No hiding from horror

My eyes see it and my mind and heart chokes. How many more dead, injured, crippled, orphaned, traumatized and scared children are we going to see in our news? A report after a report, a story after a story. I know this is not new or isolated tragedy and many atrocities are happening in other parts of the world. But Syria alone is enough to shock and shake the global community. What happened to our “Never Again”?

I am just going to vent my frustration, anger, grief and sense of helplessness here. I don’t have any brilliant advice for the United Nations or European Union or USA or Middle Eastern leaders. (I do have a few things to say to Vladimir Putin of Russia but he is not asking for my opinion.) I am no expert on diplomatic, political, military or even humanitarian solutions. I have lots of experience from working as a volunteer in places around the world, including helping people from war zones  but at the moment I feel so distant and powerless. Still I feel deep inside that the little children in Syria would ask me the same question they would ask any adult: “Why is this happening to me? Did you know that this was happening to me? Did you try to help me? Did you try to stop this?”

Chemical attack??? Growing up in Latvia and learning our history, the only time people in Latvia experienced this kind of terror was during WWI when the German army used poisonous gases in the trenches. We are still shocked and horrified and it took place in 2016. That was 100 years ago! Think about it… 100 years!!! And I thought that humanity had learned something.

Yes, of course, the chemical attacks is not the only form of violence that shocks us to core. So is beheading people and torturing them and burning them alive or any other form of attack on human life and dignity. Tragically we have become so desensitized that we accept much of it as normal or inevitable.

I know many people who are doing their best to help children affected by war and suffering. I support these kinds of projects and initiatives as much as possible because there is always something practical we can do. If we want to be the hands and the feet that deliver the aid, there are always possibilities and ways to do it.

Also I don’t underestimate the power of our prayers. I almost hesitated to mention prayer because it can stir strong emotions. “Don’t even mention God. If there is a just and good God, why is he allowing this?” For others, they believe that God cares but they don’t believe that our interceding matters.

I believe that it does matter but I also believe that we need to be ready to be the answer to our own prayers. If we pray for the children to be protected and healed and restored, we can support those who are on the ground in Syria giving this kind of help. Or those who are helping Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. Or helping the Syrian refugees in our own countries.

If we pray for our governments and leaders to do something about it and for people who can make the difference to have the political will, wisdom and courage to make decisions and implement them, then we need to be ready to support those decisions. Or to keep the pressure where the will, strategy and vision is lacking. Which embassy or government building we need to protest in front of?

The headlines say “The Syrian war is the deadliest conflict the 21st century has witnessed so far.” You have to agree that not just this century but this millennium has not started very well. But these children don’t need to hear about historical mistakes, geopolitics, ideologies, ambitions and the rest of our junk. They need real love and justice in action.

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(photos from internet)

 

Why is Angelina Jolie causing a traffic jam in Battambang?

It turns out I have a few things in common with Angelina Jolie. She is in Cambodia and I am, too. She was in Battambang and I was there, too. She was shopping at the Night Market in Siem Reap and I was, too. She is researching the Khmer Rouge regime and the genocide of 1975-79 and I am, too.

I guess that is where our commonalities end. She is spending much more money and actually making an important movie about the history of Khmer Rouge, based on the autobiography “First They Killed My Father”, written by a survivor Loung Ung. Angelina Jolie has been interested in Cambodia for years and one of her sons was adopted from here. So, obviously with such a high-profile global celebrity in town, the people of Battambang have noticed the presence of film crews and other entourage.

I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. It is a sobering place. The Khmer Rouge (or Red Khmer) were a very radical Communist group with a utopian idea of restructuring the whole society. To create a class-less society,  they turned against education, religion, private ownership and any kind of freedom. Here are some of their slogans: “If you wish to get a Baccalaureate, you have to get it at dams or canals” or “Study is not important. What’s important is work and revolution.” (Mind you, many of the leaders were highly educated and had studied in Paris. Including Pol Pot himself.) The cities were emptied and the whole country was turned into a big labor camp with starving and suffering people. Almost 2 million died.

The Tuol Sleng or Security Prison 21 (S-21) had been one of the best high schools in the city before it became a place of torture. This was a special prison for mostly Khmer Rouge cadres and their families and many other random people. Approx 17, 000 people were held, tortured and killed in this place. The torture was meant to extract ‘confessions’ of what kind of traitor are you and who are you spying for – Americans (CIA) or Russians (KGB)? Men, women, teenagers and children, even babies… all were killed.

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The Khmer Rouge had photographed every victim at the time of arrest and many after their executions. Now there are thousands of photos of faces… smiling, sad, angry, confused, beaten, hopeful, hopeless and scared. I look at these faces and I think, it could have been me since I was born in the 70s. These could have been my parents, my grandparents, my brothers. I was fortunate to be born in Latvia and they were unfortunate to be born here.

I met on the survivors of this horrible place. His name is Bou Meng and he is 72 now. What saved him? His skill of painting and ability to draw portraits of the Khmer Rouge leaders. His wife and two young children perished. Bou Meng has written his testimony and advocates for justice and truthful remembering of Cambodia’s past.

One researcher said, “Wartime brutality, Marxist fanaticism, obsessive and threatened nationalism – these seemed to be three of the principal elements that had contributed to this totalitarianism. … I was disturbed not by the banality of evil but the intellectual pretensions behind it.” Words to reflect upon since these kind of ‘intellectual pretensions’ still exist. How to vaccinate yourself against it?

