Written by Eryn Austin-Bergen | Interview by Chorn Keonghao
Mao Kreng is a survivor. He was just 21 years old when the Khmer Rouge—a homegrown political movement—seized control of Cambodia. Over the next four years, he watched as a quarter of his countrymen—his friends, neighbours, and family members—died from disease, starvation, exhaustion, or execution. It is estimated that between 1.7 and 3 million people lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979.
At age 25, Kreng lived through Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia that drove the Khmer Rouge into a jungle insurgency, triggering two bloody decades of civil war. While the 2000s brought a measure of stability, the people continued to struggle. Survivors like Kreng lived alongside perpetrators of the war and a deep-seated mistrust permeated the culture.
Little was done to help the traumatized (on both sides) process the atrocities they had experienced. Now age 66, Mao Kreng is courageously opening a new chapter on life for himself and his community.
A leader on his village’s development committee, he is helping his community heal, rebuild trust, and prepare a future for their children full of hope and free from fear.
“As far as I can remember, a long time ago, we [community members] had a good relationship with each other. There was solidarity and trust. Then along the way, because of hard life, we lost these and we broke our relationship and minded our own business to survive day-to-day.
“I was a victim of the Khmer Rouge. My hand was shot during the war.
“My and my wife’s source of income was farming. We used our traditional way of planting and raising animals, but we always fell short in our harvest. We survived, but not a good [survival] because we could not help others.
“I had a big role in the community, but I wasn’t a good role model—I seldom attended meetings and activities in the village. I didn’t have a good relationship with the people because I had no self-confidence and was a little aggressive. If I had ideas and opinions, I liked to insist it to be right; I was not open to the ideas of others. I focused on the needs of my family only and I forgot that as a leader I had to think of what was good for the community, especially the families who needed help.
|“I actively participate in the events in the community. …Even if I am old already, I am willing to do it.” Mao Kreng helps erect a creative fence for the village’s children’s club.|
“When FH entered my community, they started to re-establish our Community Development Committee (CDC). It was there before but was not functional. I was selected to be in charge of agriculture and learned new techniques [from FH] to help encourage other farmers like me to improve our production. Some of these included fish raising and home gardening. I attended [FH] training sessions on how to become a good leader, from our roles to the characteristics of being a servant leader. When I learned about the character of a good leader, I realized that is the kind of leader I wanted to be.
|In spite of having stopped school after Grade 8, Mao Kreng is a thoughtful and intelligent leader. After confidence-boosting leadership training with FH, he’s no longer hesitant to discuss ideas with his fellow CDC members.|
“We created a regular schedule for our quarterly/semi-annual meetings to discuss issues in our community and as leaders, how we can help develop it. We set our priorities and decided as a team to put them into action. We successfully planned to build two more roads so that people can travel easily in and out of our community. We encouraged our community to form savings groups and now we have two. We built our meeting hall and made a beautiful learning space for our children in their children’s club. We have a [tree] nursery; the trees will be planted on the roads to provide shade to people when they’re traveling because during dry season, it’s very hot. We have solidarity and regained the trust that we once lost.
|Mao Kreng and his wife enjoy eating the abundance from their garden and sell the delicious organic produce as their main source of income.|
“I improved a lot, especially my mind set. I’ve become more open and share my ideas and listen to others, too. With these changes, I feel the people around me value me as a leader. I feel the same way toward them. I value them and I can say that I love them, and I love being of service to them.
“My wife and myself [now] have more than enough. We have a good harvest from our garden. Since we are old, our bodies are very particular with the kind of food we eat; now we can be assured that we eat healthy food because we use natural pesticides and compost in growing them. I’m inspired to see other people in the community having a sustainable livelihood. We care about each other and the things happening in our community, especially to the children. We’re all learning together. I am really happy because I became the leader that I hoped to be.”