June 7, 2014
By: Tess Davis
The old woman had lived through many chapters of Cambodian history: the French colonial period, independence, civil war, genocide, the Vietnamese occupation, and finally, peace. She lived happily now, surrounded by children and grandchildren in a wooden house in a rural village five miles from the ruins of Angkor Wat, the vast temple complex built by her ancestors in the 12th century. That’s where my colleagues and I found her, after we left behind the throngs of tourists at the temples and followed
a string of cows home from the rice paddies to her little community. Accustomed to the sight of stray foreigners, she welcomed us without surprise, her head bowed slightly and hands pressed together in the traditional greeting. Then, with the hospitality so often bestowed upon strangers in the coun- tryside, she invited us into her home, insisting that I (the only woman in our trio) take her hammock.
We were three lawyers and researchers, working with the University of Glasgow, hoping to learn from village elders about the great temples and the fate of their magnificent statues.
Ah, yes, she said, the ruins. She knew them well. As a girl, she played there. As an adult, she and her husband worked there with French archaeologists, he caring for the stones and she planting gardens around them. When the civil war came, in 1970, she hid there with her family, hoping the sacred walls would protect them from artillery fire and rampaging armies. They did not. The region fell first, then the entire country was taken by the communist Khmer Rouge. Those who were not immediately purged were moved into the labor camps now known as the Killing Fields. One in four Cambodians died there.