Last time I talked briefly about a woman who’s influence on me was both deep and wide.1 Today I want to talk about the opposite end of the spectrum, a woman I spent a total of forty-five minutes with, in the company of several other people, six-and-a-half years ago.
It was our first trip to Cambodia. The church body we’re members of had formed a partnership with IJM, and a member of their church mobilization team led seven of us from 121 on a trip to meet as many organizations working on the ground as possible, and learn as much as we could about the country and the cause (combatting sex trafficking).
On our first full day in-country (we got in about noon the previous day), we went to church, had lunch with a couple of wonderful (and slightly wacky) ladies, and then our team leader took us to a place called Tuol Sleng. We were jet-lagged, and it was hot. (Actually, it was H-O-T. Nothing prepares you for the blanket of heat that envelops you2 as you walk out into the great outdoors in Phnom Penh.) We all had some familiarity with the Khmer Rouge from our trip prep, and so we kind of sorta knew what Tuol Sleng was, but not really. Nothing really prepares you for that, either.
When we entered, we could pay $3/each and tour the place ourselves, or we could pay another $6 total and get a tour guide. Since it was our first time, we decided to go with the tour guide. She was a small Cambodian woman3 of indeterminate age with pretty good English. I don’t remember her name, but our intrepid Mike Johnson kept a journal, and he said her name was (is) Je We.
As we walked around the compound of the former prison (and former high school before that), she told us about what had happened there. Although no killings took place there (they took them to Choeung Ek for that), there were only seven survivors of the prison. The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis before them, had documented everything; there were pictures of hundreds of prisoners in one of the rooms that represented a fraction of the 15-20 thousand people who had been imprisoned there.
But the reason the memory of this woman has stuck with me is that, standing outside one of the big barracks, she told us of her own family’s experience in the Khmer Rouge, how her father was killed and her mother and her and her siblings had fled for the Vietnam and stayed in a refuge camp just across the border. It was the first time what had happened with the Khmer Rouge became personal for us. We’ve subsequently found that almost everyone her age in the country has a similar story, and we’ve heard several of them, but hers was the first.
I took this photo right after she told us. I was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible (I had a good zoom on the compact I was using; I wasn’t nearly as close as it looks), and there are some who would say I shouldn’t have taken it at all. Maybe so. But photographs for me are memories, concrete reminders of a time and place, and I can remember the time and place and what was going on with almost all of the 25K or so I have sitting in my library. I wanted to remember that moment, and I wanted to remember her.
I’ve been back to Cambodia eight times since then. I’ve been to Tuol Sleng each of those times, and every time I’ve looked for her. I’ve never seen her. Some of the times there haven’t been any guides available at all, and others there were but they weren’t her. Early this year they put in an audio tour, and with it went most of the need for personal guides.
Imagine my surprise, then, when a couple of weeks ago I was walking from one side of the compound to the other and looked up and saw her. She was with a group, so I quickly zoomed my lens as much as a I could and took a picture as I walked on. She has a name tag4 (progress!) and is wearing a button-down shirt and looking very professional. I was unreasonably glad to see her, and it made me glad for her group. I wondered if they were getting a little of her story to go with the story of the prison.
I have no great revelation here, except that small encounters sometimes loom large, but we usually have no idea when they do. She had been working at the memorial for several years when we got there, and it’s been several years since. She’s told the same stories of Tuol Sleng hundreds of times, to hundreds of groups. I doubt she ever thinks anything about it.
I’ve only been to Tuol Sleng nine times, but I’ve thought of her every time I’ve been. Impact sometimes comes when it’s least expected.
- And now that song will be in your head the rest of the day. And maybe tomorrow. You’re welcome.↩
- Unless your last name is Sawyers or Hanna.↩
- “Small” and “Cambodian” are mostly redundant.↩
- From what I can see, it doesn’t look like her last name is We. It says, “Mrs.”, though, and it’s possible she’s married since we saw her. (If she told us she was married, I don’t remember it.)↩