“They call me Cat man, I’ve died 13 times but I’m still here.” I thought I misunderstood him but he went on to tell each story. He stepped on landmines, got shot several times, stood too close behind a rocket launcher, and had his heart stop during the surgeries to get the shrapnel out. He showed each scar and laughed at how he was lucky that the wound on his thigh wasn’t 5 inches to the right. I looked at it all and listened with a strange feeling of shock, not the kind of shock when something happens suddenly. It was an eerie curiosity as to how anyone could talk about such tragedy the way Cat man was talking about the Khmer Rouge and his own tragedies through the war.
Cambodia has evoked many emotions in me in the week I’ve been here and I have the feeling that its not done with me yet. Wandering through the war Museum in Siam Reap with Cat man telling horrific stories of things he had live through made it hard to ignore the feeling of quiet terror that people can do such horrible things to each other. I don’t try to ignore the reality of death, suffering and grief, especially here in Cambodia but even so there are so many kinds of pain I know nothing about. A story about a distant land doesn’t feel like seeing a person who has lived through it while standing in the place where it happened. Despite America being involved in wars my whole life I have not seen war, its easy to be insulated from the degree of cultural pain that war creates when my only reference to it is knowing a few US military veterans and a few stories of their experiences.
Cat man led my group to a great hunk of metal that used to be a war vehicle. “I had friend, he died in that.” I assumed he was saying his friend died in a machine Like that one. “Look there, that’s his shoe, and over there is his femur.” I couldn’t see inside at first but I could see the faces of the other people in my group. It wasn’t surprise on their faces, their faces said ‘what the fuck, Why would his bones still be there? How could that machine be here? How is this in a museum?’ It was bizarre and it explained something that was hard for me to see. The suffering happened here, to these people, very recently. Seeing that mans leg bone still in the vehicle he died in showed me how real it is, not was, it didn’t happen in the past or in the jungle miles from town. During his talk about landmines Cat man told us that someone had died at 9am that morning from a landmine, he told us that every week people die from landmines. Not in the war years ago but today in 2015 people die from landmines still all over Cambodia.
“I hope it doesn’t happen again” an older woman said to our guide after the end of the tour. It felt like a cruel separation and such an insensitive thing to say, I didn’t blame her for saying it like I wouldn’t say the same thing just to say something. What can you possible say after looking at a wall full of pictures of children crippled by landmines?
How can you show sympathy for someone with one leg and one eye when you have been well fed and safe your whole life?
I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing.