Survivors and their children: this description could apply to many countries today, but it fits Cambodia perhaps more than most. I learned this as we explored the Cambodian countryside, small towns, and villages, as well as the cities and famous temples.
Roads washed out by the monsoons were being repaired by women carrying gravel on their backs. Everywhere, in front of bamboo houses, in the rice fields, by the sides of the gravel-layered road, swarms of children took care of each other, cooked, hacked bananas from trees with machetes, chased scrawny chickens, fed smaller naked children, no adult in sight. It seemed as if some calamity had destroyed all the grownups.
In a way, that was true. This had been a war zone, our guide told us. Under Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge, more than 3 million people of a population of 7 million died. The population has grown to 14 million, now, but half of those are under 20. A nation of children who still are paying for the crimes of the past.
People lived day by day, like animals, we were told, as faction fought faction. A handful of rice, a rag to cover the body, and the dream of revenge kept them alive. Educated people were eliminated first, even anyone who wore eyeglasses. Others followed.
During the civil war, the rice fields and jungles were planted with a million land mines. The crop then and for decades after was the death and mutilation of thousands of men, women, and children. We stopped to study a billboard by the roadside. The faded paintings warned of landmines and their consequences. The color pictures were primitive, but brutally vivid. Shortly after, we saw a one-legged child horribly scared across his body.
Some landmines responded only to heavy weight, others to a human step. Sometimes, they were planted together. After leaving one small temple complex in the jungle, being careful not to step off the path, we came upon a makeshift percussion and string band, with several children singing and dancing. As we walked closer, we saw that all of them – adults and children, singers, musicians, dancers – were missing body parts. Feet, hands, legs had been replaced by stumps and scars. Looking at us hopefully, they played their improvised instruments.
How, we wondered, can human beings do this to each other? Even worse, we didn’t understand how countrymen could murder and mutilate each other this way. We heard many horrible stories there, but we’ve heard frightful tales in other countries, too. The inhumanity of human beings respects no borders.
Burma, Laos, Iraq, Serbia, and Afghanistan have suffered in recent history. Other countries also are suffering at this moment. Sometimes, the pain is caused by economic inequality: a few people gather most of the nation’s riches for themselves, leaving only scraps for the others. Of course, this breeds discontent and anger and leads to rebellion. Other times, this is compounded by land-grabbing, by deliberate attempts to usurp the livelihoods of others, even neighbors and one-time friends.
My new book, DELPHINE, winner the Clay Reynolds novella competition, focuses on this kind of situation. As Delphine travels through the Middle East, she sees much injustice and suffering, but when she spends time in Palestine she discovers a level of suffering that she’s never seen before. She is stunned by the size and brutality of the massive wall steadily encroaching on Palestinian land, displacing and dividing families, farms, small towns, and parts of cities. Where, she wonders, is the justice in this?
Delphine decides that she must do whatever she can to help the suffering of these people. My short novel is about this woman’s journey, her determination to learn everything she can and then to find a way to bring the message of what she sees and experiences to the world.
The civil war and foreign invasions of Cambodia now are history, although the painful aftermath still endures. However, the injustice and pain in Palestine still exists and is growing, destroying lives and futures. Delphine’s story as she confronts this agony is one that we all must share.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the Texas A & M University Press Consortium, as well as your local bookstore, by order.