Cambodia War Museum - an encounter with a violent past and a resilient present

by Marietta Ruhland last modified 23 July 2015 11:35 AM
Cambodia War Museum - an encounter with a violent past and a resilient present

Thom, a landmine survivor and tourist guide introduces the Siam Reap war museum to the participants. Photo: Shayan Gill.

21 July 2015

The YATRA training (Youth in Asia Training for Religious Amity), organized each year by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in cooperation with the Cambodia-based Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS), is an opportunity for young Christians from different countries of Asia to learn about other religions of their contexts and become involved in the “pilgrimage of justice and peace” which the WCC Assembly had called for in 2013. This year, there were 25 young people gathered in Siam Reap, Cambodia, for two weeks of living and learning together.

The programme consists mainly of lectures, presentations, bible studies, videos, practical training sessions and exposure visits related to the annual theme, which in 2015 was “Religion and Violence”. A visit to the War Museum in Siam Reap was a great opportunity to encounter part of Cambodia’s violent past but also to witness the enormous resilience of Cambodians.

As the War Museum was in the neighborhood of our accommodation, we took a walk – 25 participants and three lecturers, walking as pilgrims do, for 20 minutes under the burning sun, on the dusty road. Talks, jokes, laughter accompanied us, we were walking as friends, and we had had 5 days of training already, 5 days for our friendships to grow.

The Cambodia War Museum is an outdoor museum; helicopters, tanks, artillery machinery, all is exposed among the lush green and looks dreadfully real, although the war has been over for more than 15 years. We had checked their website beforehand, and it struck me negatively that one of the photos invites people to take small weapons into their hands as if “playing war”. We had told our students to reflect on this – the temptation is real to hide and seek, to climb into a tank or a plane; some of the bombed vehicles still have human bones in them. There was a respectful silence among the group.

Thom was our guide, a former army fighter; in a landmine accident he lost an arm and gained wisdom. He is promoting peace-building now, because, as he says, “we cannot change the past, but we can make a better future”. One particular section of the museum is dedicated to bombs, cluster bombs and all sorts of landmines. Some are designed to spring up and cover the victim from above; others splutter their lethal material broadly. The plastic ones are particularly dangerous even nowadays, as they are much more difficult to detect in the ground, when huge efforts of landmine clearing are made. Photos show what happens when men, women, or even children step on a mine or play with it; mutilated survivors going on with life. How wicked a mind does it take to design these lethal weapons, to imagine a mechanism that causes as much injury as possible? I find it impossible to remain untouched by these pictures.

What struck all of us is the information that a land mine can apparently be bought easily on the black market, for about 3USD a piece. It will cost the international community about 1000USD to remove it safely from the ground. Many of the participants were surprised to learn that their countries have not yet signed or ratified the UN convention to ban landmines or cluster bombs. During our walk back we were discussing how many people are not knowingly contributing to the war business, by producing tiny parts of a bigger artefact. Or knowingly, but have no choice of changing jobs. But we decided we have a choice to contribute with even tiny acts to conflicts or to peace-making, for example by urging our governments to take action.

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The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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