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Glimpses of heaven — and hell — in Cambodia


A Buddhist temple, or wat, in rural Cambodia near Phnom Penh (Photo by Erik Tryggestad

Just after finishing our Global South feature on Cambodia, “Life, death and rebirth in The Killing Fields,” I left on an Africa reporting trip. So I didn’t get the chance to share some insights from my visit to Cambodia earlier this year.
I flew to Phnom Penh, the capital, from Singapore and stayed for a few days before traveling northwest to Siem Reap, where I made a brief visit to the Angkor of Faith 4 youth camp. While in Phnom Penh, I stayed at the home of Rich and Ronda Dolan. They moved to Cambodia a few years ago to work with the Cambodia Bible Institute, a satellite campus of Lubbock, Texas-based Sunset International Bible Institute. Rich is the former youth and family minister for the Broken Arrow, Okla., Church of Christ, so we spent some time talking about mutual friends in the Sooner state.

Dennis and Sharon Welch (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

I also met Dennis and Sharon Welch, who also help with the institute. Dennis was an air-traffic controller in Dallas for 20 years before enrolling in Sunset’s mission program in Lubbock. Joy and Lynn McMillon interviewed him in 2007 for a feature on Sunset. It was nice to see him and his wife at work in the mission field.
The Welches are transitioning into a new ministry role. They will oversee the rural nutrition program I wrote about in the Cambodia feature. The program, which provides nutrition and education for 1,600 children in 11 villages, formerly was overseen by Arkansas-based Partners in Progress.
Now the Central Church of Christ in Stockton, Calif., is taking over support of the ministry.
I got to see the nutrition program firsthand while I was in Cambodia. I took some photos and video of happy children lining up to get a nutritious snack from the Cambodian Christians who work with the program. My favorite part was watching the Cambodians hold up flash cards with words like “ear” and “nose” and teaching the children how to say and spell them in English.

Snacks in hand, girls in rural Cambodia are all smiles. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

Troy Snowbarger took me from village to village as he showed me the program in action. He and his wife, Tabitha, have overseen the program for a few years, but plan to return to the States to pursue master’s degrees. They formerly worked with the Peace Corps in East Timor. (I’m guessing they were the first Church of Christ members to set foot in that tiny, impoverished nation, but I could be wrong about that.)

Troy Snowbarger watches as children line up for snacks in rural Cambodia. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

The Central Church of Christ already has funds committed to oversight of the nutrition program, but more money is needed. If anyone is interested in helping out, please contact the church. (Check out Dennis and Sharon’s blog for more information.)
Church members also teach English using the Bible to Cambodian students in Phnom Penh.
I visited a ministry center where volunteers were doing just that, using the World English Institute curriculum. Partners in Progress had oversight of the program at the time, but in the months since that has changed.
Now the program is called Bible English Study and Training, or BEST. Julie Broyles oversees the program, and she’s looking for teachers to come to Cambodia on short-term mission trips. Contact World English Institute for more info. (Julie is Ronda Dolan’s sister, by the way. They both grew up in Thailand, where their father, Loren Hollingsworth, served as a missionary for 30-plus years.)

Cell block at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Memorial in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

In the Cambodia feature, I wrote about Sokhom Hun, the Cambodian-born minister who endured prison and torture at the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge.
While I was in Phnom Penh I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Memorial. It’s a former school that became the infamous S-21 prison during the Khmer Rouge years. Vietnamese troops discovered the prison when they ran the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh in 1979. They took photos of the dead bodies strapped to iron bed frames in former classrooms that had become torture chambers.
Those photos hang on the walls of the rooms in which they were taken. The bed frames and the torture implements are still there. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous notes and photos of the people they imprisoned and murdered there. The photos are on display in the museum. You can see the terror behind the prisoners’ blank stares. An estimated 17,000 people entered those walls and never left.
I can barely put into words what walking through that museum was like. A Cambodian walked up to me while I was looking in one of the rooms.
“Where you from?” he asked, in broken English. I told him I was from Oklahoma.
“This my first time,” he said. Then he shuddered and pointed to his forearms.
I knew what he meant — goosebumps. I had them too.

An interrogation room at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Memorial in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

While preparing the report on Cambodia, I was blessed to come across “Survival in the Killing Fields” by Haing Ngor with Roger Warner. Ngor won an Oscar for his portrayal of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran in the 1984 film “The Killing Fields.” Ngor himself was a physician in Cambodia who was tortured repeatedly by the Khmer Rouge. (In fact, what he endured during the regime makes Dith Pran’s experiences seem almost mild.) Ngor is a tragic figure (he was killed in 1996 in an apparent robbery) and his insights into the paranoid mentality of the Khmer Rouge really helped me to understand the regime — as much as it is possible to do so. The parts of the book that deal with torture are graphic, but it’s a compelling read. I highly recommend it.

  • Feedback
    Excellent video and information on Cambodia! I was there in February and first week of March and went to Ship of Life, PIP house and nutrtion program. I loved every minute of it and seeing the joy on those kids faces was worth the trip alone. There is some great servants in Cambodia and one day they will get their reward.
    Help out if you can it is worth it.
    Rob Burnstad
    September, 2 2010

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