Gratitude

I have a gratitude practice. Everyday, I pause for a moment and think about what I am grateful for. Some days it’s easy: my cat, my girlfriend, or the Grímnismál, for instance. Other days, it’s deeper: overcoming anxiety, the example of Christ on the Cross, or my seemingly inherent and innate purpose – to advance in confidence and faith towards the terrifying unknown.

Today I am grateful I have never had to see something like the caption below. You’ll understand why I get grouchy when similar forces start to appear in my country, or in my friends’ country to the south.

It was nearly noon, perhaps in November 1975, when my brothers, sisters, Mak, and I, among hundreds of other people, arrived at a place near Peth Preahneth Preah. It was a large, open ground studded with tall trees shielding us from the blazing heat of the day. Men, women, and children were gathered to witness a judgment on two people. Their crime, Angka said, was loving each other without Angka’s permission. Thus they were our enemies.

 

“When Angka catches enemies,” a leader had announced in the previous mandatory meeting, “Angka doesn’t keep them, Angka destroys them.”

 

One by one, the children, are picked from the crowd and told to stand near the two poles so they can see what Angka will do. It sounds as if we are about to see a play, an entertainment.

 

To the right of the poles are three wooden tables aligned from edge to edge to form one long table. Behind them, sitting on chairs, are Khmer Rouge dressed in black uniforms, perhaps in their forties and fifties, whom I have never seen before. Their necks, as usual, are decked out with red-and-white-and white-and-blue-checked scarves, draped over their shirts. They are well guarded by cadres standing with rifles behind and beside them. The cadres’ faces are grave. They stand still, straight like the poles. A few Khmer Rouge at the table whisper among themselves. At that moment I see a stash of spades, hoes, and shovels leaning against a pole planted firmly in the ground.

 

A one-horse buggy pulls up. Two cadres stride toward it. A blindfolded man, hands tied behind his back, is guided off it. Behind him emerges a blindfolded woman who is helped out of the buggy by another cadre. Her hands, too, are tied behind her back. Her stomach bulges out. Immediately she is tied to the pole near the buggy. Her arms first, then her ankles, with a rope about half the size of my wrist.

 

A woman in the crowd whispers, alarmed, “God, she’s pregnant.”

 

The blindfolded man’s arms are also bound to the pole. He’s calm, standing straight as his ankles are fastened to the bottom of the pole. Dressed in slacklike pants and a flannel shirt with long sleeves rolled up to his elbows, this man appears intelligent. He’s tall. His body build suggests he’s one of the “city people.” Like him, the pregnant woman looks smart, educated from the way she carries herself. She looks composed. Her collarless blouse with short sleeves reveals her smooth arms. Her once-refined face suggests a once-sheltered life.

 

Each of the Khmer Rouge rises from the table to speak. Their voices are fierce, full of hatred and anger as they denounce the couple. “These comrades have betrayed Angka. They’ve set a bad example. Therefore they need to be eradicated. Angka must wipe out this kind of people.”

 

Abruptly another Khmer Rouge at the table gets up, pulls the chair out of his way, strides to the front of the table, picks up a hoe, and tests its weight. Then he puts it back, lifts up a long, silver-colored spade, and tests its weight. He walks up to the blindfolded man.

 

“Bend your head now!” he commands, then raises the spade in the air.

 

The man obeys, lowering his head. The Khmer Rouge strikes the nape of his neck again and again. His body slumps, his knees sag. A muffled sound comes out of his mouth. His lover turns her head. The executioner strikes the man’s nape again. His body droops. The executioner scurries over to the pregnant woman. “Bend your head NOW!”

 

Her head bends. The spade strikes her nape. Her body becomes limp. No sound comes out of her mouth. Only two blows and she’s dead. The executioner walks away, his hand wiping the perspiration from his forehead. Suddenly a long choking sound is heard. The woman’s stomach moves, struggling. Everyone turns. Someone whispers that the baby is dying.

 

Oh…a cry from the crowd. The executioner runs back and strikes the body repeatedly until the struggle in it stops, still like the pole.

 

This was a brutal lesson. By now I know the Khmer Rouge’s dark side. I fear for Ra for avoiding Na, a defiant act against Angka. I am afraid her silent rebellion will carry a heavy price.

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