This is rough, I know! I am beginning to play with how I am going to tie in my story with history. I know this will need a lot of work … but I’m curious if any of you think I’m headed in the right direction.
One beautiful morning, the American teachers found their way from the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, down to small docks where sampans were waiting to take us along part of the Mekong River.
The Mekong River is probably one of the most known geological aspects of the four countries we visited due to both its length and importance. The Mekong River touches China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam; and trade routes, much-need irrigation, and (of course) curious tourists flow along down her waters.
The sampans were simple and flat, dipping very close to the water. I sat near the edge and dipped my hand in from time to time, feeling the cool strength of the mighty river against my sun-warmed skin.
As our tour guides paddled the sampans quietly down the current, I was amazed at the activity buzzing along the banks. Wooden shelters dotted all along the open grass with women hanging laundry in the fresh air or weaving as they sat in the shade, all while keeping a watchful eye on the children running along the banks and hopping onto the bathing river oxen.
Occasionally, one of the adults would pause their work to wave at us and we would gleefully wave back. I felt a little foolish watching their everyday lives with relish, but the gentle people seemed used to it.
We could not, however, pass a single child without receiving exaggerated waves, a few calls of “hello!”, and smiles of pure joy. Some jumped in the water to draw attention to themselves, some stood up on their river oxen and called with childish abandonment, and others giggled and skipped along with us for a stretch.
As I watched the simple joy and heard the childish laughter, a feeling settled deeply into my soul. The warmth of the sun mixed with the trickles from the children’s splashes as I drank the feeling in. Here, for this moment in time, caught forever in my heart, was peace.
In April of 1975 the civil war in Cambodia reached a devastating end. The Boeing B-52s the Americans had sent to devastate the communists in southern Vietnam flung shrapnel, terror, and bombs across the Mekong River into Cambodia.
The Cambodian people wished to go back to their quiet way of living. They were tired of bombs unexpectedly exploding in the markets; tired of the unfulfilled promises of aid; tired of not understanding whom the enemy was or why they had become so hostile.
In April of 1975, mere weeks before the world would focus on the end of the Vietnam War and turn their eyes away from what was happening at the seams of the Mekong River, the thousands who called Phnom Penh their home and the thousands more who had sought refuge as they ran from the devastation behind them into the arms of the last city standing would be forced to celebrate the end of their own war.
The city was surrounded by the sounds of the final effort to ward off this enemy. Reverberations of bombs could be felt, gun shots echoed far closer, and fire raged ever nearer. The destruction was not the punishment Cambodia received from its river’s-width closeness to Vietnam any more. This rage came from their own countrymen. This unknown enemy who proved willing to desolate the very ground their ancestors toiled upon.
On April 1975, the city of Phnom Penh fell to the hands of Khmer Rouge. As the bombing relaxed and the gunshots became far more infrequent, the Cambodian people crept into the streets at the sound of the triumphant announcements and the orders for the people to come welcome their new leaders.
As the smoke cleared, there came from the darkness figures dressed in all black with checkered scarves around their heads. Though these figures trained their mouths into smiles meant to assure their captives, nothing could mask the violence burning in their eyes.
The confusion most Cambodians felt over this parade of people dressed in all black promising equality with words sharp as knives; the exhaustion most Cambodians felt over the civil war that had dragged on; the uncertainty these citizens felt over what this new ruler wanted: all of this crashed into a devastating realization. In an among the people dressed in long black pants and shirts, waving as if in a festive parade, these people promising they had brought with them a new era, marching along with savage smiles, there stepped from the clearing smoke children, not waving balloons to match the celebration — but AK-47s.