Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
“Why did God allow this?” I heard someone whisper. I stood rooted to the spot unable to take my eyes off the tree; this same tree which granted me shade from the harsh Cambodian sun had been used as by soldiers a tool to kill hundreds, if not thousands, of children. Bullets are expensive; in genocide they are worth more than a life.
Children were seen as an inconvenience to the Khmer Rouge soldiers in the killing fields, not much of a threat, but far too bothersome to keep around. Unable to line them up in rows for a swift execution like their parents, the soldiers needed an easier way to dispose of them; the children were swung repeatedly by their feet into the bark of the tree, crushing their tiny skulls until they were dumped in a pit. The lucky ones were dead when they were tossed into their mass grave and covered in earth and chemicals, others were speared by a ‘merciful’ soldier when they cried for help, most were left to succumb to their injuries or simply buried alive.
As a former public prosecutor I have seen more than my fair share of murders but the scale of suffering, destruction and lack of sanctity for life I witnessed in the killing fields of Cambodia as part of my Rotary Peace Fellowship will stay with me forever. “Why did God allow this”, the words echoed in my head as I pondered the Quranic verse:
When your Lord said to the angels, “I am appointing someone as my deputy on earth,” they said, “Are you going to appoint one who will commit corruption and bloodshed therein, even though we commemorate Your Name and glorify You?” The Lord said, “I know that which you do not know”. Quran 2:30 (translation: Muhammad Sarwar)
The angels question echoed in my soul for days dragging my mood down; I was not in the mood for entertainment but upon many enthusiastic recommendations I decided to visit Phare, the Cambodian circus. (http://pharecircus.org/)The show was called “Sokha” (http://pharecircus.org/our-shows/sokha/) and portrayed the story of one survivor who watched her parents die at the hands of the Khmer Rouge through art, live music and acrobatics. Despite being adopted by a loving, wealthy family Sokha was haunted by her demons well into adulthood. Witnessing those around her weighed down by their own grief and anguish she decided to take a stand; she realised that we all have a choice, to move forward or remain shackled by our past; she chose hope. Determined to build herself through education and knowledge, to overcome her nightmares, she co-founded an NGO school to help others discover and use their talents to overcome their sorrow. The school has helped thousands of young Cambodians discover their potential and given them a purpose; the circus is performed by the students of the foundation. (http://phareps.org/)
My entire body buzzed with positive energy as I exited the show surrounded by the excited chatter of the audience. I was not aware of how far I walked but as I looked back I was struck by the image of the circus tent; a unique landmark of Cambodia providing hope, joy and light relief not only to those who live in the shadows of these atrocities but also to people like me who have felt engrossed in the sorrows of the past. As the light shifted over the city I felt it flood over my questions, had I finally found the answer?
The fact that God created mankind as his vicegerent on Earth reflects the great power and potential we have to influence the world around us; it is your choice which mark you will leave on the world. The power of free will means that man can ultimately choose to do good or do evil; free will is ours to make the most of. Undoubtedly, Pol Pot and his regime left a mark on many people’s lives, so too did Sokha; if Pol Pot had the power to take life, Sokha had the power to give life. Pol Pots mark of destruction, bloodshed and violence were a sign of his free will and an abuse of his power. Sokha too showed great power in choosing to leave a mark of hope, life and rebuilding, showing mankind’s potential to become superior to the angels; to ignore the temptations of power , to choose to do good for the sake of our communities and for God.
If the answer was one of God allowing mankind free will rather than actively allowing these atrocities` to occur it became clear that such a system required an essential elements to make it balanced and complete: Justice. The possession of free will will undoubtedly lead some men to become corrupt and use violent means to further their own agendas, this in turn means that innocent people become victims to the choices of others. When the Peace of a society becomes disturbed it falls to the society and potentially the internationally community to address such acts and restore the balance and allow the community to thrive again. In the case of Cambodia there are local and international attempts to serve justice such as ECCC (https://eccc.gov.kh/en) ; if all of these initiatives fail to deliver justice the whole community will suffer, fail to thrive and be unable to establish peace. In this case, God created a safety net for dealing with such evil acts; judgement day and heaven and hell. If we humans cannot serve justice on earth; we can rest assured that there will be justice in the afterlife. This thought that justice will be served, whether in this life or the next, can bring a lot of relief to the victims, restore their faith that God is just and teach us a very important lesson that we cannot achieve peace on earth without achieving justice.
Sherif Elnegahy – Egypt
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 21