This past week Genocide Watch, hosted a screening of the film Enemies of the People.
The film's title emphasizes the filmmakers' journey into the contemporary rural Cambodian countryside to expose and understand more about these people that led the killings during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
Turning Your Enemy Into Your Father
One of Cambodia's top investigative journalists shares a portion of his ten-year study of and relationship with Pol Pot's number two. Together they ran a regime responsible for the murder of roughly two million people at the end of the 1970s. Those who survived their families were irreparably harmed as well. The nation still quakes in the aftermath as trials continue to persecute these now octogenarians.
The film was haunting on several counts. The film presents journalist Thet Sambath as spending over a decade interviewing Nuon Chea, "Brother Number Two", whose actions he can easily link to the death of most of his family. Yet the film portrays his relationship with Chea as almost familial. Sambath seemed no more unease with Chea than any young might be faced with a father with whom he struggled. The documentary shows Sambath leaving his wife and kids for four days every week to spend time with Brother Number Two and his family. Sambath's wife wondered why he spent all his time and much of their money to work on this documentary. The film left me wondering if Sambath was more than investigating Chea, he was turning him into the father he never had. When Chea is picked up by a helicopter to face trial, Sambath expresses his sadness Another "parent lost."
In some Joseph Campbell sense, this dynamic echoes a deeper archetypal journey of the hero. A similar theme emerges in the Star Wars series in which Luke Skywalker's struggles to make sense of Darth Vader as his father.
On planet earth, finding the "enemies of the people" can be so much more complex in the aftermath, especially in communities where some of these people have spent decades reintegrating into the fabric of the culture uncontested. How then to extricate them? Well, more or less like a tooth, it seems. You lift them out with a helicopter and send them to trial. When they are pulled out, the roots and networks of memory linked to them are disturbed. The culture swells and aches when this "rotten tooth" is removed. Old memories are stirred and unacknowledged losses perk up with the hope that perhaps now might be the time all becomes exposed.
Those living in the aftermath seem to have mixed feelings about exposing this horrific past. The pain they've struggled to live with haunts them but some seem to feel it's safer where it is. Bringing it all up may make it worse or even trigger a recurrence of the past.
Is It About Communism?
What also struck me about the film and the Cambodian killings more generally, was the connection to communism. People were slaughtered for "not" supporting communism. I'm no fan of communism in any form (if still unconvinced by history, try Hayek's Road to Serfdom); but to blame communism would miss the point here. The Indonesian genocide in 1965, about a decade prior, used allegedly being a communist as the reason for the murder. So, it's dammed if you are and dammed if you aren't communist when it comes to Southeast Asia in the 1960s-1970s.
I'm not sure why communism is so linked in both atrocities; I suspect it has something to do with the red scare in the United States, containment, and allowing Stalin to enact his will. Alas, this pulls at a thread too thick and connected to explore in this blog.
Until the next one....
I have had the good fortune the past couple weeks to leave my desk a bit more and spend time with children.
What terrific playmates they can me! They are endlessly creative and their moods change faster than the weather in San Francisco. They are eager and curious and as many people know...time with them provides stellar opportunities to practice conflict resolution.
This blog, I want to talk about how one child helped me experience the value of familiar words to ease anxiety and panic in groups or individuals.
The Baby Test!
A professor, handed me his thirteen-month old and said, "I have to take his brother to school for about thirty-minutes. He'll probably scream the entire time I'm gone, but there's really nothing to do about it. He's just going through a separation phase."
"No problem," I say but am really thinking "Oh great, thirty-minutes of screaming?
I'm a scholar without children, I cannot handle a one-minute police siren or a garbage truck.
I looked at the adorable kid and thought, "we can do better than screaming."
His father walked out the door and the crying began. He stood looking at the door totally distraught. Tears screaming down his cheeks; he had his little shoes in hand, thinking he was going to be included on the outing. I felt bad for him...it's hard to be left behind without knowing why.
I picked up the screaming little chap and tried to fruitlessly to entertain him with brightly colored plastic blocks.
Then, I wondered what would make ME feel better if I were in his place?
I picked him up and began singing him a song filled with words that would be familiar to him. I used the name of his brother, mommy, daddy, milk, home, etc. The chorus of the song was all about how much they loved him and how they would be home soon.
Needless to say, he liked the song. He relaxed into my arms and started starring out the window. Who wouldn't love a custom song with familiar words and about how wonderful he is?
When he eventually tired of my limited melody, I switched to more musically sophisticated children's songs. When that stopped working, I took him on a tour of his own house, talking about all the cool things...especially the toys in his brothers room which he probably was never allowed to see up close.
Soon after, the door opened and in trotted his father and brother. The little guy was still chillin' in my arms enjoying the one-on-one time. When I put him back on the floor to be with them, he just stood there looking at me as if saying, "Does this mean it's over?"
I have been studying the role of language in conflict for a number of years now and this experience made me consider how "familiar words" can be soothing for anyone in conflict or experiencing anxiety. Words that remind one of a simpler time, loved ones, support networks, or much loved places can help deescalate panic. When people are in conflict, they are often afraid of losing something (material or immaterial - like esteem, power etc). The anxiety of this real or perceived loss can create all kinds of distress.
Throwing at them new vocabulary and terms can be a useful distraction. At the same time using the names, places and words familiar to them can bring them ease. Milton Erickson- one of the world's foremost change experts -- and renowned therapist Cloe Madanes, and master coach Tony Robbis encourage therapists and coaches to use the metaphors provided by the people in distress. For example, if someone says, "I'm at the end my rope!" Tony says, tell them to "put it down and pick up another one." Use their words to bring them to a state in which you can work with them on a solution.
Maternal Language Works Best
Through my training with Somato Respiratory Integration (a bodywork technique that helps people with anxiety and chronic pain), I learned to work with people in their maternal tongue. People resonate more, even on a cellular level, when hearing and using their maternal language.
I used this knowledge when working with some elderly Holocaust survivors who grew up in France. Even if they had forgotten most of the language, I could trigger more of their memories by throwing in French words here and there. I saw faces change with the mere sound of the French language.
But what about BIG conflict?
Ok, you say, this might work for a crying baby or an elderly individual, but what about with Syrian refugees or those struggling in Israel or Palestine?
Remember, many people are terrified of change and loss. The loss of their culture, home, way of life and loved ones. If, in your work with them, you can use their mother tongue and talk to them about things, places and people they love you can help move them out of panic and into a state where you can work on solutions.
In panic and shock, people can rarely find solutions. If you are working with any of these populations, talk to them about THEIR worlds and use their words not yours.
Help them feel at home with you...and they just might relax enough to take a nap in your lap.