Matt Warren – Times Educational Supplement – January 2002

Matt Warren is a freelance journalist, and wrote this article after his extended trip to Cambodia end 2001. It was published in the TES January 4th 2002.

Please do not reproduce the article or pictures without Matt’s permission.

It is 9am, and outside the Hun Sen primary school in Anlong Veng, children are gathering in the searing heat for the first day of the new academic year. Many have walked for miles across the rice fields to get here and their white and blue uniforms are stained red with dust. Nearby, water buffalo, carrying produce to the local market, trudge down the pot marked road that provides the only link between this remote community and the rest of Cambodia.

Minutes later, a whistle has blown and the school’s headmaster, Som Noeurm is introducing himself to his new literacy class. The concrete walls are bare, but for two sun bleached AIDS awareness posters, and mosquitoes buzz through open windows. There are no fans in the classroom and there is no electricity for overhead lighting.

He starts by warning the children, who sit on plain, wooden benches, about the danger of landmines. Both the teacher and his pupils have first hand experience of Cambodia’s deadliest legacy. In 1983, Som lost his leg to a mine and, until three years ago, the children that now fill his class, were being taught how to lay them in the nearby rice fields. Only last year, four anti-personnel mines were removed from the school’s dusty playground.

Until recently, this seemingly peaceful farming community had been at war for nearly three decades. As the last stronghold of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, who in the late 1970s were responsible for one of Asia’s most devastating genocides and were fighting the Cambodian government until a fragile peace was finally brokered in 1998, Anlong Veng was devastated by conflict. Only now are its schools being rebuilt.

For Som, 52, who was himself a member of the Khmer Rouge from 1970, until the ceasefire in 1998, education is a priority in the newly unified Cambodia. Five years ago, he was working at the same school, which was originally built in 1991 by Pol Pot’s right-hand man, Ta Mok. But the lessons were very different then. Officially employed by the Khmer Rouge as a literacy teacher, Som was required to spend the majority of allocated school time teaching children as young as nine how to lay booby traps, make explosives from fertiliser and transport weapons to the guerilla fighters at the front line.

After years of indoctrination and conflict, Som maintains that only education can now offer the local children a chance of building a more peaceful society. Cambodia’s children have long been the silent casualties of the decades of fighting.

When the Khmer Rouge swept into the capital Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the curtain came down on the country’s fledgling education system. Forcibly evacuating Cambodia’s urban centres, the Khmer Rouge led the population to rural labour camps where they were put to work building Pol Pot’s agrarian idyll. Aiming to eradicate all influences at odds with their vision of a rural, communist utopia, the Khmer Rouge systematically banned televisions, newspapers and radios.

Som Matt Warren

Music and singing were strictly controlled and, although Pol Pot himself was a former teacher, education, which was seen by the party faithful as providing the groundwork for counter-revolutionary ideas, all but ceased. Over the next four years, 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered or starved to death before being buried in fields where their bones still stain the red earth white.

Teachers and academics were quickly targeted by the death squads and schools, most notably Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng High School, where more than 17,000 Cambodians were interrogated before being executed in the nearby Choeung Ek Killing Fields, became prisons or barracks for Pol Pot’s soldiers.

While a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979 led to the collapse of Pol Pot’s government, the Khmer Rouge maintained strongholds in areas such as Anlong Veng and Pailin, where the children were largely denied education and were instead co-opted in the ongoing war effort. Only recently, after the death of Pol Pot in 1997 and the final laying down of arms in 1998 have government and aid agency officials been able enter these areas and set about rebuilding the infrastructure.

But new problems have developed. With the adult population devastated by Pol Pot’s regime, 50% of this nation’s people are under the age of 18.

10,000 Cambodian children have been orphaned by AIDS and twice that number are exploited by the sex industry.

Now sharing his simple, wooden home with ten, government soldiers, sent to the region to maintain peace, Som, the Cambodian government and Save the Children Norway, who are at the forefront of delivering primary education to Anlong Veng’s children, face a formidable task. The government’s education budget for the region is negligible and while teachers can expect a salary of only $25 dollars a month, few are paid.

Som works six days a week in a hot, dark classroom with few of the teaching aids and textbooks common in the west, before returning home to tend the rice fields that feed his family. He has not been paid in six months. Gracefully, he suggests that his unseen pay cheques are being spent on relieving the floods that, in late 2000, affected 3 million Cambodians.

But with five illiterate children of his own, he is committed to making a difference. Som’s young grandchildren are now growing up in the shadow of the soldiers they share their home with, and as we speak, he sits with an AK-47 nearby. But he is determined that they will never hear the guns fired in anger. Working with Keo Sarath, Save the Children Norway’s Programme Manager for Basic Education, who lost more than 50 family members to the Killing Fields, and the local government’s District Education Director, Heme Khem to build and staff basic schools, Som is already seeing results beyond his wildest dreams. On his first day as a headmaster in 1998, there were only a few hundred children being educated in the whole of Anlong Veng district. Within a month, there were 1,000. Today, 4,117 children are being taught by 68 staff in the 11 schools built by foreign aid agencies in the last three years.

