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Context

Today we spent time at S21–a one-time high school turned Khmer Rouge detention center (think WW2 concentration camp)–and Choeung Ek Genocide Center, aka “The Killing Fields.” 

These indentations are excavated mass graves. Over 20,000 people were killed at this site.

I had already heard about the Khmer genocide under Pol Pot, and had just finished Tears of My Soul, a survivor’s account of the genocide, but even then my understanding was academic and without emotional context. Our experience today changed that. 

When the communist Khmer regime came to power, they wanted to begin a new self-sustaining Cambodia, resetting the country to Year 0. The party recruited poor rural people, young men, mostly, to fuel it’s rise to power. These groups of people were the first to be “liberated” by the Khmer as they moved from the jungles to the cities. The Khmer Party, or Angkar, regarded intellectuals as suspicious, more likely to resist the revolution and support the old regime. Indeed, those who wore glasses, had soft hands, and lived in the cities were among the most heavily targeted for detention and execution. These groups were liberated last, we’re labeled “New Liberated” people, and were often ridiculed by the “Old Liberated.”

Detention building at S21, a one-time high school.

Under the Khmer Rouge, all social structures were torn apart in an effort to eliminate class destinction: banks destroyed (finance/economics), temples and Buddha statues smashed (religion), schools closed or turned into prisons and warehouses (education), cinemas shuttered and movie stars killed (entertainment and the arts), and families separated. 

At the killing fields, there was a tree labeled simply, “Killing Tree” with a shallow pit a few feet away. Here, soldiers (Cadres) snatched babies from their mothers and killed them by swinging them by their ankles against the tree and then tossing them into the pit. Babies and young children were often targeted so that they did not come back to seek revenge.

There is a monument on site dedicated to the victims. There are several tiers in the monument, many of which hold these skulls excavated from the graves.

Here’s how I started to process all of this: I teared up thinking of my own children. But I also thought about my family growing up. The Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and ruled for 3+ years before falling apart and being overthrown by Vietnam. At this time, my dad, halfway around the world, was finishing his PhD. My mom had a bachelor’s degree. They were teachers. They both worked extremely hard, but I’d bet their hands were relatively soft. My siblings were born at this time. My parents were active in their local church. The reality is that had God seen fit to put us in Cambodia instead of the US, we’d be exactly the kind of people targeted for execution. My sister or brothers could have been smashed against that tree. 
My parents just celebrated 50 years of marriage, and the turnout for the celebration is a testament to their legacy. My siblings have beautiful families, have crafted meaningful, impactful lives. I can’t imagine a world without them. 3 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge; countless children. The thought of so much promise snuffed out before being fulfilled is heartbreaking. What impact could those children have had on the world?

I want to be careful not to appropriate someone else’s story or colonize someone else’s grief, but putting the genocide and what I saw today in the above context helps me realize just how senseless and tragic this was, and is a good reminder of how broken our world is. It’s a good reminder that I must respond to God’s great love for me and Jesus’s great sacrifice by bringing light into darkness and by doing what I can to usher in His kingdom here in earth. 


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Wondering the Wilderness

I’m sitting on the bed in my hotel room without electricity. This seems to be a daily occurrence (and nightly, for that matter—the electricity was out for about 4 hours last night) at our current location, and while it makes for a hot room, I’m extremely thankful that the temps are in the upper-80s and low-90s here rather than the triple digits of Yangon.

After our work with the children yesterday, today has been a good day for touristy things. After a hotel breakfast, we headed to the market. Our mode of transportation is a modified three-wheeler (there’s a seated bed on the back) driven by Paul, the house father here. (It fits most of us, but Ryan gets the privilege of riding on the back of a motorbike driven by Steven, the pastor of the Free Methodist church here). Paul is a gentle soul who speaks little English, but at the market, we found a DVD (rather than CD) of his and others Christian worship music. Apparently Paul and other Akha (his tribal group) recorded this music. Seth purchased the only copy, but I hope to hear it sometime.

At the market, we found beautiful things MUCH more inexpensive than in Bangkok. We all found things we were excited to buy, and Ryan found some Burmese coffee that Pakep had introduced him to. As we souvenir shopped, Pakep, Steven, and Steven’s wife purchased food for our lunch. They bought ears of corn and a lot of fruit. Aside from the plum-like fruit, which we didn’t quite take to, our team devoured the rest of the fruit. Lychee (think grape meets cherry, but even that isn’t quite right) has become a particular favorite; Paul probably ate 3 dozen lychee.


We took our food to a local (I say local, but we buzzed a ways through foothills on our three-wheeled taxi) hot spring where the water is boiling. Sitting in the hot spring pool was a bucket of rice cooking, and we ordered some eggs that they put in a basket and lowered into the pool to boil. We ate hard-boiled eggs, corn, fruit, and a noodle dish topped with a fried egg.The Shan State, where we are now, is known for its noodles, and this noodle dish is my favorite dish so far.

Now we’re back at the hotel resting before our next adventure.

***

I’m currently reading from Exodus, and Moses is leading the people through the wilderness. The Israelites grumble about the lack of food and water, and God provides.

While there are times when Thailand and Myanmar may have felt like a wilderness, like a strange land, I’m extremely grateful that there’s been very little grumbling from my team. (They haven’t publicly questioned why I brought them here, yet!) Still, I’m even more thankful that God has not waited for us to grumble before providing. We have eaten heartily here (even if it’s mostly rice for some **cough** Hannah **cough**), and I think we’ve all enjoyed being exposed to new cultures’ food. (And we’re all excited to get back to Thailand to each banana-filled fried pancakes. Way better than manna, I bet.)


