Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Survival Recipe

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I went to Cambodia. I only knew that it was going to be difficult. My goal was to document what local activists were doing to protect street children from child sex tourists, indigenous tribes that were fighting to protect their dwindling rainforests, and women landmine survivors who were learning how to make a proud living through weaving, a tradition that was nearly erased during the dark days of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, the name of Cambodia’s totalitarian ruling Communist Party of Kampuchia. Oh, and by the way, it was my first time visiting a country where massive genocide took place. I wasn’t sure how I could deal with this emotionally and I felt uneasy.

The office I worked from was in the capitol of Pnom Penh. It belonged to an American nonprofit whose name I’d rather not say because I learned too much about its bureaucratic corruption and I’m not here to publicly point fingers. What is important is that I met a Cambodian activist there by the name of Hant Pipaal Anna. I call her Anna for short.

My first day in the office was very discouraging. I arrived there at 10am in the morning where I first met Anna. She was the office manager and spoke English fairly well, even though her Cambodian accent was thick. She was probably in her 50’s. Her face was weathered and serious. Her sleek black hair was tightly pulled back. She didn’t look delighted to see me at all, and I had no idea why.

Anna barked at me, “Why are you here?” I told her that I came to photograph and write about her organization’s work with communities around the country.

“No one told me about this,” she snapped back at me in a shrill voice, “I only thought you were visiting for one day. I can’t help you unless headquarters officially tells me that you’re here to work.” I hate conflict and here it was on my first day in a foreign land. My stomach started to ache from the tense energy in the room. I could understand why it upset her, it wasn’t my fault that she didn’t know.

I was pissed too, but it wasn’t because of Anna; it was the Executive Director who said to me, “Sure, sure. Everyone in the Cambodian office knows you’re coming. Everything is taken care of Liz.”
Anna called the executive director and he smoothed things over right away. Even though Anna was still a little cranky, she said I could return to the office the next day to do my work.

As I left the office, one of the employees took me aside and let me know that Anna was like this to all new employees. He suggested that I think of it as my initiation and to walk lightly. He also said that Cambodian society is very hierarchical, even in its office culture. It’s expected that Cambodian employees run every detail of their daily tasks by the office manager.

I worked in the office for several weeks and took my colleague’s advice seriously. I was hyper sensitive and respectful in all my interactions with Anna. It was intense. She liked things her way in the office and sometimes got a little furious if anything fell outside of her plan. One day my computer malfunctioned beyond what I could repair. Anna wasn’t there and I thought I could run out to a neighboring Internet cafĂ© for five minutes to check my email without her knowing. Upon my return, I learned I was wrong. She was standing in the office fuming over my absence, but regardless of her squawking, I could tell that she was at least tolerating my presence. She even started to smile when she greeted me in the morning.

As time went on, I had more positive interactions with Anna. We started to take our lunch breaks together and she started to tell me about her life during the horrific genocidal reign Khmer Rouge. Her stories showed me why she was so tough. She conditioned herself to be that way so she could survive.

I worked in the office for about two months. Before leaving, I asked Anna if it was ok to record her story of the Khmer Rouge and she agreed.

Anna was born in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province in 1947 and, at the age of four, her family moved to Phnom Penh where she studied French until the age of eighteen.

In 1960, Anna began working as a secretary for a French engineer who helped to bring electrical engineering to Cambodia. From 1970 to 1975, as Cambodia’s political environment began to deteriorate, she began volunteering for the International Women’s Association (can you explain a bit about this organization? What they do? When they were founded?). There, she coordinated food and medicine distribution and job placement for Cambodia’s internal refugees that were fleeing from the Khmer Rouge, and supported her family by working a morning job with Cambodia’s Society for Imports and Exports.

In 1975, her boss from the Society of Imports and Exports asked her to work in Thailand, but, never dreaming that Cambodia would fall to the Khmer Rouge, she chose to stay and help her country deal with the large amounts of refugees that were arriving in the capital each month.

Anna feared the Khmer Rouge because they all wore black. Thousands of people flocked to the streets when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge to watch them enter the city. At first, the mood was happy, but this soon changed when the Khmer Rouge told the crowds that the Americans were about to bomb the city and that everyone must flee to the countryside for three days. When Anna asked a soldier if she could take her boat up the Ton Le Sap River to escape. He told her “all things belonged to the Khmer Rouge now.”

“They took my boat, and I realized it was over”, she says. Only those who were lucky enough to survive would see the city again, but not for over three years. (This may get us off her story a bit, but it may be important to explain why the Khmer Rouge made the citizens leave the city. Was it really because the Americans were going to bomb?)

