I made a friend in Japan who I bonded with over a discussion about bombs. Rika and I chose to spend the day together in Hiroshima, and neither of us held back as we asked questions and provided answers about the war and the atomic attack. We realized that both of our understandings of the atomic bomb were deeply rooted in the patriotic telling of history provided by our textbooks and educators which gave a single perspective in an infinite sea of war stories.
In Cambodia, I entered another former enemy’s territory. I knew little about the Vietnam War outside of what movies, popular culture, and brief mentions in history books have taught me.
In Cambodia, I learned about the War from child survivors of landmine explosions.
The Cambodian countryside appears much as I imagine it did forty years ago, with yaks still serving as a major form of transport and labor, children playing naked in water pools, and families working from dawn until dusk in the rice paddies before returning to their thatched roof huts. This tranquil setting is where the vast majority of Cambodia’s 40,000 amputees lost their limbs and where most of the estimated 4-6 million remaining undetonated devices reside.
During the War, Vietnamese used territory within Laos and Cambodia to supply troops in Vietnam. Known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this supply line became a main target for near-continual American bombing that resulted in the loss of an estimated 600,000 Cambodian civilian lives. Hundreds of thousands of these bombs did not detonate and still litter the countryside, making rural Cambodia one of the most dangerous places in the world to live over thirty years later.
The number of undetonated ordinances increased following the end of the Vietnam War with the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Landmines were seen as a key part of their strategy, debilitating but not killing their victims, as the economic cost of an amputee to an enemy is greater than that of a casualty.
At the Cambodia Land Mine Museum and Rescue Center, children who have lost limbs receive an education and disability care. There, in the countryside of Siem Reap, I heard the stories of children as young as five who had been picking rice or walking to school when a bomb exploded nearby. These children, forever disabled, knew nothing of the difference between communism and democracy. The stories they wished to share were not about politics or war strategies, but about the long-term impact of bombs.
As I left the museum and the smiling faces of the limbless children, I felt deep appreciation for what a blessing it is that people have openly shared with me stories from the other side, those told by child soldiers, limbless civilians, and A-bomb survivors. The stories of war continue long after the signing of peace agreements and can be heard in the voices echoing in the countryside many years later.