Cambodia, Destinations, Social Work

A Psalm for Cambodia

December 18, 2012

A Psalm can take many forms, one of which is a heartfelt cry of misery followed by an exclamation of hope. This is the story of autogenocide, justice and joy in Cambodia. Warning, this post contains accounts from our travels which some people may find disturbing.  

We braced for entry into Cambodia, in part because we knew we’d come face-to-face with its brutal and recent history of war, torture, and terror.

I picked up a book, “Brother Number One: a Political Biography of Pol Pot,” and was shocked by what I read. Pol Pot was a known as a gentle, soft spoken school teacher. In terms of personality, he was no Hitler, Gadhafi, or Hussein. Rather, he was portrayed largely as a passive player in the string of horrific events, completely responsible, yet strangely detached. He seemed more of a “roll with the punches” type than a “driven maniac” type. Like the kind of blank-slate subject a hypnotist would choose to manipulate into shooting a political figure, Pol Pot let the worst aspects of Communism wash over him.

The result: as many as one and a half million of his people tortured and killed, with at least that many more dying of disease and starvation during his four year reign of terror with the Khmer Rouge. Hence, the term autogenocide, the extermination of a country’s citizens by it’s own people or government.

Except Pol Pot didn’t gas or shoot most of his countrymen; he tortured and beat to death with blunt objects approximately 20% of Cambodia’s population within four years.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)

In the heart of the capitol city of Phnom Pehn sits the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Once a high school, it stands virtually unaltered, once beautiful, forever desecrated.

Side note, it was common for complete strangers in Cambodia to ask us, “Where are you going today? What are you doing? When will you be back?” It was annoying, prying, and I definitely thought people were just being nosey. Until I learned, years earlier during the swift power grab by the Khumer Rouge, during the 24 hour evacuation of millions of people from the cities into the country, families were instantly separated, often forever. Goodbyes were a luxury. This reality lives on in the hearts of Cambodians. For them, the genocide isn’t ancient history. It happened in their lifetime, just a few years before I was born. They are imprinted — at any moment, things could change. When they ask where you’re going and when you’re getting back, it’s because they really care, because for all they know, you may not come back.

Walking through the Genocide Museum was the most haunting experience of my year abroad. The museum itself is minimal. No one needed to erect a monument, few creative elements were necessary to retell to the story for one simple reason, this atrocity happened in the modern era. Pol Pot ordered photographs be taken of every single prisoner moments before their torture and death. (Warning, link may contain graphic images.)

Staring into the eyes of 22,000 faces moments before they met their doom, whilst they heard the screams of their friends and family in the next room, knowing the cold click of the camera shutter was the last friendly sound they would hear.

Frozen in time.

Haunting us forever.

They were shackled to bedposts, some were bled to death one drop at a time (to see how long they could be kept alive), some were waterboarded, some were raped, shocked, suffocated, disemboweled, the list goes on.

Nothing separated me from interacting with the same elements of the victim, the cold tiles, the bled on floor, the rusted steel they were chained to. I walked where they suffered, bled, and died.

Killing them outright was discouraged, as the Khmer Rouge needed “confessions.” Thus, thousands of Cambodians confessed to being CIA spies, and otherwise. Never mind the implausibility of it.


Few people would actual defend torture, even when it’s used on actual terrorists. Still, spending just a few moments in the genocide museum revealed traces of apathy in my heart, places I hadn’t confronted, things I had let myself believe were okay, sometimes, in certain situations.

But until that day, I had never stood next to a waterboarding apparatus. I had never seen a 1970s era picture of a torture victim (it looks nothing like Hollywood, folks). I had never felt so ill in my soul.

I remembered the torture of Jesus. It’s easier for someone like me, familiar with the passion of Christ, to skip to the horror of the cross, right past the day he spent being whipped, beaten, and thrashed. He didn’t just die for us. He was tortured for us too.

I wondered, what place does torture have in my worldview? Is it wrong for the innocent but okay for the guilty? Wrong for everyone except un-convicted terrorists? (It occurs to me that convicted terrorists have more protections against torture than accused terrorists).

In much the same way Jesus was falsely accused on trumped up charges by people who feared his ideals, these Cambodians were accused of being spies for the CIA. Even the Khmer Rouge knew this was implausible. I wondered, why bother? What purpose does a false accusation have in light of absolute power and the intention to kill?

