We’re just launching a new video called “Spirit of the forest” that features Chanthy Dam, a woman I met in northern Cambodia last September who is doing courageous work helping indigenous communities protect their land rights. Chanthy and many others in Ratanakiri province survived some of the most tumultuous decades in the 20th century in her country, so I asked her a lot of questions about her experience growing up there. In this post I want to share some of her personal story that did not make it in to the video or the magazine article coming out this week, they serve to round out the story of her life and her struggles:
Growing up in Ratanakiri
Chanthy grew up in a community called Andoung Meas, which means “Golden Well” in the local language.
“There are no words that can describe my childhood…I was so poor. My parents were farmers, they hardly earned enough to eat. My family was too poor and illiterate.
“The most delicious food we had was cassava leaves, my mother put them in a pot of boiling water with a lot of salt. It was our most delicious meal. The most delicious desert was ripe bananas, we put them in a hollow bamboo and cooked it. On special occasions my father would get a civet cat, we would grill it in bamboo like that.
“I saw people reading, and I asked if I could look at what they were reading…I wanted to read those letters. I looked at them and did not understand anything. I was maybe 12 or 13 at the time. I decided to teach myself to read, and I started to read to myself. But I could not write. I dropped it because we were so hungry, and I just had no time.
“In the late 70s Vietnamese soldiers were in the province, and they were growing cassava and sweet potatoes…we were struggling and did not have food and I did not understand why they had so much food… So I went in to their fields to steal some and they caught me and told me I should have just asked and they would have given me some. I realized it was bad to steal. And I told myself that when I grow up I would have a big farm and grow a lot of things and not be hungry.
Surviving the war
Cambodia and Ratanakiri suffered an intense US aerial bombing campaign that lasted from 1965 to 1972 (with the 1969-’73 period comprising the infamous “secret bombings” directed by President Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger). The US may have dropped somewhere between .5 and 2.75 million tons of bombs, more than was dropped in the entire Pacific theatre during World War II, according to Ben Kiernan of the Yale University Cambodia Genocide program. According to his research, hundreds of unknown or unidentified sites were bombed, some of which may have included the area near where Chanthy was living…
“During the Vietnam war I saw the bombing, there were these strange birds that dropped things onto the ground, and people died. I asked people what they were and people told me they were bombs. I also asked why these birds killed people on the ground…
“We always had to look for food. One time my older brother and sister and I went to a nearby lake to look for some food, snails, and maybe some edible water plants. When we approached the lake a bomb dropped on the other side, boom! We were shocked and frightened…my brother carried me up a hill, but we saw other planes so we jumped off a cliff into a pool of water to avoid the bombs. It was really high but we survived the jump…we hid in the forest for a few hours, and when we started to move out of the forest I had trouble keeping up because I was smaller. My brother kept telling me to keep up or they would leave me there…”
Surviving the Khmer Rouge
“During the Khmer Rouge years I lost almost all my siblings, only my one sister survived those years. In 1977 the Khmer Rouge soldiers asked me to become a nurse, and that’s when I started to learn to read and write.
“In 1979 after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime I was working for the new communist government and they sent me to Vietnam to study Khmer and I finished grade six. I did well and got an A. I got a lot of praise from the teachers, and one political science teacher said I was the most progressive student. I think it was because when I finally got the opportunity to study I worked hard, I was always with the books, sometimes until 1:00 AM.
“I wanted to learn Vietnamese also but the teachers said it was too much. But I am stubborn and I studied with a cook at the school and I learned to read and write Vietnamese fluently.”
Becoming a leader
“I wanted to become a good leader, committed to the people. When I felt something was unjust during the Khmer Rouge years, it raised questions about what it should be to have authority. I am always hurt by the ways those with authority treat those who are powerless. So [I wanted to] become an educated leader who is honest, who does not steal, who is committed to social justice.
“I love Ratanakiri, I love the forest, and I don’t want to be anywhere else. I work for the people there and my country, not just for me. My colleagues, my staff, they know the kind of person I am, and what I want to do. It’s not about me and my family, but all the indigenous people who have been through all the same things I have.”