Encounters on the Front Line
CAMBODIA: A MEMOIR
In April of 1975, after five years of civil war, Cambodia fell to the brutal regime of the communist Khmer Rouge. Democratic Kampuchea, as it was then called, was cut off from the world as Pol Pot, the revolutionary leader of the Khmer Rouge, imposed his four year reign of terror. The death toll was close to two million people, one quarter of the country’s population, at that time.
I knew little about these staggering events until the autumn of 1979, when Cambodia caught the world’s attention. Tens of thousands of Cambodians were fleeing to the border of Thailand, escaping widespread famine and the conflict between the defeated Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese forces occupying the country. Humanitarian organizations poured in to the border areas, mounting one of the largest international relief operations of the twentieth century.
My interest in world affairs, particularly in the developing countries, was strong. I’d been to Asia before, had travelled to unusual and remote destinations, and was seeking a way to contribute as a nurse, to a better world. Without hesitation I signed up with the Canadian Red Cross, took a flight into the unknown and found myself immersed in a profound moment of history. By February 1980 I was working on the war-torn Cambodian border.
The six-month mission on the border was a distressing and disturbing time, but also a time of inspiration and awe. Face to face with the aftermath of genocide, famine, torture and terror, I met a people as gracious as the lotus blooming in muddy waters.
Less than three months after returning to Canada, the Canadian Red Cross recruited me for another six-month mission, providing disaster relief for the nomadic population in the Horn of Africa. I worked in the desert of Djibouti, a country of rock and sand, its people suffering from a severe drought.
Witnessing the trauma of the Cambodian refugees, as well as the rapid cultural transition to another “disaster zone” in the same year, resulted in my own emotional upheaval. A year of restless days and sleepless nights ensued.
The insomnia eventually subsided and life resumed its course: marriage, family, studies, travel and work. Nursing continued to bring me close to the bone—working with poverty, trauma and suffering, in my own country, in my own small town.
Why did I go to Cambodia? Was I playing out a childhood dream of exotic escape attached to a noble cause? Was I seeking some deeper meaning to life? Was I simply responding to a heart- breaking humanitarian crisis, hoping to make a difference?
I did not fully understand the impact of the year in Asia and Africa until later in my life. I was not a victim of war, starvation or environmental disaster, but I was a witness. As a witness, I came to understand that front lines take a toll in our lives. They test how far we will go, how much we will give and how deep we will travel.
“Do not forget us” was the haunting call of the refugee. “Come back to Cambodia.” An interplay of memory: the passion of involvement, the refugee and the front line, were etched on my heart.
Nearly three decades later, I returned. I travelled many roads, volunteering in an orphanage and an AIDS hospice. I would learn about struggle and peace, suffering and hope, life and death—in a country that was not mine.
Cambodia was my teacher; my encounter as hard as shrapnel embedded in flesh, as soft as the fragrance
of jasmine, and as perplexing as the beguiling smile of its people, the Khmer. The smile, offered freely to foreigners, as if to say “I am fine, sok sabay, despite all that befell our cherished land.”
My journey was a pilgrimage, a quest of the heart, a longing: to meet the new face of Cambodia and honour the one that I left behind.
Encounters on the Front Line
is now available through the following sites
Brahmavihara Cambodia: A Buddhist outreach in Phnom Penh.
Bunong Place: Humanitarian support for Bunong minority of Mondulkiri.
Elephant Valley Project: Project providing safety for sick and injured elephants.
Licadho Cambodia: Cambodian human rights organization.
Sok Sabay: A rescue shelter for children trapped in child exploitation.
Sustainable Schools International: Building schools in rural Cambodia.
Tabitha Foundation Cambodia: Community development for the poorest of the poor.
Wat Opot Community: An orphanage directed by Partners in Compassion.