And no, I did not meet Angelina Jolie… but I will be waiting to see her new movie.

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Meeting Bou Meng, one of the survivors of S-21

Latviski:

Izrādās, ka man un Andželīnai Džolijai ir šis tas kopīgs. Viņa ir Kambodžā, un es arī. Viņa bija Batambangā, un es arī. Viņa iepirkās Siemrīpas nakts tirdziņā, un es arī. Viņa pēta Kambodžas vēsturi, konkrēti Sarkano hmeru (Khmer Rouge) režīmu un genocīdu no 1975. līdz 1979. gadam.

Te laikam kopīgais beidzas. Viņai ir daudz vairāk naudas, ko tērēt, un šobrīd viņa uzņem spēlfilmu par Sarkano hmeru teroru. Stāsts būs autobiogrāfisks, balstīts uz grāmatu “Vispirms Viņi Nogalināja Manu Tēvu” un Lungas Angas atmiņām. Andželīna jau daudzus gadus interesējas par Kambodžu, palīdz dažādos humanitāros projektos, un viens no viņas dēliem ir adoptēts no šejienes. Tāpēc saprotams, ka tādas pasaules mēroga slavenības un filmēšanas grupas uzturēšanās mierīgajā Batambangas pilsētā rada lielu burzmu un sastrēgumus.

Kambodžas galvaspilsētā Pnompeņā es apmeklēju Tuol Sleng Genocīda muzeju (S-21). Ļoti traģiska vieta. Sarkanie hmeri bija radikāla un fanātiska komunistu organizācija ar utopisku ideju par visas sabiedrības pārkārtošanu un ideālas zemnieku valsts izveidošanu. Tika likvidētas, skolas, rūpnīcas, nauda, privātīpašums un aizliegta jebkāda reliģija. Viena no šī režīma devīzēm bija “Ja vēlies iegūt bakalaura diplomu, dari to, būvējot dambjus un kanālus.” Vai arī “Izglītība nav svarīga. Svarīgs ir darbs un revolūcija.” (Tas nekas, ka paši ‘revolūcijas’ vadītāji bija guvuši augstāko izglītību, piemēram, Francijā. Arī pats Pols Pots bija studējis Parīzē.) Pilsētas tika iztukšotas, un visa valsts pārvērsta par vienu lielu darba nometni ar izsalkušiem un nomocītiem cilvēkiem. Aptuveni 2 miljoni bojāgājušo četru gadu laikā.

Paaugstinātas Drošības cietums Nr.21 (S-21) tika izvietots vienā no galvaspilsētas labākajām vidusskolām. Bijušās klases kļuva par cietuma kamerām. Pārsvarā te turēja, spīdzināja un nogalināja ‘savējos’ – Sarkanos hmerus, kuri tika apsūdzēti nodevībā. Arī viņu sievas un bēŗni, pat mazuļi, un ģimenes locekļi tika nogalināti. Apmēram 17,000 upuru. Spīdzināšanas mērķis bija noskaidrots, kā labā tu spiego – vai amerikāņu (tātad CIP agents), vai krievu (tātad VDK)?

Sarkanie hmeri fotografēja visus apcietinātos aresta laikā, un daudzus arī pēc nāves. Tagad piemiņai un liecībai ir tūkstošiem fotogrāfiju. Sejas, kas raugās uz mums… ar skumjām, ar smaidu, ar dusmām, apjukumu, cerību un reizē bezcerību un lielām bailēm. Skatos šajās sejās un domāju, kā tā varēju būt es, jo esmu tās desmitgades bērns. Tie varēja būt mani vecāki, vecvecāki, brāļi. Man bija tā laime piedzimt Latvijā, un viņiem bija tā nelaime piedzimt šeit.

Muzejā satiku vienu no nedaudzajiem, kas izdzīvoja. Šo vīrieti sauc Bou Mengs, un viņam tagad ir 72 gadi. Kas viņu izglāba? Spēja zīmēt un gleznot Sarkano hmeru vadītāju portretus. Viņa sieva un divi mazi bērni gan tika pazudināti. Bou Mengs ir pierakstījis savu liecību un atmiņas, un aktīvi piedalās taisnīguma un dziļas pagātnes pētīšanas procesā. Viņš bija liecinieks tiesas prāvā pret vienu no bijušajiem Sarkano hmeru vadītājiem, kas notika visai nesen. Šie tiesu procesi sākās tikai pēc 30 gadiem. (Taisnīguma meklēšana Kambodžā ir garš un sarežģīts stāsts.)

Viens no Kambodžas pētniekiem nonāca pie šāda secinājuma. “Kara laika brutalitāte, Marksistu fanātisms, milzīgs un it kā apdraudēts nacionālisms – tie bija trīs no galvenajiem elementiem, kas noveda līdz šādam totalitāram režīmam. … Mani satriec nevis ļaunuma banalitāte, bet gan tā ‘intelektuālās pretenzijas.” Svarīgi pārdomāt šos vārdus, jo līdzīgas pēc dabas ‘intelektuālas pretenzijas’ jeb pamatojumi pastāv vēl šodien. Kā iegūt imunitāti pret šādām idejām?

Un, nē, es nesatiku Andželīnu Džoliju, bet es gaidīšu viņas jaunāko filmu.