“If you want to capture the heart of a country for change, you impact the children.”
— Wonjae (Hudson) Yu
As a byproduct of Cambodia's horrific past involving poverty, oppression and genocide due to the Khmer Rouge, human life is perceived almost meaningless to many parents of this generation. In turn, child sex trafficking has been a rampant, ongoing issue in this country. During New Mercy's initial vision trip in 2013, God planted a seed in many of our hearts for the children of Cambodia. In January 2015, we decided to return with a fuller team to work with an organization called Hard Place Community to bring on Christ's love and support for these children.
This is a photographic journal with the accounts of the members as we witnessed the evident love and presence of God in this beautiful place.
Before we began our ministry with Hard Places, we visited two sites that were preserved as a memorial and museum of the Khmer Rouge genocide, in order to better understand the direct source of the resulting problems. Even to this day, the memories and emotions of the Khmer Rouge are still very raw and relevant to the entire country.
The first site we visited was Choeung Ek, more widely known as the Killing Fields. These fields were a mass grave during the genocide as prisoners were sent by the thousands every night for execution.
It is estimated that the Khmer Rouge murdered over 1 million of their own countrymen in only a span of 5 years.
The tower of bones stands
Nineteen levels high.
Who deemed it honorable
Five years of atrocity into
Five thousand skeleton parts
Neatly labeled and color-coded with stickers:
JUVENILE MALE KAMPUCHEAN 15 TO 20 YEARS OLD (blue dot)
MATURE FEMALE KAMPUCHEAN 40 TO 60 YEARS OLD (red dot)
DEATH BY HAMMER (purple dot)
DEATH BY SICKLE (green dot)
DEATH BY SCYTHE (orange dot)
DEATH BY BULLET (yellow dot)
As if there were more reverence for
being killed by a blade run through your temple
than having your head smashed in?
Who deemed it essential
Horror from horror
as if those rainbow dots
could ever help us to cope with the chaos in our souls?
Who deemed it suitable
the ranks of mangled skulls from the dust
but to abandon the levels beyond human heights
to the mercy of grime?
Who deemed it respectable
the remains of the dead
forever with the instruments used to murder them?
There is no dignity here.
Yet as my lungs strain
Twenty-seven years of oppressively stale air
from my body,
my petitioning heart finds the answer.
Who was condemned to a criminal's death
at the place of the Skull
on the cross -
stark, offensive ugliness:
THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS
Who was resplendent not in the finest robes,
but dripping with spit and blood
while the dark tourists gambled for His possessions.
Who, when thirsty, was offered not the choicest wine,
but bitter vinegar.
Whose side was pierced by a spear.
Flanked by two lowlife thieves,
His death bore no dignity.
All for the sake of redeeming
We fall so short of Your glory,
yet You bestow us great honor
and bring order and comfort to our souls.
The champion of grace
The overcomer of death
He is victorious.
Choeung Ek, you are not forgotten.
Kampuchea, you have not been forsaken.
His justice is coming.
Rest in peace.
– Melissa Yoon
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The next stop was once a school that was repurposed into a concentration camp. Victims were detained and held captive with physical and psychological abuse until they were later sent to the killing fields for execution. Some classrooms were used as torture chambers while others fitted tiny holding cells. Visiting these two sites brought upon initial heaviness and hopelessness to the team. It was hard for a lot of us to stomach.
So much darkness,
and yet there is hope and light THAT IS strong.
Although the evil and darkness has permeated from this sad recent history into the present, there is a strong light that shines today in the heart of Cambodia. We were able to catch a glimpse of that light when we visited New Life Fellowship Church on Sunday afternoon. Each one of us was captivated by the intensity in the joy and worship that drowned the room during the entire service. Fortunately, despite not knowing the language, we were able to receive the message through the help of radio translators.
Hard Places Community
"We are not afraid of the darkness. We choose to live among it, but to live our lives in such a way that the light within us shines though the dark around us."
- HPC Core Team
In January 2009, the Hard Places Community planted a site in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They dove right in to a world of darkness, working in one of the most notorious villages renown for its trafficking of very young children. They ministered to the children during the day, who were sold by night, creating residential after-care centers for girls who were rescued, and also comforting hundreds of boys, whose pain was ignored by their own community.
HPC is a place that carries stories of redemption, where ordinary people become unlikely heroes, bringing hope in the midst of darkness. We were honored to worked with them. During our visit, we prepared a week-long program of storytelling and activities based around children’s books and stories through various stations. In the afternoons, we joined the Hard Places staff in a street outreach program called "Kid’s Club". We played games, put on skits and also provided medical attention. Through this program, HPC is able to establish new relationships and inform the kids about the Hard Places Community.
A Story of Redemption THROUGH Hard PlaceS COMMUNITY
During the last leg of the trip, we met up with another organization, XP Missions, to visit families who live out in the slums. XP Missions focuses their ministry on building trust and relationships with these families to help them out of poverty, prostitution and abuse. The team broke out into three parts to serve in different capacities: children's ministry, medical attention and a family portrait project.
We wanted to bring an idea of restoration and provide a tangible symbol of family unity and values to these broken homes. We were guided through the intricate alleys of the village with a translator, offering family portraits to be printed for them right on the spot.
While we were shooting, many of them did not even know how to act in front of the camera. Perhaps it was the first time they ever had their picture taken. However, families were very receptive and many wanted a family photo. People started to approach us and we had to sadly turn them down as we ran out of time. This project got our heads really cranking about the next time and how we can do it bigger and better.
The Pearl of Asia
the tide was higher ever since those nights
a river filled with tears of your children
the pearl hid at the bottom
a generation of silent screams
muted by patches of grass and dirt
but you heard them through the diesel engine
a melody of orchestrated madness
whistled soft darkness through the branches
a tree of a thousand cries
you felt every scratch on its trunk
and kept those scars as your own
the pounding pulsed ripples into the present
and stayed buried in shallow pits
they all waited to see the sun once more
and you waited with them
the parody of revolution
always comes undone
the reflection of an unforgettable past
stays trapped in a dirty mirror
the heart must grow hard
harder than any pearl ever was
because throwing it all out
is always easier than picking up the pieces
but you kept yours soft for them
just like the passing monks say
out of heart, out of mind
the pain washes out with identity
sculpted still by yesterday
their heads can’t turn to face tomorrow
and the schoolyards are finally quiet
but you are singing
and the kids find their song again
rhymes trickling through the cracks
something about the moon, mountains and you
small laughters echo into endless holes
and the streets are peppered with tiny feet
sunbeams and jump ropes
whichever one, they skip
looking towards the sky
to be carried and spun
they climb the tree of a thousand cries
because they feel your arms in the branches
and they know their cries are heard
even through the dirt and the dark
you always kept this pearl white