Return To The Killing Fields

By Gee-Gee O. Torres

We sent our Assistant Editor, Gee-Gee Torres, to Cambodia to visit the six Filipino congregations in that Southeast Asian country and to see how they were doing. Here she shares with us in the first of several articles part of her own missionary experience. (Ed.)

Everytime I hear the word Cambodia, a particular film comes to mind. So when Editor, Fr. Niall O’Brian, told me that Cambodia was my next Misyon assignment, I remembered myself sitting on the floor, watching that film in our Audio-Visual Room in high school at St. Scholastica’s Bacolod. The movie horrified me. I wanted to leave but my classmates and I had to submit a movie review the next day. So I forced myself to stay on but I pretended to myself that I was not there. However, no matter how hard I tried, I could still see the anguish on the faces of people-hundreds and thousands of them being herded along the roads of Cambodia. The children looked scared and confused. I could hear people crying for help, screaming in pain, pleading for their lives. That movie was The Killing Fields.

Boarding TG Flight 626

Although I felt apprehensive, I suppressed my fears and boarded TG flight 626 bound for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I was flying via Thailand. After 90 minutes I was already gazing out at Pochentong Airport. I panicked a little. I couldn’t find Bro. Raddie Lagaya, sdb at the airport. I had no idea what he looked like. I just knew his name from one of the articles I had proof-read in the office. I got to an airport phone and called up their house but Fr. John Visser, their Superior, said he had left some 30 minutes earlier to collect me. I went out of the airport again, made a wild guess and approached a man who looked like a Filipino. Ooopps, sorry, he wasn’t Bro. Raddie. He didn’t speak Tagalog or English, only Khmer. Fr. John said Bro. Raddie would be wearing eyeglasses and looks like President Erap. I tried my luck again. This time I spotted somebody who looked like President Erap, though a bit shorter. He turned out to be Bro. Raddie and together we headed of to the Salesian Sister’s House, which he said was going to be homebase. On the way, he gave me a brief run through of tragic history of Cambodia.

The Tragic History of Cambodia

Cambodia is part of what used to be called French Indo-China, an integral part of Southeast Asia with an ancient culture symbolized by the famous Angkor Wat period of colonial expansion the French moved into this part of Asia – hence the name French Indo-China. After the Second World War most of these places fought anti-colonial wars of liberation. The French left reluctantly and the Communists naturally got a foothold. During the Vietnam War Cambodia got sucked into the conflict. The Americans bombed Cambodia mercilessly. Somehow or other that gave a chance for the famous Pol Pot, the Stalin of Southeast Asia, to take over. He introduced an ideological Communist regime, the like of which will go down in history for its unbelievable brutality. It was he who instigated the killing fields which had so revolted me when I was a student. Cambodia at this stage went though an unspeakable nightmare of horror. It was only after the Berlin Wall came down and the tide of Communism receded in so many countries that Cambodia opened up once again to the world.

Land of Suffering

Cambodia can be called a land of suffering. Today it lies prostrate after the nightmare years of the Pol Pot Regime. Many effects of the wars are still around – diseases like TB from lack of food and AIDS from the uncontrolled tourist sextrade and, of course, the whole story of landmines. Cambodia is filled with landmines, which still so many women and children. It was to this Cambodia that the Missionaries of Charity, the Sisters of Mother Teresa, decided to go.

Missionaries of Charity

Among the Missionaries of Charity in Cambodia are two Filipino sisters. They are Sr. Clarissa and Sr. Vita. Sr. Clarissa has been on mission in Cambodia since 1992 while Sr. Vita has just been transferred to Cambodia from Taiwan where she had worked for 22 years (Taiwan, HongKong and Macau). The Missionaries of Charity take care of the poorest of the poor. In Cambodia, they have TB and HIV Centers, a feeding center for malnourished and sickly children and a free-clinic every Saturday.

I went with Sr. Clarissa and her partner, Sr. Shooli from Bangladesh, on their regular visit to their TB and HIV patients living along the riverbanks of Phnom Penh. Many people there are literally floating on the water in boathouses. I suppose there is no room on the land. Other houses are on stilts like you see among Badjaos in Mindanao.

Sr. Clarissa told me that just recently she almost got drowned. She was on her way to visit one of the HIV patients who lived in one of the houses hanging over the water. She crossed a narrow wooden bridge going to the house of the patient. When she was halfway across, the bridge collapsed and down she went into the water. “I thought it was my end,” I managed to stay float, but then I began to sink. Sr. Shooli called for help. She knew I couldn’t swim. While I was struggling in the filthy, stagnant water, I told myself if this is God’s will, let it be. But when, after what seemed to me in eternity. I was finally rescued, I began to feel scared. I know God loves me and sometimes He makes fun of me. This time He really did it well,” said Sr. Clarissa smiling.

Sr. Vita mc

Sr. Vita, on the other hand, is assigned in their Home of Peace where they look after AIDS patients with terminal cases; these are patients who have been refused by the hospitals and, worse, who have been rejected by their family. She said that their work is very demanding. Patients become irritable. They would even throw things at the Sisters. “They don’t mean to hurt us. If you listen to their deepest desire, they just want to be loved. They are looking for attention and affection. They don't want  to be alone because they are afraid to die. We do our best to make them feel that we care. Sometimes a husband and a wife are both there. It’s painful to see them go especially whey they have children to leave behind,” said Sr. Vita.

“What keeps you going, Sister, in this tough job?” I asked. “I always think of words of Mother Teresa: Peace begins with a smile. So even if life here in Cambodia is difficult, I find it fulfilling. I do my work with a smile.”

Cambodia’s Concentration Camp

Later I got the courage to visit the actual torture chamber of the Khmer Rouge in the south of the city, Teul Sleng. Before they used it as a torture chamber, it had been a school. But today it is a frightening reminder of the horrors brought on by the Pol Pot regime. As I entered the gate, I wanted to step back. I saw myself again sitting on the floor in the Audio-Visual Room. I wasn’t too sure if I was brave enough now to see this reality – Cambodia’s biggest torture chamber and prison. But I had to confront my fears and this was the time. So I walked through the gate. In one of the exhibition rooms, I saw the displayed hundreds of photographs of Cambodians facing torture and those who had been tortured. There were also photographs of foreigners who somehow ended up their as either innocent victims or as suspected CIA agents. These were the people I had seen when  I was watching that movie, The Killing Fields, many years ago. Now I was almost touching the reality. After a while I couldn’t stand anymore the macabre atmosphere which reeked of death. I had to cut short of my ‘pilgrimage’.

If until now I cannot get over these feelings, how much more so the people of Cambodia? They must still feel these wounds. And when I reflect about what our Filipino Missionaries are doing in Cambodia, I realize that it is these wounds they are helping to heal.