Many things have changed in the 20 plus years I have lived in Cambodia. I have gotten a lot older and a bit more robust (perhaps not the best choice of words but it sounds better than fat), and a lot less agile than I use to be. My wisdom seems also to have diminished, as I know much less now than what I thought I knew when I first came. I use to go out with my medical bag, sometimes walking long distances to remote villages or crossing the mighty Mekong in a small canoe, with no life jacket on, to reach a secluded Vietnamese hamlet or fishing village on the other side of the river. I enjoyed those experiences and although my arrival was usually welcomed by the adults of the area, the children often found me a bit scary and stayed hidden away. White people, especially large ones, were not common back then and for many, I was the first one they saw. Over the years, however, there has been an invasion of foreigners working and living in Cambodia… but most stay in the larger cities. The countryside still remains much as it was when I first came here.
Before we opened the hospice at Wat Opot I would go out to the villages to see our patients, often spending the whole day, bouncing around in the cab of our pickup, on the dusty roads of Cambodia’s countryside. Once the hospice was opened, however, I became more of a recluse… tending only to the needs of our residents. When the hospice was closed in 2007 and the Children’s Community opened, I found it easy to make excuses for not going out anymore. Only recently has that changed.
New rules in the way we get our children require home visits with the Social Services and community leaders before we can take them in. This means our Director, Mr. Dara, must now go out to meet with the families, and there must be a unanimous decision, by all involved in the case, that placement at Wat Opot is in the best interest of the child. For that reason, I have decided to tag along at times and I find the experience refreshing. We do not always accept the children we interview… sometimes there are alternatives that would benefit the child and the family more and when possible we may give assistance to the family instead.
Somethings haven’t changed… the children are still threatened by my appearance. Of course, walking a mile to their hut in the scorching Sun didn’t help I suppose… fortunately, there was a downpour while the interview was going on that cooled things down, but it also made the walk back even more difficult through the now muddy rice fields.
Our journey for that day wasn’t over… there was another family to visit, another sad story to hear, another decision to make. Their house, however, was right next to the road so I didn’t have to walk that far… still, the child was obviously very intimidated by my now muddy, sweaty, waterlogged appearance.
The child was only nine years old and had already been made aware of the reason for our visit… he wasn’t at all in favor of leaving the only home he had known, but was outnumbered by so many adults who had their version of his story to tell. He didn’t even bother to look up at first… occasional tears would fall from his eyes and he would wipe them away with his shirt sleeve.
It wasn’t until the end of the session that he finally acknowledged my presence. There was an expression of utter hopelessness on his face as our eyes met and I had to look away to hide my own tears… for I had seen that look before so many years ago.
From Letting Go “A short time later we found a young boy hiding in a bomb shelter. He was wearing a military shirt, which he said he found on a dead soldier and took because he had no other clothes to wear. He was taken to the Captain who simply said,“We’re not taking prisoners Sergeant, you know what to do.”
The boy appeared to understand what was about to happen next and looked straight into my eyes. There was an expression of utter hopelessness on his face as they dragged him off behind some trees. I was stunned at what I had just witnessed, and when the men returned a short time later I didn’t even bother to ask what they had done with him. It no longer seemed to matter, because as I stood there in the middle of that burned out village and heard the cries of the women and children, my conscience and soul were breaking apart inside of me.”
It was then that I made a vow, that if I were to survive the war, I would return to Asia to make atonement for my wrongdoing in not trying to stop his murder. I don’t regret making that vow and if it is decided that this child should come to us, I will do whatever I can to replace the hopelessness in his eyes with Joy.