for release Friday October 31, 2003
by Melodie Davis
A True Horror Story, And What We Can Learn From It
Sokreaksa Himm was a young boy in a large family in Cambodia in 1975. He endured the worst fate any of us can imagine: his baby brother, father, mother, and most of his siblings were all executed. They were clubbed and hacked to death with crude hoes. He was also axed and left for dead
with the bodies of his family on top of him.
What were you doing during the late 70s? Perhaps you weren't even born but those were the years I was a new bride and preparing to start a family. I wasn't very aware of world affairs except from a distance. I remember hearing about the horrible "killing fields" in Cambodia, but didn't really know or want to know what all that meant.
I still don't want to know because it is a terrible, nightmare-type story. But Sokreaksa has written a powerful book, The Tears of My Soul (Monarch Books, 2003). It is worth reading.
When the country was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in April of 1975, Sokreaksa's family was forced to join others moving to the jungle. The Khmer Rouge (Communists) came to power as part of the upheaval of the Vietnam War which had spread to Cambodia, and tried to turn Cambodia into a self-sufficient, agrarian utopia. (www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/ <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/>). Anyone who complained was "sent to study" - or killed. Teenage boys were brainwashed into taking part in the killings of their fellow citizens, or were killed themselves.
When Sokreaksa climbed out of the mass grave holding his family, he vowed to take revenge. Days and weeks of bare survival, escaping the soldiers and spies still in the area, evolved into months and years of struggling to stay alive. Finally he made it to the relative safety of a refugee camp where he lived for five years hoping to emigrate.
Growing up Buddhist, he first encountered Cambodian Christians in the camp. He didn't want anything to do with them. The Buddhist faith of his parents hadn't helped them; why should any other religion help him? He said, "If God is so good and powerful, why did he allow the Khmer Rouge to kill my family?"
When his application for resettlement was first rejected, Sokreaksa fell into total despair. "At last I recognized the need for something outside myself to restore my bruised, battered spirit and give me some help. I longed for the peace of God that I had heard the Christians talking about." He made a plain-out bargain with God: if he were accepted to go to Canada, he would believe in God.
In 1989 he was finally accepted for resettlement in Canada and made good on his promise to God. Even there he experienced severe post traumatic stress syndrome, constantly reliving the scenes in his mind. He struggled with grief, anger and depression. In college he began to study what had happened to him, and to sort out his feelings for his family, the killers, and his inner turmoil. "The anger against [the murderers] was as great as the grief for my family, and it burned inside me like a great ball of fire," Sokreaksa writes. "I realized that I would never know true peace until I had dealt with this as well; I had to find a way of forgiving them, before the bitterness inside destroyed me."
He got to the place where he realized that forgiving didn't have to mean forgetting. He knew that even if he could kill hundreds of the killers, he wouldn't be satisfied. He realized that he would never have inner peace until he let go of his anger and rage. "Forgiveness doesn't come through vengeance, and neither does forgetting: no amount of violence could erase my memories. So I gave up my urge to inflict pain on those who had killed my family. Nursing those desires was only damaging me."
One of the worst legacies from this era is the fact that there are still about four million land mines in the countryside, some from U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War. Around 50 adults and children are killed or injured each month from stepping on land mines, giving a new meaning to the term "killing fields." Many people are working to help remove the land mines and to provide funding so that it can happen faster.
But two other legacies can be instructional: I find a description from Yale University to be chilling in describing the problems of the late 70's in Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge "combined extremist ideology with ethnic animosity and a diabolic disregard for human life." (www.yale.edu/cgp/). It is not hard to think of a half dozen places in our world where, at least by some interpretations, we have those same ingredients.
The other legacy is more hopeful: if Sokreaksa could make the decision to forgive after the enormous wrong meted out to him and his family (and millions of others), maybe there is hope for other dark and dismal situations where we can see no hope.
For a free booklet on forgiveness, write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
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