Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
Nadie podrá contra la vida.
“No one can stop life.”
-from “Comunicado” by Otto René Castillo
I live in Guatemala, where neither colonization by the Spaniards nor the genocide committed against the Maya people was able to end or subjugate their millennial culture. I was born in the United States, a country founded upon genocide on the land of first nation peoples whose identity, culture and voice remain strong.
I come from the Americas, a land of genocides, to visit Cambodia. What is the resilience of the Cambodian people? How does one adapt to the unspeakable, the unimaginable? In Guatemala, after centuries of exploitation and genocide, there is palpable resilience at work in the hands that live from the land, communities that are stewards of the earth, and indigenous peoples who defend their territories and natural resources against harm. What will I see in Cambodia?
On 9 March 2014, we stood in the middle of one of Cambodia’s 389+ killing fields, amidst the mass graves and the terrible remnants of the genocide that killed approximately 3 million people, a quarter of the country’s population. So much remains in and on the ground in this place, with so much more than bones, teeth, clothes left to be uncovered. As we walk, my classmate stops me. This friend frequently makes me laugh —loudly. In fact, I sometimes make a note of his one-liners but I can never capture the humor because his delivery is always too perfect for words. He calmly says, “Look up. There is the tree we were talking about, which produces the sugar.” Yesterday we were discussing a tree I didn’t know the name of but had seen a man shimmy up, with my father and sister while visiting his homeland of Indonesia. Afterwards, the man had let us try the sweet syrup he brought down from the tree in bamboo containers. The same tree was in my friend’s home country. He pointed. “You can see they have bottles set up there to collect it.” I looked up in amazement; same tree, tapped for the sweet sugary syrup. I felt overwhelmed by how much life there is in the world. I took a picture to always remember this tree and life. I still don’t know its name.
I learned more about this tree while in Cambodia. The palm tree. “The Khmer Rouge turned everything upside down. They turned schools into prisons and our palm tree, which we use for so many things, they turned into knives.” Throughout the countryside, I see the palm tree turned right-side up again. Its leaves on the thatched roofs of the homes, its sweet juice offered on the side of the road. The palm tree is everywhere, in the cities, in the countryside, overlooking the centuries old Angkor Wat temple. It surrounds school buildings that are schools once again.
Nature, a universal anchor of resilience. “I looked at the trees [in the killing fields]. So much those trees have seen; they watch, but maybe they don’t say,” another classmate said after visiting the killing fields. “The pain of millions of people is with those trees. The tree is the only witness who can’t speak or tell anything. We need to be a tree to understand. All of history is with the tree.”
Nature watches and persists. Cultures continue despite the ultimate human endeavor to eliminate them. People adapt, reshape and find new ways to live after death. No one can stop life.
Bridget Brehen, USA/Guatemala
Rotary Peace Fellow