Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death


Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

It is inevitable that wars and conflicts produce casualties, yet that does not ever justify atrocities such as a genocide, which, as defined by the United Nations, is an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide). Many in the world still have vivid memories of the genocides that took place in Cambodia (1970s) and Rwanda (1990s). But how did the survivors overcome those darkest moments of their lives?

The Cambodian Genocide (1975 – 1979)

Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, overthrew the Khmer Republic in 1975. After occupying Phnom Penh in April that year, the regime began to carry out mass forced migration and moved over 3 million people from cities like Phnom Penh to the countryside. From 17 April 1975 onwards, countless lives were lost to hunger, diseases, slavery and executions. It was not until 1979 that the genocide finally ended, with the regime being ousted by Vietnamese troops.

In as early as 1970, World Vision has begun relief and development work in Cambodia to respond to the humanitarian needs arising from the Vietnam War. Our work was temporarily suspended when the transition of power occurred in 1975. Unfortunately, only five of our 270 staff members survived the Khmer Rouge rule to see our work resume in 1980. We subsequently restarted Child Sponsorship in 1995, and as of 2018, we have 40 Area Development Programmes in nine provinces across the country, benefitting over 100,000 sponsored children, their families and communities.

Until today, sites and remains of the Khmer Rouge genocide are still being preserved.

Landmines left during the Khmer Rouge era still pose a serious threat to children’s safety today.

A Survivor’s Wish: Let Children Fly

Since 2006, Sokchan has been running children’s and youth clubs in Leuk Daek, southern Cambodia. She is well respected and is affectionately known as Ming Chan (Auntie Chan) to her colleagues and the community.

For many Cambodians, life has never been the same since 1975. Ming Chan, now in her fifties, is no exception. One day, she and her family were forced to leave Phnom Penh and return to her village. They became peasants and lived in fear every day, with Khmer Rouge soldiers threatening to kill them when they paused for a break. Ming Chan was only 15 back then.

“During the Khmer Rouge regime I was still a student,” she says. “We were displaced out of Phnom Penh and taken to Prey Veng Province. At that time my father was very smart. Instead of returning to our own village, we moved to another place in Prey Veng Province. If we had moved back there, we would have been killed. The villagers knew our family’s history.”

Pol Pot’s rule lasted from April 1975 to 1979. “I worked so hard back then. I was so afraid of the soldiers. Many of my friends were killed. My father died of illness,” she says. “My four older siblings were killed, so were three of my siblings-in-law and four of my nieces and nephews.” At this moment, the resilient woman breaks down and begins to sob. “At the end there were only three of us left, plus my mother.”

After the war, Ming Chan moved back to her village. “I still worked on my farm and I also tried my best to study hard,” she says. She would go to school two mornings every week. “After the war I became the oldest child. I had to take care of my younger siblings.” For this reason, she never got married.

In 1994, Ming Chan started working for an organisation that builds capacity in communities and began working with World Vision in 2000 to serve the people of a commune. “Parents would not let their children go to school. Children were without hope. I did try my best to work with them,” she says. The war had scarred the people of Leuk Daek, but Ming Chan says, “We can say that it is because of the war, but war is just one reason. The other reason is knowledge. The children did not know about their rights. They just followed what their families did. And our society did not care much about the children either. These are all causes for the current situation.”

In Ming Chan’s family, only she, two of her younger siblings and mother survived the Khmer Rouge genocide. She has remained single to take care of her siblings.

Ming Chan (second from left) overcame the boundaries of Cambodia’s conservative customs. She obtained support from parents and set up children’s clubs.

In October 2016, World Vision, in partnership with other NGOs, developed a curriculum known as Peace Road. The process was challenging. As the curriculum focused on children’s rights, which was a radical departure from the local culture, permission at the district level was required. “Back then the children did not have a chance to form a group like that,” she says. “They lived separately, even though they were studying in the same school. They did not care about anything other than themselves. They did not think about the future. They had no goals. Even the parents did not think about their children’s future.”