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Church, Pa Kep, and the Great Pagoda – Rune

After we got to Yangon and spent our first day in the Golden View Hotel, we ate breakfast at the restaurant/breakfast room (it’s a little building next to the hotel in the enclosed compound.) After we were done, we traveled with Pa Kep to his house/ministry center, and we had church with him and all the kids. All I can say is wow. The people there worshipped with all their hearts and sang beautifully. They truly love the Lord. I got a little bit emotional when they were singing during some points of the service. I love to hear other people worship and praise God in their own languages. All of the people we have met so far are extremely nice, they want to make sure you are absolutely comfortable, bring you water and fans to stay cool, and give us a lot of food. They are amazing and extremely hospitable. 

After the service, we ate lunch with Pa Kep. A traditional Burmese man came into the house with his wife, who is a buddhist. He has become a Christian, but is wife is a buddhist. Our team prayed with him. He also had his two young sons with him, one of them gave me a kiss on the cheek, and I got to hold the other one which is a baby. Pa Kep also gave us a traditional Myanmar “longgyi” to wear. 

Later in the day, Pa Kep took us to see the “Shwedagon Pagoda.” It is the largest Pagoda in the entire world. A Pagoda is similar to a temple, with the Shwedagon being for monks and Buddhism. It was incredible, and the whole team was truly blessed to be able to visit it and witness its magnificence. After we were done and walking back, Tim mentioned that even though it was an amazing place, it was also very sad that so many people for thousands of years had been worshipping false Gods, and had put so much effort into building something of no value to glorify the true God. I totally agreed. 

Overall, this was one of the best days of our trip so far for me, and I think everyone from the team had a really good time. After visiting the Pagoda, Pa Kep and Seth took us to the “Golden Duck Restaurant.” Wow. Talk about some good food. We fly to Shan State tomorrow. Please pray for safe travel for the rest of the trip, and also for all the kids in Seth’s ministry.

God bless,

Rune


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Delivering from Bondage

On Thursday, we drove south from Bangkok to Pattaya City. Pattaya was a small village on the Gulf of Thailand until the 1960s and 70s, when the US military invested in the village as a source of R&R for Navy seamen, attracted to the beachfront and the short drive from Bangkok. The “success” of this investment brought great wealth into the city and it now receives nearly 10 million visitors a year. Sadly but unsurprisingly, this investment also encouraged a demand for things to satisfy the vices of idle military men, and Pattaya has become world famous for its red light district, most notably Walking Street. Poor young girls from remote villages are offered work in Bangkok in a restaurant or laundry, and their parents send them, eager for the promise of financial support. This dream is quickly shattered, though, when these girls are instead enslaved in labor of the most horrible kind, and they are paraded around like wares at a market, men shoving laminated cards in tourists faces offering their choice of young girls.

The irony between the beauty of God’s creation—the setting sun on the ocean, the optimism of the coconut trees—is held in stark contrast to the darkness of what has driven this city’s popularity. The nightly festivities are dripping with filth and despair and oppression, particularly for our team who knew more about what goes on deep behind the closed doors of the go-go bars.

Seth and I felt it was important for our team to see this, since tomorrow we begin our service in earnest, visiting our first safe house in Yangon, Myanmar. It’s good for us to be aware of why these ministries are so important. This morning I read from Exodus, about Moses’s work with Pharaoh to free the enslaved Israelites, whose lives were full of despair and hardship and must have seemed hopeless. Just like Jesus would later come and pay the ultimate price so that we would no longer be held in bondage. Our trip down Walking Street was a great reminder that God has called these ministries (and us!) to work to free these girls who are trapped in slavery and must feel helpless and hopeless. To be light in the darkness and move people from bondage to freedom.

***

Today we drove back to Bangkok. We checked into our hotel and then headed to one of Bangkok’s red light districts, which was fortunately quite calm at 2:00 in the afternoon. We were able to see a ministry that Seth worked with in the past called Rahab Ministry. This ministry, located right in the heart of this darkness, works to get “bar girls” off of the street, to train them in skills that can provide income and a way out of this miserable way of life. Rahab Ministry has a store front that features crafts the girls have made, and proceeds from the sales of these crafts helps support the ministry. The team had a great time looking at the beautiful merchandise, although the highlight for them, I suspect, was the presence of one of the staff member’s young child. Watching the team interact with the little boy makes me excited to see them in action tomorrow in Yangon.

 

This evening we had a chance to ride Bangkok’s rail train. I always think navigating public transportation in a foreign city is an important, meaningful exercise, so I was glad we were able to do it. The fact that we took the train to find a Korean BBQ place didn’t hurt, either.

***

We will fly out of Bangkok early tomorrow and then head to the safe house in the afternoon. Pray for our team, as we’re all very tired. We’ve done a lot of walking, and it’s hot, and we’re still fighting the last remnants of jetlag. We’re verging on sensory overload. There are a lot of new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. In our day-to-day lives, our brains do so much subconscious work in filtering our world, but this isn’t as easy in new settings. So we’re physically and mentally tired. We’re also processing the reality of Pattaya and Rahab Ministry, so we’re emotionally and psychologically tired, too. Tomorrow brings new challenges (it’s our firt run at our VBS program), and we no doubt need your prayers.