We travel to learn about other customs and cultures, so that we come back changed by the places we have seen and the people we have met. But to truly understand another country, we have to be willing to share not just that country’s joyous past, but also the tragedies that have changed lives and changed history. Cambodia is such a place, and this is such a story.
On the way to our ship, the AmaLotus, we met our new guide. He introduced himself as Buntha. Here is his story.
Buntha was born in 1974 in Phnom Penh. He grew up in a traditional home until he was seven. After that life was never the same for him. It was at that point that the Pol Pot regime had reached the height of its power in Cambodia. It was also the point at which Buntha was kidnapped by the Pol Pot forces. He was not alone.
At the age of ten Buntha was handed an AK47 and told that he needed to practice his shooting skills. His targets were those who were running through the fields in an attempt to escape the brutality. He was just a boy and he said to his commander, “No, I cannot shoot those people”. His commander looked at him and said “Okay, then give me your gun and run and I will use you as a target instead”. He looked up and said “Okay” and began shooting. His life was changed forever. He was given a new name, Kim, and remained in the army until the country was liberated.
After the war he returned to Phnom Penh, still a child, and settled on the banks of the Phnom Penh without family or anyone to care for him. He searched every day hoping to find his parents. One day someone shouted to him and called him Buntha. He said his name was Kim. The man said to him that his name was Buntha and that he was his cousin. It was not until the man showed Buntha a picture of him as a child that he believed him. His cousin took him in. At one point they returned to his childhood home. His home no longer had a roof or doors or windows. It had been burned to the ground. He never found his parents.
When he went to get his passport he was asked for his birthdate. He did not know his birthday. So he made up a date, January 7, 1977. He made himself six years younger so that he would be able to go to school. Had he told them 1971 he would have been forced to go to trade school and would not have had the opportunity to learn English or have a basic education. He joined a monastery for a year to cleanse his soul of the acts that he was forced to commit during the war and to release the bad memories that played such an important part of his life.
Buntha continues to look for his parents even though he believes that they most likely died in the killing fields. Each evening on the television for thirty minutes faces are shown on the screen. Faces of parents looking for children and children looking for parents. On local busses people continue to share stories with each other of how they escaped the killing fields. The government is now beginning to test the bones found in the killing fields to match DNA to survivors in an effort to offer at least some closure. Bhutan is now forty. He has a wife and two children and works hard to support them. And, while he can never escape his own past, he tries every day to build a future for his new family in memory of the family he lost.