Because even bad men need a reason to kill, a reason to maim, a reason to cause pain, justification for their actions.

Pol Pot kept his distance, rarely pulling a trigger or slaying a countryman. In stark contrast to another revolutionary, Che Guevara, Pol Pot didn’t do his own dirty work.

His countrymen did it for him.

Mostly Cambodians.

Pol Pot didn’t need confessions to justify torture. His countryman did though, as they were the ones often coerced into violence.

And so I think of the “justifications” for torture offered to we Americans by Hollywood, by military generals, sometimes even by presidents.

It’s necessary for traitorous spies, for terrorists, to get the truth, to keep Americans safe.


Torture is wrong. I pray my heart never justifies it again, for any reason, ever.

While many of the Khmer Rouge leaders were brought to justice, many participants blended back into society, with a sort of “permission” by the Cambodian people. In an odd, blanket form of forgiveness, they were allowed to go on living their lives.

The country wanted to move forward.

Even some of the victim’s families understand the immense pressure participants of torture were under.

Kill or be killed.

“…I consider them victims like me…” A living survivor (present at Tuol Sleng the day we visited), explains how he came to identify with his torturers.

A word about justice. Social justice is popular these days, but too often it cries rescue for the victim and punishment for the oppressor.

Real justice puts an end to wrong-doing, yet requests mercy for both parties.

Healing is for everyone.


The Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Before going to Cambodia, we also downloaded “The Killing Fields” movie, which depicts the mostly true story of an American journalist and his Cambodian assistant separated during the siege and evacuation of Phnom Phen, when the Khumer Rouge came to power. Incidentally, the movie was also shown on one of our Cambodian bus rides. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable some of the passengers must have felt.

There are as many as 20,000 mass graves scattered around Cambodia, mostly hidden in the farm lands outside the city of Phnom Pehn, where large holes dug in the earth could accommodate hundreds of bodies at a time, and the screams of people dying in the night could be muffled. The Choeung Ek Killing Fields is a cluster of mass graves a few miles outside of the city.

Similar to Tuol Sleng, the site was minimally altered from its original state. We walked along a beautiful path, stopping at small markers and listening to our tape recorders.

A tree where babies, held by their legs, were bashed against the base in the dark of night.

A fence, where loved ones and visitors leave colorful mementos, tokens of remembrance.

An indentation in the earth, where several dozen bodies lie, mercifully undisturbed by researchers. (Occasionally, some teeth or a bone surface from the earth and are collected by a tourist or passer-by, and respectfully placed with a collection of others.)

A towering monument, stacked from floor to ceiling with skulls

Nature provided a beautiful blanket to conceal the dark secrets of the Khumer Rouge.  

At the end of our walk through the otherwise peaceful farmland, we stopped by the small museum to the side of the site, where a short video and some story boards awaited.

And there, I stopped in my tracks, unprepared for what I was about to read.

The former chief of S-21 (Choeung Ek), Guek Eav took responsibility for his actions, specifically for the gruesome murder of babies under his watch. He even claimed his subordinates were not responsible, having no choice but to listen to him.

In February 2008, as part of the judicial process, Duch was taken to the scene of his crimes. He reportedly collapsed in tears after stating, “I ask for your forgiveness – I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might.”

Does his confession make everything better? By no means. But it was so refreshing to read words of sorrow, words of truth however unpleasant, words of real confession.


The legacy of Cambodia’s autogenocide continues.

Did you know, Pol Pot remained in power until his death in 1998, fighting the peace process, assassinating his friends, ultimately avoiding an international tribunal seeking to bring him to justice?

Did you know, as a result of America, Vietnam, and the Khumer Rouge, land mines continue to litter the country-side of Cambodia? In 2010, there were 286 land mine causalities in Cambodia alone. In year 2000, the number was 850. The drop in number is credited to an international ban on land mines as well as the heroic work of demining organizations.

(Another side-note: I met a Norwegian living in NZ who used to be on a demining crew. He said it would take weeks to locate and safely remove just one mine. Oh, and by safely remove, I mean it was a very dangerous process.)

Did you know, Cambodia has some 40,000 amputees as a result of land mines and the regime of the Khmer Rouge?

