Arrival in AndongMy journal entry from March 22nd reads, “Andong Village. Today was tough.” Andong is a refugee village on the outskirts of Phnom Pen — the capital of Cambodia. It’s one of many settlements of relocated families and children, driven from their homes by the government. This is worse than poverty. This is where families live on $30 a month.
Pulling up, it felt oppressive. The heat hung in the air with a mix of smells. A few anemic chickens run in front of us while beyond them naked children urinate in a field strewn with rotted garbage. We strolled up the deep red dirt roads, the cracked earth made dusty by the nine rainless months Cambodians have accepted as the norm.
I split off from my group, trudging through and dodging garbage to capture photos. I peered through the viewfinder looking at the angles of Andong Village.
I’ve never struggled so much to capture everyday graces.
Give me something, a moment of fresh air, the laughter of a child, a sign of hope. A palpable fear or anxiety set in. Maybe it was anger. My group was out of sight now, and here I was, an alien in the midst of this hell.
I wanted to run.
Maybe it was the realization that this place was real. As real as you reading this right now. At this present moment there really are souls born to a life near devoid of hope.
For an entrepreneur always living in the realm of possibility, I felt hopeless. Nothing could be done here. I wanted to grab as many of these beautiful children as I could and abandon this post.
It was the overwhelming need that defeated me — the injustice of it all.
Theologian Cornelius Plantinga defines sin as the culpable disturbance of shalom or peace, wholeness, health, and blessing. Shalom felt far from this place and someone had to be culpable.
For the uninitiated Cambodia was the victim of a genocide larger than the likes of Rwanda. The educated, the students, those “smart” ones with glasses — anyone who could potentially pose a threat—all rounded up and systemically murdered. Their bodies buried in one of the hundreds of aptly named “killing fields” — mass graves sites littering the countryside.
Perhaps the most disturbing, the tree where children were killed as the radicals swung innocent babies by their feet, striking their heads against the bark.
All this done in the name of revolution and a communist vision carried out by the tyranical Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. In all, between 2-4 million Cambodians were killed, roughly 25% of the population.
Lest you think this happened long ago, it was only 35 years. It was the late 70's when there was little will for America to intervene in Southeast Asia. As Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” And nothing rang so true.
Pol Pot would eventually overstep, agitating nearby Vietnam. His forces dwindled and he remained on the run until ‘94.
What were you doing in ‘94?
For those who assume humanity has progressed beyond our barbaric ancestry, I challenge you to read a (recent) history book.
A Restoration Begins
The glimmer of hope came when I rejoined my group. At this point they had moved towards the new side of Andong — the one being restored.
For decades the US based NGO, People for Care & Learning has been operating in Cambodia, working alongside the Khmer people, even dealing with what is arguably one of the worlds most corrupt governments, to provide opportunity to the poorest of the poor.
The long list of accomplishments from this organization is staggering: two children’s homes, an integrated farm which empowers locals around Takam Village with new techniques and crops, seven learning centers teaching everything from english to computer skills to over 130 students every month. And countless Cambodians cared for, all the way through college.
They also happened to start one of TripAdvisor’s top rated cafes located in the tourist city of Siem Reap. In addition to serving a delicious flat white, Common Grounds Cafe provides jobs and real-life training to locals all while donating the profit to the organization’s other less commercial efforts.
The Biggest Undertaking
PCL guided us down one of Andong Village’s new streets to witness the impact of their biggest undertaking yet.
The group’s vision was simple…to completely restore this village…from the ground up.
Against the odds, and with plenty of naysayers, they set to work, raising millions and making plans. To upend the cycle perpetuated in this village would require everything; new roads, sewage, homes, water, a community development center, market, health facility and so on. Nothing so holisitic has ever been attempted, nothing so audacious.
They quite literally were building a city.
Driving them was answering this singular question: Can we break the poverty cycle with a focused sustained effort?
Signs of Home
As we rounded the corner the fruits of their labor came in to view. The marketplace was bustling. A beautiful, two-story stucco laid gleaming against the grey and red dirt which seemed to engulf everything else. Cambodians were selling fresh vegetables and the latest catch of yellowtail and carb.
Small cc engines of motos could be heard roaring by, moving to and fro on the fresh pavement which only a few months prior had been cracked earth. Open for business was the new repair shop, emblematic of the irrefutable strength of human spirit.
And in the midst were kids playing, hide and seek in the market, and two friends riding a bike, one on the pegs while the other sat stearing.
And as we boarded the bus to head home I snuck a final glance back at Andong with an awareness that I may not return. If I did, the work of PCL would be complete, and this image would be a snapshot in time, a view of the village that was, but is no more.
Is it enough to break the poverty cycle? It was a promising start.
Memory & Time
It’s been months since I stood on those streets and while some memories have begun to fade certain memories remain vivid. I still remember as the bus stopped to tour Tuel Slang, the school turned death camp. I recall the broken culvert in Andong seeping sewage into the tin “homes.”
And I remember waking in the middle of the night, the days images flickering back, and sobbing.
But like all graces, they get sweeter with time.
Over all these things I remember the smiles of the children studying the alphabet at one of PCL’s learning centers. I can still hear the joy of a soccer match at the orphanage led by the older kids who would soon be preparing for university, on scholarship. I recall the bustling of the marketplace where families in Andong can now earn a living. And I remember the freshly paved streets of the village complete with real sewers, leading up to real homes, providing real hope.
And now, there are bicycles and laughter.
Andong Village: Restoration in the Midst of Genocide originally appeared on Medium