Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Genocide. Have we learned?

I’m stuck in the UK... I left India for a couple of days to attend Oma’s funeral service in Amsterdam. On the return flight, weather, bad luck, and maybe a little bit of fate aligned to keep me in London for the night. So I’ve had a lot of time to catch up on thinking and reading.

In preparation fro visiting me in Cambodia, my mom is reading First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. It is about her family’s experience during the time of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Genocide. The story is haunting. Almost overnight middle class families were forced to flee their homes and taken to the countryside. Universities, hospitals and banks were burned. Political and civil rights were abolished. Religion and music were banned. Even clocks and watches were destroyed. Any symbol of modernity, any un-communist aspect of traditional Cambodian society was to be eliminated. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, musicians, philosophers, and politicians were killed along with their extended families.

Minority groups, especially the ethnic Chinese were targeted. One Khmer slogan ran 'To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.' It’s hard to believe that this could happen in the matter of days, and even harder still to know that it happened only 35 years ago during the lifetime of my parents.

How did it happen? That part is possibly the most difficult to comprehend.

In 1962, Pol Pot, leader of the Cambodian Communist Party formed an armed resistance movement that became known as the Khmer Rouge and waged a guerrilla war against Prince Sihanouk’s government.

In 1970, Prince Sihanouk however, was ousted due to a US backed right wing military coup. Sihanouk retaliated by joining Pol Pot (his former enemy) in opposing the new military government. That same year, the US invaded Cambodia to expel the North Vietnamese from their border encampments, but ended up driving them deeper into Cambodia allowing them to ally themselves with the Khmer Rouge.

From 1969 until 1973, the U.S. intermittently bombed North Vietnamese sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia An estimated 150,000 Cambodian peasants were killed. As a result, peasants fled the countryside by the hundreds of thousands and settled in Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh. All of these events resulted in economic and military destabilization in Cambodia and a surge of popular support for Pol Pot.

By 1975, the U.S. had withdrawn its troops from Vietnam. Cambodia's government, plagued by corruption and incompetence, also lost its American military support. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army, consisting of teenage peasant guerrillas, marched into Phnom Penh and on April 17 effectively seized control of Cambodia.

Leaders of the Khmer Rouge are only now facing trial.

I’d like to think we learn something from history. From the genocides that have taken place across the globe. From the lives of Jews, Tutsis, Muslims, and Hindus lost.

But killing continues and human rights violations are abundant.

I read about the protests in Iran and the UK and think maybe we have learned something. There are plenty of people fighting against violence, repression, hatred, and injustice...

Then again, I can't help but wonder, will it be enough?

Back in Bombay tomorrow. Project update soon. Love from London

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Train tickets and Tumeric

After 20 some odd hours of traveling, I arrived in Mumbai late Sunday night. As the plane began to descend over the dimly lit streets, traffic still buzzing at 11pm, it finally hit me that I was going to be back in India. I couldn’t help but smile and as the wheels touched the ground, I caught myself whispering “Hello again India. Namaste”.

I found Liza and Ana outside of the airport and we took a cab back to the apartment. It is in the Andheri district of Mumbai. It’s a really nice place – simple and clean. We have three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a living room, and a kitchen with a dining table. The landlord installed a water filter and a refrigerator earlier this week. There is even air conditioning and sporadic wireless internet in one of the bedrooms.

Yesterday morning Justin and I took the train to meet Sadaf (another HMS team member), in Mumbai Central. The line for train tickets was 2 hours long and we only had 20 minutes to get to Mumbai central if we were going to make it on time. We could either be late for our meeting or ride without a ticket and risk getting a 400rs fine (8 US$). A normal ride is about 5Rs. Justin already had a pass, so we decided that splitting the fine would be worth getting to Sadaf on time. My only request was that we ride together in first class so that if I got caught with a man yelling at me in Hindi for a train ticket, I wouldn’t be alone. Well, as soon as the train pulled into the station that plan flew out the window.

A stampede of men grabbed onto the already overcrowded first class car. Justin managed to get a hand inside the door and onto a pole to hang on to. There was no way I was going to try to squeeze myself into a car full of men. So at the last second I ditched justin and ran to the women’s car (always directly behind the first class car). It too was completely packed, but I was able to get one foot on board as the train pulled away from the station. Some of the other women pulled me all the way inside the car. I managed to get off on the correct stop and found Justin on the platform. I smiled “I didn’t get ticketed”. Just as I spoke a man in a white collared uniform shirt tapped Justin on the arm. Instinct told me to keep walking. I didn’t look back until I was a good fifty feet away. Justin had pulled out his pass and was showing it to the official. When he finally caught up with me we gave one another a look of relief and laughed all the way out of the station.

After meeting with one of Bombay’s Municipal schools for our project, Justin and Sadaf told me that they had found a woman close to where we live in Andheri that had agreed to give us cooking lessons. So from 3 to 6pm I was in a stranger’s kitchen learning to make things like Aloo Palak, Jeera rice, and three different kinds of Daal. It was so much fun. We ended up making a total of 8 different dishes. Watching Nalini cook was like watching a magician. She would throw ingredients into a pan – cumin seeds, red chili powder, onions, tomatoes, a hint of cinnamon and before we could say Tumeric (which seems to be in everything) she was handing us a spoon to taste her creation. Everything was phenomenal! We have our second class later this week.

Today we have a meeting with PSI (Population Services International) and will be running some errands around the city.

Love from Mumbai.