Cambodia, April 17-May 2, 2009
We just returned from our latest medical/dental mission trip, our second trip to Cambodia within two years. We went with an all Colorado Methodist group on a church planting mission to the northeastern part of Cambodia. This was the area where the US bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail extensively from 1969 until the end of the Vietnam War. There are still quite a few water-filled bomb craters that the water buffalo now find a handy cooling off place in the heat of the day. We stayed in the Mekong River town, Kratie and worked in four villages over nine days about an hour’s drive from there.
Rev. Joseph Chan was our missionary host. Joseph is an American Bible School-trained Methodist pastor who was an ardent Communist early in life but later converted to Christianity while in a refugee camp in Thailand. He survived the horrors of the Pol Pot era, the uncertainty of refugee life, and eventually made his way to the US where he became a pastor. It was his dream to return to Cambodia to evangelize and to build churches and Christian education facilities. After clinic the first day, we participated in the ground-breaking ceremony for the first stage of his ambitious project. During a weekend break, we spent time visiting hill tribes near Ratanakiri, a border area very near Vietnam and Laos. We saw basket and textile weavers at work. The entire process from growing the cotton to spinning and dying the thread and weaving is done right there by tribal members. We also rode elephants along a jungle trail and hiked to nearby waterfalls and lakes.
Another highlight was the chance to work with two Cambodian dentists, Drs. Nee and Kim, and hear their amazing story of survival. Kim finds it too painful to talk about his experiences but Nee was open to sharing everything with us. Kim and Nee were born in different villages. While they were children, the country experienced a civil war between Khmer Rouge and government forces, but was also infiltrated by Vietnamese forces using the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Nee’s village came under attack several times and he wasn’t always certain who was attacking. This was also during Nixon’s “Secret War” in Cambodia, so B-52 attacks added to the mix. US bombers made carpet bombing raids that tore up the countryside with building-sized holes one quarter-mile long. Nee recalls seeing flairs set off by recon planes, knowing an attack was to come, and it was time to flee to the cover of the rice paddies surrounding his village. Helicopter air strikes fired bullets under the stilts the huts were standing on. Nee’s family owned some cattle. Once he recalls tending cattle in a field when a helicopter swooped down, swept them up as fish in a net, and took them away to wherever the attacking force wanted them. Eventually the boys’ families were forced to flee their homes. Each became separated from his family. Nee much later learned that, in all, 32 members of his extended family died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Nee and Kim mostly hid in the underbrush during the daytime and would travel by night. It was necessary to keep out of site as much as possible. They would walk trying to keep in sight of the road, but never walking directly on the road. All along the way it was necessary to scavenge for food. They ate whatever they could find: snakes, rats, dog. People were dying of hunger all around. Somehow the boys found their way to a UN-run refugee camp near the Thai border. This was when they were about 13 years old. The refugee camps started out as large tent cities, but over time the refugees built more traditional homes out of bamboo and straw. The camps housed 10,000 people or more. They lived in the refugee camp for 12 years. Their camp had UN-administered schools where the boys completed their schooling. Kim and Nee even completed seven years of dental studies while refugees. During their time in the camp, they were introduced to Christianity and became converts. Kim and Nee returned to Cambodia at last in 1992. Both have private dental practices in Phnom Penh. They spend much free time doing volunteer dental clinics in the countryside. Having been given so much during their time of need, and from gratitude to God, they have the sense of wanting to give back to others in need. We feel privileged that Nee would share his painful memories with us.
The medical and dental team treated over 2000 patients and provided 253 surgery referrals to hospitals and clinics in Phnom Penh, for conditions like cataracts and cleft palettes. In addition, the team paid for the patients’ needs in connection with the referrals, such as for transportation for the patient and accompanying family.
While on our way back to Phom Penh to catch our flight, we made a brief rest stop at a Buddhist temple. While there, a man approached one of our doctors with the offer to sell his three-year-old daughter. Selling children either for foreign adoptions or the child sex trade is all too common in Cambodia! We wondered: What was the man thinking?
Dale and Mary Ann