The suffering continues.

Like most Psalms, this post starts with agony and ends with hope.

Foursquare Children of Promise

It’s no secret, Cambodia is host to an abundance of NGOs, more than the average number. Not all are on the uppity up. Some orphanages encourage parents to “rent” their children for the day, parading unsuspecting tourists through and bilking them out of dough. Some orphanages blatantly ignore government laws aimed at preventing exploitation by regulating orphanage tours. Still others are simply offices set up to legitimize donations from oversees.

Bethany and I like to support social service agencies that make their dollar stretch, that are transparent about their practices, that make long term investments in people and are grace-based.

Over the years, we’ve supported local agencies who fit the description, Compassion Connect, My Father’s House, and Rahab’s Sisters are three we are especially fond of back in Portland.

Often, it’s difficult to decide what agencies to support overseas, especially if one hasn’t had the opportunity to visit in person, or doesn’t know someone working on the inside.

Enter our friend Jenny Robinson. I met Jenny when I was 12 years in home school choir practice (Tony, as a wannabe home schooler, you would have loved it). We and our families have been friends ever since. Jenny’s the kind of girl who played soccer with the guys, who moved to Mexico to work at an orphanage when she was 18, who was always up for a good-hearted prank. She’s the kind of girl who grew up in my community, who knows what it’s like both inside and outside home school culture, and like me, stouts a very high standard when it comes to which social service agencies she backs.

“There are few agencies out there I can fully get behind, that I would work for and support without reservation. When I was approached about working for Foursquare Children of Promise, it was on my short list of places.”

Why? Bethany and I had the chance to spend the week with Jenny, learning just exactly how FCOP spends their time, money, and resources. We’re excited to share what we learned.

Mixing paint with our eager “helpers”

Foursquare Children of Promise was begun in 1998 by Sou and Ted Olbrich with the backing of just two donors, The Foursquare Church and Children of Promise (hence the name). Now they are supported by thousands of donors from around the world. They operate over 100 orphan homes around the country, housing over 3000 orphans, separated children, and widows.

Having managed non-profit shelter and housing, I not only recognize a tremendous need for safe housing for the homeless, I understand the difference between a successful approach and money-making scam.

FCOP’s operations are effective. They are unashamedly Christian, and openly believe in the spiritual ministry aspect of their work. So if you’re not cool with giving to a Christian agency, that’s okay.

But if you are, consider this.

FCOP works through the empowerment of the local people. They employ over 680 Cambodian people to staff their orphan houses. All of their foreign staff, just a handful including Jenny, raise their own support.

FCOP limits the size of their houses and their staff to child ratio, ensuring their homes do no become institutions.

We spent a couple of days working with Jenny and her friends. We encountered the work of FCOP up close and personal. We looked into the eyes of the orphans, some of whom are developmentally disabled, some of whom were maimed by landmines, all of whom needed love and family.

And we saw joy.

We saw a family.

We saw basic human needs being met.

This Christmas, agencies from all over the world will be all but begging you for cash to support their vision. If you’re looking for a quality, international agency making a difference in the lives of Cambodian orphans and widows, consider sending a gift to FCOP.

Bethany, Krystal, Bob, and me at Foursquare Children of Promise, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

To give To FCOP this Christmas, visiting the donation page on their website by clicking here.

To bless Jenny this Christmas with a gift to support her work with FCOP, visit her blog here.

If you would like to support one of our favorite agencies back home, see the links below.

My Father’s House
Shelter for Homeless Families
Gresham, Oregon
To donate, click here 

Compassion Connect
Free medical and dental clinics for the community and housing support
Rockwood, Oregon
To donate click here 

Rahab’s Sisters
Portland, Oregon
Hospitality and support for those marginalized by the sex industry
To donate scroll down their home page

Butterflies at The Killing Fields…

It’s your turn. Do you know of an upstanding, well-vetted non-profit agency deserving of support this Christmas? Feel free to share about them below.

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  • Reply Carmel December 18, 2012 at 9:50 am

    “Real justice puts an end to wrong-doing, yet requests mercy for both parties.”

    How much do I wish people would understand this? Very powerful post.

