On my plane ride from Ottawa to Vancouver via Calgary back in March, I covered more ground than I expected. I spent the first leg talking to a food supply company owner from Calgary about how to manage stress and a busy life. I heard about how he took care of his wife when she was diagnosed with cancer, a day after their second child was born, when they were just about to move across the country for him to start a new job. It was getting late in the evening as I boarded the flight from Calgary to Vancouver and finding an older Asian man sitting in my seat, I was glad to think he likely didn't speak much English, I was tired from my busy life pre-departure, and didn't feel like talking more.
He apologised for taking the wrong seat and started to tell me his story. I found out he was from Cambodia – he came to Canada as a refugee around 23 years ago, after leaving the country at the end of the Khmer Rouge regime. His father had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, and he had lost his left arm after getting shot by Thai soldiers when trying to escape to a refugee camp after the fall of the regime. He spent 3.5 years in a camp, the first 6 months hiding in people's homes, before he could get registered – anyone found by soldiers without registration in the camp would be immediately sent home. It took him 3 years to get a sponsorship in place to leave the country – paperwork was done with a French sponsor, but then the sponsor died and he was left in limbo. A friend told him that Canada was accepting refugees, but only for people without any sponsors. He wasn't sure he qualified as his application had already been filed with the French, but he applied anyway, and ended up being accepted by Canada just before receiving his acceptance from France, and was able to choose between the two. He decided on Canada and came to Calgary, where he had to learn a trade to get a job. He was trained in making veneer furniture, an occupation I had to wonder about considering he only had the use of one arm – the left was replaced by an ancient heavy-looking dull flesh-coloured rubber appendage, with the fingers permanently formed into a cupping shape, limiting his capacity to hold on to things. He said business was difficult, with the increase of cheap furniture from China it was hard to compete. It was expensive for him to travel home to see his family, because he was expected to bring gifts and money for everyone. Eventually, if he could, he thought he'd like to spend half the year in Cambodia and the other half in Canada. I think he might have had some family in the US, but it seemed he was alone in Canada, and it wasn't an easy life for him.
Listening to him and seeing his leaden prosthetic resting in his lap (which looked like it might have pre-dated his arrival in Canada) a constant reminder of what he traded for a better life, I felt awed and chagrined. If I had dismissed him as I had intended and taken a nap, I would have had no idea of the history and the tragedy that was sitting right next to me. And what of Canada, would our government now be so willing to take someone who didn't fit the paperwork requirements so precisely?
Coming to Cambodia I was reminded of this conversation when I went to visit the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh and the Tuol Sleng museum in the capital. It was hard to connect the shallow grassy pits of the killing fields with their vicious history without hearing the recorded personal accounts of people who lived through that period and seeing the black and white photos in Tuol Sleng, showing rows of skulls and piles of bones next to the pits. Today, aside from the memorial tall glass stupa filled with skulls and bones and some memorial plaques and displays, the field has reverted to a calm and wide open green space – peaceful and plain. During the rainy season bones continue to pop out of the ground, along with pieces of clothing – I looked but didn't see any on my walk.
It's hard to understand how as many as 3 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge in just over three years in power – out of a population of approximately 7.3 million, with intellectuals heavily under fire – anyone who wore glasses, was a professional, had soft hands was targeted. And the crimes didn't end there – the UN maintained the Khmer Rouge as the official representative party of Cambodia even after they lost power to a democratically elected government in 1979, a government which was allied with Vietnam and therefore was considered more of a threat to the West then the leaders of the genocide. Now the country is still struggling to get back on its feet, having lost most of those who knew how to run things.
Despite the recent devastation, poverty and hardships, people are friendly. I've seen a lot of children, not a lot of old people.
I don't remember where my seat mate was from, and somehow, I didn't get his name. When we parted ways between the international connections and the departure gates, he dropped the handle of his luggage and let it fall to the ground, waving goodbye.