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Photo by Alan M Thornton

Journey to Cambodia

learning the power of trauma and the healing of testimony

May 11, 2011, 12:00 am

Ask him again.
But we’ve already asked him.
Ask him in a different way.
But it doesn’t happen like this in our culture.
What do you mean? There is no cause and effect in Cambodia? I want to know how his treatment under the Khmer Rouge has impacted his life. I’m just not sure I’m asking the right question.
But he said there is no impact.
It’s not true; ask him again.

I was into my third hour interviewing a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, and everyone was tired. The survivor, a farmer from a province three hours north of Phnom Penh, had already described the most horrific experience––his pregnant wife’s stomach being cut open and the fetus removed by soldiers who planned to dry and consume it, supposedly to gain magical powers. 

He spoke in the most matter-of-fact tone, though he was clearly upset, clenching his jaw, twitching in his seat and furiously rubbing tiger balm across his forehead and under his nose. I probably shouldn’t have pushed, but he had come seeking help. He wanted to tell his story, and I wanted to give him the opportunity to name what he was feeling and to admit that the horrors inflicted on him and his family under the Khmer Rouge were still impacting him. But he hadn’t considered the length or detail of such an interview, or that he would be asked to scrutinize his suffering. I looked at the evidence of his agitation––tiger balm now smeared across every inch of his face––and said that we were done. He was free to leave.

I was in Cambodia working through one of the country’s few psychosocial organizations, Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO Cambodia), to record people’s testimonies about war. The patients who came to TPO were primarily witnesses chosen to testify in the country’s war crimes tribunal, called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or the ECCC. Charges had been brought against a handful of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, those deemed most responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million Cambodians in the mid to late 1970s. Across Cambodia, the details of life under the Khmer Rouge regime were emerging through court testimony and in the press. TPO had been asked to counsel witnesses from the start and, each day of the six-month trial, staff members sat inside the courtroom, available for questions and support. The organization found itself bombarded with calls from people suddenly unable to sleep, overcome with anger and aggressive behavior, suffering from severe headaches or crying fits. Everyone wanted to know how to stop the pain. 

TPO, overwhelmed and understaffed, agreed for me to work with them last summer as fieldwork for my research on storytelling in postconflict societies. It was one of the few organizations I had found trying testimony therapy, a method used to illicit traumatic memories and allow survivors to begin healing. My job was to interview and photograph official witnesses, as well as those rejected by the court process but who still desperately needed to have their testimonies heard. The goal was to compile historic records, aid emotional healing and encourage other Cambodians to speak. 

I recruited a talented photographer friend and colleague, Alan M Thornton, to join me in Phnom Penh to create the survivor portraits, then packed up my then 3-year-old son and headed to Asia. 

What I thought would be an experience similar to what I’d done in Iraq years earlier, documenting survivor stories and history, became a much larger journey into the politics of trauma and secondary trauma, and the immense differences in how cultures define, respond to and treat illness.

Continue reading: Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5 |


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