‘You will rule in the midst of your enemies’ (Psalm 110:2)
Saren, a burly, genial medical colleague and I were talking last week. Just 13 years old when the Khmer Rouge took power, he had been separated from his family and placed in a mobile brigade, building dams.
He and I had been together to see one of ‘his’ dams — a gigantic earthen structure built by hand at the cost of over 10,000 lives.
He told me of rising before dawn, the forced marches to work and toiling late into the night — only to be beaten and kicked awake again before dawn.
His team slept in the open on the ground. They had to survive on half a cup of rice a day. During the rains, they had to cut down trees in a flooded forest, diving down under water to wield their tools.
Their guards dived in to check the stumps, and if they were too high the workers were thrashed or even executed.
They were punished for talking and beaten for being too slow, or if they were caught eating anything apart from their rations. These young boys were constantly starving.
‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘when the trees came down and the guards were far away, we caught squirrels or lizards. So they didn’t see us, we dived down, crammed the raw animal into our mouths and ate under water.’
Suddenly, overcome by his memory, he began to weep. He turned away and struggled to control his emotion for several minutes, then abandoning the attempt he walked away.
The next day I apologised to him for dredging up his sad memories. ‘Those weren’t tears of sadness’, he said, ‘those were tears of rage. Those men stole my youth and they left me so angry.’
Eventually, Saren had fled to a refugee camp in Thailand. Attracted by the gospel of Christ he had joined a church, singing in the choir for two years. ‘But,’ he said, ‘they had too many little rules and I left.’ Looking for grace, he found only legalism.
It is Wednesday, just after lunch. In a crowded, stuffy room, overhead fans strained to circulate the inert air.
A lecturer in psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh was speaking to the OMF team about the Cambodian world-view and the impact of the Khmer Rouge on the Cambodian psyche.
He told us of the two strands of Brahmanism and Buddhism, tightly woven together for centuries in Cambodian thought; about the violent, deliberate rupture of that world-view by the Khmer Rouge.
He spoke of some of the horrors that he himself had endured at their hands. Still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he is unable to see anyone wearing black clothing without it reviving dreadful memories.
He told us that more than 70% of the population who endured that regime still suffered from anxiety, anger and depression.
While he was struggling with his mental injuries, deep in depression and drowning in alcohol, a Christian colleague had gently led him to faith in Jesus Christ.
His alcoholism was gone and his depression was replaced with a reason to live.
Then this university lecturer said something we found audacious in the extreme — something only someone who had endured the horrors of Pol Pot could say.
‘I thank God for the Khmer Rouge’, he said, ‘for they broke the stranglehold of false religion and, without meaning to, made a way for Christianity to come into Cambodia. Because of the Khmer Rouge, I believe in the Lord Jesus.’
There is no doubt that the Khmer Rouge were enemies of God. There is no doubt that God will hold them responsible for what they have done. But God’s invisible yet powerful rule was still at work in the midst of his enemies