the removal of land mines.  He continued to do this as a personal crusade for many years until the Cambodian government stopped him by saying he wasn’t properly trained for removing land mines.

 Aki Ra went to England and got three certificates in land mines removal even though he had to learn to speak English first to do it. Now he continues with his work.  He was one of the top ten CNN heroes of the year in 2010.  On the CNN website, you can read a lot more about Aki Ra.

These photos which are on display in the museum show Aki Ra and his wife at work discovering and detonating land mines.


He and his wife also started an orphanage for children who had been orphaned or maimed by landmines.  There are 35 children living there now but a new dormitory has been built and soon there will be 50 children living there.  Aki Ra and his non-profit organization provide food, shelter, education and medical care for these children.

One of my students is standing beside one of the most common kinds of land mines. There are also many dangerous unexploded bombs in Cambodia. The United States began bombing Cambodia in 1969 saying they needed to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail on its border that was supplying the North Vietnamese with weapons and supplies. By 1975 the US was flying 900 missions a day over Cambodia dropping a bomb every four minutes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 30% of these bombs did not explode on impact and are still buried in Cambodia.

Two pieces of artwork at the land mines museum really caught my attention. This simplistic but colorful and disturbing image of two children who are playing and accidentally step on a land mine.

This sculpture was made by a Phnom Penh artist and was created out of materials given to the artist by Aki Ra. Many kinds of land mines, as well as the tools a person who removes land mines would use, are welded into the sculpture which stood in the lobby of the United Nations for six months on display. 

Here our tour guide Jill Morse is telling us about some of the children who live at the orphanage at the land mines museum. Jill has a very interesting story herself. She and her husband Bill are from Palm Springs, California. They heard about Aki Ra through a friend and decided to visit him in Cambodia to learn more about what he was doing. They were so impressed they began sending him $300 a month to support his work and helping him in other ways. Eventually, they decided to move to Siem Reap to help him full-time. Jill who is a teacher, teaches the children at the orphanage. She’d just finished four hours of classes when she gave us our tour. You can read more about Jill and Bill Morse here. 

It is sad that despite the best efforts of dedicated people like Aki Ra and Jill and Bill Morse children continue to be the victims of landmines left in Cambodian soil. As yesterday’s article in the Washington Post reports 

“An estimated 4 to 6 million land mines and other unexploded ordnance from more than three decades of armed conflict continue to maim or kill Cambodians each year.”

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Landmines Museum – The First Visit

The news story yesterday morning about three Cambodian boys aged eight and nine who were killed when a landmine exploded brought back vivid memories of my two visits to landmine museums in Cambodia. The first was in 2004. Here’s what I journaled about then. 

 Khom acted as our tour guide at a war museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia. “Museum” might be a bit of a misnomer for the collection of old weapons, faded photographs and rusting military vehicles that have been amassed in a bumpy grassy field surrounded by a concrete fence. Khom is proud of this ragtag display however because it provides a way of informing interested tourists about the devastation that has been caused in his country by land mines.

At age five Khom was traveling to the market with his parents when their ox cart hit a land mine. His mother and father were killed and he lost his arm. Some Buddhist monks took in little Khom and raised him. He was too young to remember his parents’ real names and in a country whose infrastructure had been completely destroyed by years of war and government corruption, there was no way to find his relatives. Khom became an orphan in every sense of the word.

Khom is only one sad statistic when it comes to land mines in Cambodia. Experts estimate that more than 60,000 people have died in Cambodia in the last fifteen years because of them. 30,000 of these were young children playing or working in their family’s fields. After the bloody reign of Pol Pot ended in 1979 there were some 12 million landmines left in Cambodian soil. Initiatives by the international community have resulted in the removal of 6 million of those landmines. Not a day goes by however when three or four people aren’t killed or injured by landmines in Cambodia.

Khom showed me samples of the more than fifty kinds of landmines that lie buried in his country’s soil. Attempts have been made to place warning signs in areas known to be dangerous, however since over half the population of Cambodia is illiterate these signs are not always effective. Most of Cambodia’s educational institutions were destroyed during the Pol Pot regime and 90% of its teachers were murdered. It will be a long time before illiteracy statistics improve in this impoverished country where the majority of children work to support their families rather than attend school.

I asked Khom how he feels about Americans. It was as a backlash to the carpet bombing of Cambodia ordered by Richard Nixon that Pol Phot’s Khmer Rouge army was able to gain strength and overthrow the Cambodian monarchy. “I don’t hate them”, he said. “Many kind Americans have come to Cambodia to try to help us since the war ended.”

I asked Khom how he felt about his fellow countrymen who had joined the Pol Phot forces and participated in the massacre they carried out. “I don’t hate them”, he said. “Many were forced to become part of the Khmer Rouge at gunpoint. Some were starving and had to join the army to eat. I don’t blame them.”

I marveled at how Khom could forgive those who created the conditions in his country that were responsible for his parent’s death and the loss of his arm.  I marveled at his hope for the future.

“I am studying English at the college,” he told me. “I want to be a teacher and open up a school for all the orphan children of Siem Reap. I would also like to become a writer and write books about the civil war in the Khmer language to help school children understand what has happened in their country.”

I hope Khom’s dreams come true.

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