The Khmer people have a certain way of smiling. That was the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Phnom Penh. It’s a sudden smile. It opens up their faces; it makes their eyes dance. The Khmer people smile often. It’s a beautiful smile, and yet somehow vulnerable. Like opening your wallet in a crowded market, or letting someone see that you keep your extra keys under the door mat. It’s a vulnerable smile.
I don’t know why I was in Cambodia. I don’t know what I did in Cambodia. I can tell people things like, “I was working with members of the Chab Dai Coalition to help end sex trafficking,” or, “I went to visit the children who live in an HIV-positive orphanage.” But in reality, that’s why I thought I was going. I didn’t realize I would end up riding in a tuk-tuk with an ex-Khmer Rouge militant taking her injured son to the hospital. I didn’t realize I would become known by the local street kids as the foreigner who buys them cans of Coke. I didn’t realize I would end up pitching in to “buy” three prostitutes for the night, to sit with them and ask about their families over coffee.
Everything I did feels half-finished, like I wasn’t supposed to leave just yet. I do know that I never felt more unworthy than when an 8-year-old boy who has been diagnosed as HIV-positive took my hand, whispered, “Thank you so much,” in broken English, and began to cry as I walked away. I never felt more confused than when I walked into a tin-roof shed that houses the photos and urns of children who have passed away at the Happy Tree Orphanage. I’ve never mourned more for the race of Adam as the day I walked through the silence of the Killing Fields.
Easy to lose emotions
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Tuol Sleng used to be a public high school. That was before the coup in 1975. Today, the notorious torture facility and execution ground serves as a macabre museum, little having been cleaned or removed since the Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea regime was overthrown in 1979. The photos of the victims line wall upon wall. It’s easy to quickly lose your emotions at Tuol Sleng. I don’t mean lose them as in to start screaming and weeping, but lose them as to shut yourself in, close out all of the pain. I didn’t want to feel any more of it. I wanted to look at the photographs as mere prints of ink on paper, instead of living, breathing, dreaming human beings. But I couldn’t let myself do that. As much as I wanted to be asleep, I knew that I had to be awake.
Teen wants to seek justice
On Phnom Penh’s riverfront, there’s a group of children that hawk wares along the concrete banks of the Mekong. The kids’ parents send them out day after day, and in many cases the children aren’t allowed to return home until their quota has been met. Joan, who introduced herself to me by her “Western” name (changed for protection), is 16. She no longer attends school; because her mother is ill, she is expected to be her family’s second source of income.
Joan and I became friends. She has a pretty face and a sweet smile. She operates her business out of a plastic basket tied to her waist with a kroma, a type of Khmer scarf . The corner where she can most often be found borders the tourist-oriented riverfront district with the city’s red-light district.
On my last night in Phnom Penh, I ended up by the riverfront and was as usual confronted by five thirsty children. On my way to the street vendor who sold Coke, I asked Joan if I could buy her and the other kids dinner, too. Over fried rice and grilled pork, I inquired about what she would like to do, if she could go to college. Without hesitating, she answered. “I want to be a lawyer.”
I remembered what I had heard from an International Justice Mission representative earlier that week: After the intellectual devastation of the Khmer Rouge, there were only six lawyers left in the entire nation in 1979. When I asked why she had chosen that particular profession, her answer again was quick and without pause: “I want to see all the people in Cambodia treated fairly.”
As I looked down the street filled with blaring neon advertisements for the forced brothels, all I could do was hope that somehow she could become a piece of turning this around. I remembered the rubber wristband that was given to me after our IJM brief that said simply, “SEEK JUSTICE.” I quickly took it off my wrist and handed it to her. I told her to always keep it as a reminder of what she must do when she becomes a lawyer.
I silently prayed that she won’t be swallowed by the sea of neon that lay before us, like so many other Cambodian girls.
World should wake up
For some reason, things like the Khmer Rouge happen. I don’t know why. I don’t know what the solution is. I hardly have an idea what the problem is. I just hope that eventually we will wake up to a day where there is no more genocide. I hope that one day, we will wake up to a world where women and children are not for sale on street corners.
One day, I hope we will wake up to a place where the morning news broadcasts that a former street girl from Phnom Penh’s riverfront district has been elected the new prime minister of Cambodia.
Zachary Senn is a home-schooled senior and a member of The Bee’s Teens in the Newsroom program.