Dust From A Distant Sun: Community Spirit And An Explosive Past

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on December 20 2010

Boengsangke Village was abandoned until 1998 when 55 year old Voonthouk, the self described village ‘pioneer’, recreated a forward-thinking version of the village he had grown up in.

Accessible down a very rough road, the village is home to people implicated in all sides of Cambodia’s long and complicated conflict. With his one remaining eye full of pride, Voonthouk, a former government soldier, told us how he had gone in search of landless people dispersed around the countryside after the conflict, and taken them back to Boengsangke.

The village set-up is admired by surrounding villagers, who often ask for advice. Community Empowerment Facilitators from the organisation Life With Dignity (LWD) advise and inspire people into organising and helping fund projects such as the community pond. One third of the costs for the pond were raised by the villagers, and the water benefits more than 100 families.

The community spirit is represented by the large pagoda at the heart of the village, a simple open barn that is beautifully decorated with a sea of stunning homemade bunting and decorations. The villagers worship here, but also meet to make plans for the village, tackle any crises and relax. There are charts, maps and pictures on the wall; outside there are colourful flowers and a peaceful stream.

In many ways Boengsangke is a model village: decisions are made as a group through various committees, including a Women’s Committee and Youth Committee which raises awareness about HIV and marriage rights. The villagers told us that due to regular discussions, the levels of domestic violence, a problem prevalent in Cambodia, are now much lower than in other villages.

We were confronted with the hardships that face much of Cambodia’s, mainly agriculturally reliant population when we visited the household of an industrious widow, a lady admired throughout the village for her hard work and determination. It was clear that this was no easy existence: While she owned the land her small house was built on, she did not own any farmland which, in rural Cambodia, means that a family is unlikely to have a sustainable livelihood.

The widow was brought to tears when she talked about her fears for her children’s future as she gets older and is less able to do so much manual labour. Like many Cambodians, her son has migrated to Thailand to work as a construction worker, while her oldest two daughters help her out in the home. Her youngest daughter was lucky enough to be in school, but it was clear this woman had to do a lot to make this happen. It is currently harvest time and she works as a farm worker all day and through much of the evening. She supplements her income by collecting bamboo to sell from the forest, an activity that is incredibly dangerous in an area littered with land mines.

There are three to five million land mines still undiscovered in Cambodia. We met Sysarang, a 39 year old pig farmer who volunteers as a point of contact for the Cambodian Mine Action Centre. When people find mines in the area, Syssrang leads a specialised team to their location. Boengsangke is surrounded by beautiful open space, but the villagers can’t wonder freely without risk of a land mine exploding.

There is a lot we could learn from the village of Boengsangke in Britain: like the importance of community space, and how important it is to tackle issues of stigma and empowerment to make changes in our own communities.

Poverty, lack of education and access to healthcare mean that many villagers face an uncertain future, while land-mines trap the community in a constant state of fear. I was left with the realisation that any way of life is rarely perfect, but we always have something to learn from each other.

Photos thanks to Hannah Henderson

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Dust From A Distant Sun: Looking Ahead

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on November 29 2010

Cambodia is a beautiful country with a rich culture and history blighted by genocide and violence. An incredible 80% of the population is under 30 years old, as many lost parents, grandparents and older siblings when an estimated 1.7 million died under the violent rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.

20 volunteers will be travelling to Cambodia for two weeks to do on-the-ground reporting for Ctrl.Alt.Shift; visiting various local development organisations, finding out about the work they do and the issues they face. The organisations we will be visiting work in a variety of areas, including HIV/AIDS, women and children’s rights, community organising and violence against women.

We will be visiting the capital Phnom Penh and travelling to Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampot Cham and the awe inspiring temple Angkor Wat, which has been described as the 9th wonder of the world.

Cambodia descended into violent chaos during the Vietnam War after bombing by the US and a military coup which overthrew the monarch King Norodom Sihanouk. The radical Communist group the Khmer Rouge eventually gained control of the country, led by the notorious Pol Pott. During this time the name of the country was changed to Democratic Kampuchea.

The middle classes, people not of pure Khmer ethnicity, the educated, the disabled, workers for the government and city dwellers were particularly persecuted by the regime, and essentially an entire class was wiped out by this extreme brand of militant communism. Money was abolished and people were forced to live in villages and work in agriculture. Much of the population died of starvation and exhaustion.

Although this tragic history has inevitably had a great effect on the current situation in Cambodia and has shaped the present circumstance of its people, there are still a lot of inspirational stories to be told.

Throughout our trip we will be writing a blog where you can find out more about the kinds of issues we’ll encounter, the people we’ll meet and the things we’ll learn along the way.