Ming Chan came up with a simple strategy. “I had a meeting with the parents in order to ask their parents if they would agree to let their children join the club. When they asked me what benefit the children would get from joining the club, I did not answer the question. Instead, I asked them a question back. ‘What do you expect them to get from the club?’ They answered that they wanted their children to be good students and good children and have good futures,” she says. Through asking questions, Ming Chan helped parents understand how the club would benefit their children and obtained their approval to launch it.

In the first five years after the children’s clubs began in 2007, 600 children were already trained and knew about their rights and how to create lasting change. They also understood that issues such as domestic violence should not be tolerated, and helped bring peace to their families. This is how change began with the children. “I first [worked with] the children to [create] their own vision and the plan of action,” Ming Chan says.

The children have thrived. “When people left the club they were able to find a job,” Ming Chan says. “Some of them have become teachers, some of them run businesses and some are policemen.” But for Ming Chan, the most important thing is how the children feel, what they believe, and how they behave. “There is unity and a love for society. More importantly they know what is wrong and what is right.”

Commune chief Chrin adds, “The children in the club educate their friends in school and out of school.” Sarom, chief of a nearby commune, also believes that the impact of children’s clubs has been impressive. “The community has completely changed. Domestic violence is down by a lot.”

Ming Chan says her relationships go beyond the children. “I have a relationship with their parents as well,” she says. “We need to meet once a month with the parents to discuss the change in their children. We have a meeting like that because parents are the first people to see the change in their children.”

Ming Chan became a Christian in 2000. She adds, “I am not married, but God has given me a lot of children.” And Ming Chan is a very good mother, keeping her children safe from harm while giving them wings to fly.

The Post-war Generation: No Place at School

Dineth is the first in her family to have adequate education. The older generations simply did not have the opportunity to go to school. Her father had to drop out of school when the Khmer Rouge rose to power in 1975, having only finished first grade.

In this remote community, the population is made up of former Cambodian asylum seekers who hid in the refugee camps at the Thai border during the Khmer Rouge years. The Khmer Rouge genocide killed numerous people, with houses, schools, streets, health care centres and temples destroyed. After the war, the people were relocated to this former battlefield, where live land mines still are being found today, decades after the war.

“Before 2000, our community did not have enough schools. The children needed to travel around 20 kilometres from home to school. It was a hard time for us,” says Thy Sey, Dineth’s father. Yet, despite the environment, World Vision came to the community and started work here. “World Vision built schools, roads, wells, latrines and strengthened health service in my community,” Thy Sey recalls.
Dineth, fourth of five children in her family, is now a sponsored child studying in third grade. Her father Thy Sey used to be a guard of a Khmer Rouge leader, but today works as a rice farmer.

“Being a farmer is very difficult, we use labour and we are under the sunlight. I don’t want my daughter to be a farmer like me. I want her to be a doctor or teacher, however it depends on what she wants,” says Meun Mon, Dineth’s mother. “My daughter received a school bag, pens, a school uniform and letters from her sponsor. Those encourage her to study hard and be an obedient child.”

The Rwandan Genocide (1994)

In April 1994, violence erupted in Rwanda, turning neighbours and friends into foes. In the space of 100 days, some 800,000 were brutally slaughtered. Historically, relations between ethnic Hutus, predominantly farmers, and Tutsis, who raise cattle, had been tense since the colonial days. In 1959, a Hutu uprising resulted in a civil war that ended Tutsi domination.

Three years later, in 1962, as Rwanda gained independence from Belgium, 120,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, fled the country, and the Hutus gained control of the country.

