He tells me a story about his life under Pol Pot. I imagine palm trees and the hot, humid weather. I imagine the fear. He’s in his fifties but I think he’s thirty-something. His face is at peace and smooth of Western worry. His eyes are warm and do not haunt. Treks have kept him fit. His body is lithe and free of indulgence – he eats just enough to survive. He is here with us. Standing like his name, like a tree, straight and quiet.
He tells us: They came to our village and lined us up.
We sit around him, a group of trekkers, silent, listening to him. We look up to him, like school children would to a teacher.
He tells us: They tied our hands with rope. My mother, my father, my brother, me and the rest of our village all lined up in a row. I am small so I am at the back. I am blindfolded so I cannot see anything but I hear the sounds of chopping. A deep thwack and a stifled scream. Then I hear the whimpering of those in front of me as they await their fate. I am only ten but I know death when I hear it.
We sit silent and still. Fear has gripped us. His nightmare, still so clear in his mind, is now in our mind. We share his fear. He shares his soul.
He tells us: My blindfold is loose and I can see a little out of it. I turn my head up to see men hitting their machetes into people’s heads. Sometimes they hit them a number of times before they fall. I hear the falling bodies. I let the blindfold cover my eyes again as I don’t want to see anymore.
He tells us: I have never been so afraid. I am small and so afraid. I feel them coming closer and I hear the sound of my mother, father and brother dying. I don’t look at them. I can’t see them but I hear them dying. I feel the men come closer. I feel the rope go slack around my wrists.
We don’t know how he’s standing in front of us, like a tree, unmoved by his horror. Imagining his fear is almost too much for us.
He tells us: The rope goes slack and I quickly look out of the gap in my blindfold. The men are distracted and my legs run towards the jungle. It is not far and it is thick. I run into the jungle and hide. I hear them yelling and running after me. I find a spot, well hidden and don’t move. They search for me until dark. I remain frozen under a tree. Frozen by fear and frozen by the fact I have escaped death when my family did not. I am alone.
We look at this man who is not defined by his fear. His name is fitting. Like a tree, he is strong. He is probably the strongest man I know even though he’s barely five foot four and weighs less than me, less than a woman.
He tells us: I spent a year in the jungle. Eating and living off the jungle. It was my friend and it was my enemy. Then the Vietnamese army captured me and I fight with them. I try to escape but it was hard so I stay with them. I saw America bomb Vietnam and Cambodia and I saw lots of land mines. Sometimes up close. Sometimes after someone’s leg had been blown off.
He shows us a scar from a land mine. It is a river etched into his skin, deepened with time flowing through him like a beautiful tattoo. It is smooth and holds no hurt or anger. Like Tree, his skin has showed defiance over tragedy to tell us it is only temporary and all things can heal in their own way.