Anna and her family were forced to walk for one week to Kampot Chann province. When she arrived, the Khmer Rouge said that her brother had to leave in order to study the new communist regime. This was one of the lies that the Khmer Rouge told to those who would be killed, and Anna’s brother was executed a short time afterward.

Anna was then forced to walk to Kratie province where the Khmer Rouge interviewed people to see whether or not they would be killed. Of course, no one knew this at the time and the soldiers encouraged everyone to be honest when giving their biographies because they were going to be “starting fresh.” Anna remembers not many people were killed in the beginning of this period, but after two months had past, people would mysteriously disappear every night.

The Khmer Rouge interviewed Anna and asked her if she could cook. She was afraid to say yes. She knew cooking was a skill learned in upper-class society, and that she might be killed as a result, but she was honest with the interviewer. It turned out that Anna was given the job of cooking for about 400-500 people each day, for the entire time the Khmer Rouge remained in power. It was exhausting work, and she could only sleep for five to six hours per night. During this time, no one had heard any news of Phnom Penh or their families. As Anna says, “In the communist regime, if you are deaf and mute, you have long life. No one talked about anything”.

Anna was allowed to keep her son with her during this three-year period, but her husband was sent to work at a distant farm. He would visit her once a month but they couldn’t talk much. There were spies everywhere – especially the Khmer Rouge children who eavesdropped from underneath the Cambodian stilted houses. Anna and her husband chose to stop seeing each other. They feared that talking to each other would mean they would both be killed.

It was difficult for Anna to sleep. “If someone knocked at my door at night, then I knew that was it. So I started smoking every night because it would help me stay awake.” Under the Khmer Rouge, death could come at any minute for no particular reason. “We saw the sun and felt that we had this new life in the morning,” she says.

As Anna’s reputation as a great cook grew, so did her order requests from Khmer Rouge leaders. Some of the generals would get home from their meetings at 11 at night and send for Anna to prepare meals for them. Anna remembers that she started to lose her fear of hearing a knock at the door in the middle of the night.

In 1979, a yearlong border war based on ethnic tensions and communist power struggles between Vietnam and Cambodia toppled the Khmer Rouge when the Vietnamese seized control of Pnom Penh. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot himself requested that Anna be taken with the soldiers as they retreated to the jungles. Instead, she quickly fled to Phnom Penh in the hopes of finding her freedom and husband again.

She returned to Phnom Penh and was reunited with her husband just as the Vietnamese Army came to kill any Khmer Rouge remaining in the city. Most Khmer Rouge pretended to be ordinary citizens. Anna was enraged, but she didn’t point any of these people out to the Vietnamese soldiers. “I kept it all in here,” she says, pointing at her heart. Anna was afraid that she would eventually be killed by the Vietnamese since she worked for the Khmer Rouge, so she hid in one of the many abandoned houses in the city. The Vietnamese found her after four days and three nights. Because she spoke fluent Vietnamese, she convinced them that she had nothing to do with the Khmer Rouge. Shortly after, she worked for the interim Vietnamese puppet government for six months, and began an import business from Saigon until 1990.

Anna survived the Cambodian genocide, one of the most deathly and grim events in history, and while she sees problems in Cambodia that will take years to solve, her resolve is an illustration of what is needed in order to rebuild a country after so many years of destruction and pain.

On the last day before leaving Cambodia, Anna cooked a beautiful lunch for me. It’s hard to describe, but it was some kind of combination of French and Asian cuisine that worked out perfectly on my tongue. She made a mango salad with greens and a crumbled moldy cheese that had just the right chili pepper kick to it. There were green beans in a rich pepper sauce, and some kind of eggplant concoction that could have passed for ratatouille if it had not been spiked with curry. It was served with French bread, which is actually easy to find in Cambodia, because of the influence of its French colonial past.

When I first met Anna, I never thought she would cook such a fine meal for me. It seemed more likely that she would have intentionally served me sour milk. Not only was it a meaningful act of kindness, but Anna used her cooking skills that once saved her life to show me that she cared.

I saw our peculiar and unexpected friendship in that food, and it absolutely nourished my soul. It reminded me of those moments where you don’t necessarily want to taste the individual ingredients before the cooking has transmuted into the final dish. A raw chunk of garlic or uncooked eggplant isn’t pleasing to the tongue. When you have a beautiful meal on your plate that looks nothing like what the ingredients were before, it’s a pleasant and very digestible surprise.

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