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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #21 (May 18, 2004), page 1 and 24.
Holding their lives up to the light
Soul Survivors: Stories of Women and Children in Cambodia
By Carol Wagner
Photography by Valentina DuBasky
Creative Arts Book Company, 2002
Paperback, 259 pages, $15.95
By Dave Johnson
Since 1991, peace worker Carol Wagner and photographer Valentina DuBasky have repeatedly traveled to Cambodia to record the histories of the women and children who survived the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rampage and resultant two decades of civil war.
Samples of these accounts can be found in Soul Survivors, a book that documents the lives of twelve courageous women and children who stayed in Cambodia after the terror that lasted between 1975 and 1979, when nearly two million people died from execution, starvation, or disease.
Included are biographical sketches of a farmer, a landmine victim, a Buddhist nun, and two refugees who came to the U.S. as orphans and returned as young adults to help their country.
Another character in the book is Sam Ol, a classical dancer who escaped the Khmer Rouge to suffer during the regime of Pol Pot while living near the border of Thailand. She is now a classical dancer at the royal palace.
The author had no choice but to include the personal tale of a prostitute she calls Bopha. Due to the grinding poverty, political and cultural chaos, and the inescapable desperation that dominates so many lives, the sex industry has consumed millions of women and children. Bopha’s biography is a painful case in point. Her parents were too poor to send her to school, so she stayed at home in the village. As a young adult, she accepted a job as a housekeeper in Phnom Penh. When she arrived in the nation’s capital, Wagner explains, Bopha was deceived, raped, abandoned, and forced to turn to prostitution to survive.
After the portrayals, Wagner adds chapters that elaborate how the Khmer Rouge came to power, the impact of the Buddhist peace movement, and the problem of six million landmines. She includes a chronology of Cambodian history, and a map of Cambodia.
Illustrating the inspiring and at times heartrending chronicles of these damaged lives are DuBasky’s 64 photographs. They eloquently capture the women and children at work, at play, and relaxing in quiet moments. She adds a photo of one of the few Buddhist temples that survived the horror and examples of soldiers and other victims of landmine explosions.
In a comment about the Cambodians presented in Soul Survivors, noted author and Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says, "The eloquence of their stories and the heartbreak they depict become ennobling because of the spirit that carries them. They are stories that have to be told, that have to be held up to the light of humanity."
Wagner and DuBasky have worked creatively, diligently, and at times at great peril, to hold these stories to that light. They glow.
* * *
Peace worker makes a difference
By Dave Johnson
In 1991, during a Citizens’ Diplomacy Trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, she became troubled by the extreme poverty and suffering she witnessed, and began to record her observations. These notes became Soul Survivors, a collection of personal profiles.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the end of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, Wagner is taking her book on tour across the U.S. with Prach Ly, a Cambodian rap singer who recently released a CD, and Fragile Hopes, a documentary film about the spirit of Cambodia.
In cities including Seattle, she will give talks and show slides about her journeys and peace efforts. The Seattle event will be held on Sunday, May 30 at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work.
Wagner’s collaborative efforts have also led to a scholarship program for Vietnamese girls, the My Lai Women’s Revolving Loan Fund, a university scholarship program for women in Cambodia, and a program to market crafts made by Cambodian widows and landmine victims.
Here in the U.S., Wagner has helped to create Indochina Support Groups in Madison, Wisconsin and San Francisco, California and given public talks and written articles about Cambodia and Vietnam. Wagner, also known as Bavia (humility), recently returned from a trip to Cambodia to her home in Eugene, Oregon.
She reports that she visited projects in the rural regions of the country, including self-help groups devoted to stopping domestic violence, and non-governmental organizations (NGO) started by citizens who want to stop illegal logging, poaching, and illegal fishing by foreign trawlers.
She says, "I am encouraged by these assertive, non-confrontational people who are using the legal system to address these problems."
Back in Eugene, Wagner has led efforts to launch "Friendship With Cambodia." Based in Eugene, the project funds women’s groups, scholarships for poor children, and a rehabilitation program for victims of landmines. It also offers Friendship Tours to Cambodia (February 2005) and sponsors peace retreats. Fees from these meditative weekends support the programs described above.
For those who would like to order a copy of Soul Survivors, invite Bavia to give a talk about the programs, or need more information about the projects, she can be reached at P.O. Box 5231, Eugene, OR 97405, by e-mailing <email@example.com>, or by calling (541) 343-3782. To attend the program in Seattle, call (206) 685-3861 or e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>.