“In the days of the Khmer Rouge, the children were made to feel like dust. They were worthless, without a future and with only the war to think about,” explains Som, who now deeply regrets the Khmer Rouge’s education policy. “Now the children arrive at the new schools as soon as they are built. There is no need to advertise them. They speak for themselves because they speak of a future. Today, there is so much enthusiasm that we cannot keep up with it. We have to stop children at the door.”

Kids Anlong Veng Matt Warren

On the steps of the school, where a tattered Cambodian flag flutters in the late afternoon breeze, 7-year-old Reack is playing with a 13-year-old friend. Despite their age difference, the two boys are in the same class. This is typical of Anlong Veng. With all children long denied even the most basic education, girls and boys of all ages are now determined to take advantage of the new opportunities. Today, teenagers sit alongside six-year-olds as the older children attempt to make up for lost time.

In the neighbouring, but even more remote district of Trapang Prasat, Save the Children Norway and teachers like Som are making similar advances. Nearly touching Thailand, the cluster of huts that since 1998 has become a district capital, has no access to electricity or sanitation and many of the surrounding, fertile fields are peppered with mines. As we pass through the village on motorbikes, small crowds gather at the roadside and stare in disbelief.

But 54-year-old district governor Chum Cheat has ambitious plans.

During the Pol Pot regime, Chum was a senior cadre, overseeing the whole of nearby Preah Vihear province. Today, he receives less than $20 and a few kilos of rice in salary a month after turning down the Government’s offer of a promotion to general in Cambodia’s official army. But after recently discovering that both his brother and sister were killed by the Khmer Rouge, despite his allegiance to the same organisation, Chum is now committed to peace, rebuilding his district’s shattered education system in the hope that his community will never be revisited by its turbulent past.

“Few of those in the Khmer Rouge in these parts knew about the terrible things that were going on further south,” he explains. “We simply wanted to bring the poorer people of Cambodia a fairer society and once the fighting had started, there was little we could do but battle on. Children faced terrible things during the fighting, but war is a terrible thing. Now, we have to work to restore peace and rebuild.”

So far, his results have been impressive. In a district where more than 70% of the population is illiterate and the first school was only built in 1999, this academic year will see 90% of Trapang Prasat’s children enrolled in the education system.

Additionally, after forging a network of unpaid volunteers from within the community itself, teachers have this year volunteered to work double shifts, while 76 non-formal literacy teachers and care-givers have been given bicycles so they can travel to homes to give basic education to all those unable to read and write. They now travel along muddy, jungle paths to educate even the most distant families.

But while both Som and Chum have laid down their arms, casting off their ties with the Khmer Rouge to build a new, integrated and educated Cambodia, the problems they face are enormous. With 20% of families in both districts now headed by a war widow and most families relying on rice farming for survival, many families need their older children to stay at home to bring in the harvest.

Similarly, while there are plenty of willing teachers in the community, few have had any formal training and, with salaries currently set below subsistence level, few qualified tutors will leave the big cities to make up the shortfall. Primary education may now be available for most, but secondary schools remain the preserve of the few.

But the communities controlled by the Khmer Rouge were not alone in their suffering. In Angkor Chum district, many of the local people supported the government during the years of civil war. But as the frontline moved across the country with the army’s annual, seasonal advances, the villages in this region were often caught in the crossfire.

Bou Matt Warren

Bou, 42, was a member of the local government militia until 1998. He speaks to me beside the wooden hut which he shares with his wife and six children. The road to the nearby village was washed away in the recent, monsoon rains and it is now an hour’s walk through the rice fields to the pump that provides him with fresh water.

“Here, there were government schools, but things were rarely stable enough for children to get to them,” he explains. “It was a terrible life. One day, we might have been attacked three or more times by the Khmer Rouge and the next the village would be rocked by a government artillery bombardment. As many as 50% of the people living in the surrounding villages were killed and 20 children were killed in 1992 alone.”

Today, his three youngest children go to the simple, concrete school that was built by Save the Children Norway across the paddy fields. The two, basic rooms are dark and lizards skit across the bare walls. Few children can afford schoolbooks and they instead write their alphabets in chalk on small, hand-held blackboards.

But Bou tells me that his 14-year-old son has found fresh confidence since starting school last year and when I ask, he can tell me that Tony Blair is the Prime Minister of Britain. In the UK, such knowledge is commonplace but in this remote district, cut off from television and the media and where few villagers have been more than twenty miles from their birthplace, this would not have been possible until a few years ago. Like Som and Chum, Bou is hopeful about the future.

And with $1.6 million pledged to the Save the Children (Norway) programme by the Japanese Social Development Fund (JSDF) this year alone, they have reason to be. But these remote communities are determined to bring education to their children with or without foreign funding.

For many Cambodians, it is like waking up on New Year’s day, looking out of your window and seeing that the nightmare has ended,” says Som. “For years, the children have been victims this country’s wars. Now we have discovered that we are all just Khmer, they can finally stop looking back and start looking forward.”

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