In the late 1980s, Rwandans in exile began making political and military moves to return to their country. On 6 April 1994, while returning from peace negotiations, Rwanda President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira, both Hutus, died when the plane carrying them was shot down. This immediately led to a massive riot, with a large number of Tutsis killed. The conflict only ended in July that year, when Tutsis and Ugandan troops led a counter-attack and overthrew the Hutu-led government. The riot devastated the country. In addition to the countless number of casualties, a million people were displaced within Rwanda. Of the survivors, tens of thousands of children lost one or both parents.
In response to the huge needs brought by the genocide, World Vision began providing life-giving emergency aid to displaced people and helping them rebuild their communities, as well as caring for many children who had lost their parents. In 1996, with thousands of refugees returning to Rwanda, World Vision started a reconciliation and peacebuilding programme, which included three components: bereavement, dealing with emotions and forgiveness. Those who had participated in the genocide were brought face to face with, or wrote letters to, the people who had been victims. In the two-week programme, participants would share intensely personal memories of the genocide, learn new tools to manage deeply painful emotions, and consider a path to forgiveness. From 2000, World Vision has transitioned towards adopting a community-based approach for its development projects to build a sustainable future for the next generation of Rwandans.

The Transformation of an Orphan: Now I Have a Home

For years, Anita had lost her hope for a better future. In the genocide in 1994, 800,000 people were killed, including children. In addition, numerous children had been orphaned. Some were taken in by relatives who survived, while others formed families of their own with the elder siblings as family heads. But Anita’s case was quite different, her entire family perished.

Anita was adopted by a family in Gasabo District when she was one. She was too small to remember anything in the genocide, nor did she know what happened to her family. After all, she was only 12 months old.

“I was so lucky. The family that adopted me is so affectionate. They did not have a lot to offer like paying for my school fees, but at least I had a roof over my head. I had food to eat, a family and a home.” Says Anita. “I discovered the details [of my past] at the age of 11, first from our neighbours, then from my foster mother who thought I must have had heard about it from others.”

“I don’t have any siblings. For many years I had wished and hoped that one day someone would come to this village looking for me. A relative that could have survived the genocide. The possibility of connecting to at least one of my relatives kept me hopeful for years,” she says. In 2001, World Vision identified her through grassroots leaders as one of the children that needed support. She was registered as a sponsored child of World Vision. World Vision enrolled her in school, paid her schools fees and provided learning materials, such as books, uniform, pens, until she completed primary school.

Anita was orphaned during the genocide. Now she runs a sewing business and keeps animals to help improve the nutritional status of her adoptive family.

Anita teaches youth how to sew at the “Heaven of Hope” cooperative.

“I was extremely happy when World Vision came,” says Mukamana, her adoptive mother. “I always wished her the best. I was worried she would hate me after discovering the truth but she did not. Instead, she got closer to me and was grateful towards me for taking her in. She has been a great kid.”

Anita dropped out of school after completing primary school. “That was the most challenging moment in my life. As an adopted child, I always worked hard to be totally accepted in the family. My dream as a student was to become someone important and supportive to my adoptive parents. Now that I was out of school, I had nothing to hold onto. My dream was gone. I felt empty and wondered what my life would be,” she recalls.

Anita’s dignity and hope was finally restored when World Vision enrolled her into a vocational school. There, Anita and 19 other former sponsored children were enrolled in a 6-month sewing course. Upon graduation, they set up a cooperative and were supported with 20 brand new sewing machines, fabrics and other tools. “We jointly rented a house that we use as a workshop for our cooperative ‘Heaven of Hope’,” says Anita. World Vision continues to follow up on the cooperative’s progress and supports them with advice and more training.

Apart from her income from sewing, Anita also earns a monthly salary of 100,000 Rwandan francs (about US$150) from teaching other youth. This has allowed her to buy a cow and three goats. The animals’ manure serves as fertiliser and has increased agricultural production in her family. She is hopeful the cow will greatly improve the nutritional status of her household after it gives birth.

Earlier this year, in his address at the 25th commemoration of the genocide, Rwandan president Paul Kagame vowed that “what happened here will never happen again”. What he said is exactly what we all wish for Rwanda.

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