    • Reply Ted December 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm

      Thank you Carmel

  • Reply Sid December 18, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Great post Ted. Very informative. I had heard about the land mines, and I remember seeing some newspaper articles on land mine deaths a few years ago. But the rest of the stuff I hadn’t heard much about till now.
    I also love your writing style and flow. The descriptions are vivid (although haunting) and the photos are a great add. Looking forward to more educational stuff like this.

    • Reply Ted December 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm

      Thank you Sid. It was heavy on my heart when I wrote it

  • Reply Paul December 18, 2012 at 10:10 am

    Thanks for the post, Ted. It reminds me of a visit that Emily and I took once to the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC. The physical connection brought by the train cars, the piles of shoes and books and clothing tells the story of the human horror so much more potently than words or even film.

    People can be demons.

    • Reply Ted December 19, 2012 at 3:02 pm

      Yes, I was there in 2005 as well. Very powerful museum. I’ll always remember it.

  • Reply Jill December 19, 2012 at 5:46 am

    Thank you for the post. My husband and I leave in January to volunteer for 3 months in Cambodia at the beginning of our RTW trip so I’ve been immersing myself the country’s history. It’s incredible how much happened through the late 90s…my heart breaks reading it so I can’t imagine what it will be like to be there.

  • Reply Ted December 19, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    So glad you’ll be volunteering! Best of luck. Despite it’s history, it’s a truly amazing country with wonderful people…

  • Reply Hogga December 20, 2012 at 5:42 am

    Great post…this is all so horrifying.

  • Reply Rhonda December 20, 2012 at 9:19 am

    OMG… I SOOOO appreciate this post, having just done a post on Pol Pot and the killing fields and genocide prison this week! I have rarely been so moved as during our time in Cambodia and I love how indepth your blog was. Thank you so much for continuing to let the world know how horrific it was and the continuing horror of the land mines.

  • Reply paul | December 21, 2012 at 7:37 am

    Great post. Beyond heartbreaking this period in Cambodian history. and I find it rather surprising yet completely understandable at the same time the attitude of the torture survivors, like Chum Mey, towards their torturers and of the many Cambodians who lost their family during the regime towards the regime. There was this recent documentary made by a Cambodian journalist who befriended and interviewed Pol Pot’s right-hand man Nuon Chea for three years not disclosing for the better part of their friendship that he lost most of his family during the Pol Pot regime. Film is called Enemies of the People. Very compelling watch.

    • Reply Ted December 22, 2012 at 5:30 pm

      Paul, I will be sure to look up that documentary when I get home next week

  • Reply Anthea Whitley December 22, 2012 at 1:54 am

    Thank you for a wonderfully written piece that is both educational and thought provoking. Having been raised in Australia, Cambodians were one of the first ‘boat people” aka Refugees in the 1980’s… but the journey they had to endure to even get that far, was rarely highlighted or spoken about in the Australia media or culture. So thank you for giving them a voice!

    • Reply Ted December 22, 2012 at 5:31 pm

      wow, I didn’t know Cambodians fled to Australia! Can’t imagine what that must have been like…

  • Reply Tawny of Captain and Clark December 22, 2012 at 11:11 am

    This was such a powerful and chilling post. I have goosebumps. I was cloaked in denial for far too long and I’m so grateful for the truth and information.

    • Reply Ted December 22, 2012 at 5:32 pm

      I agree. As you know, there is something about actually being in a place that cuts right to the chase…

  • Reply Mary Dettmann January 3, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    Ted, a truly moving piece of writing. I recently read “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner who lived through the killing time – she was a child. Have also read other books about Cambodia, Laos, Viet Nam and Kampuchea (sp?) about village life and being yanked out of their homes etc. etc. The point of these words is Thank You for your “Psalm for Cambodia” and for your support of Rahab’s Sisters. May the good Lord bless you and keep you safe as you travel and minister with your head, heart and hands.

  • Reply Kaho January 8, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    It looks like you had an amazing experience in Cambodia. I only saw Siem Reap, so I didn’t see the history of Pol Pot, but I’m not sure if I can handle it… What a great trip! Your blog is really well done! Can’t wait to see your Morocco trip.

  • Reply Thao Tran January 9, 2013 at 2:05 am

    I found a video of how Cambodia looked before the Khmer Rouge took over.; like night and day.

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