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Kate Webb sitting on a hammock.
Kate Webb sitting on a hammock. Sylvana Foa/Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives

The legacy of Kate Webb

I had a chance to read a personal story of vietnam War correspondent Kate Webb. She was captured by the north Vietnamese Viet Cong in 1971 in Cambodia. She described in detail the event of abduction, the period during which she was detained, and her personal emotions in connection to what happened. her revelation of the chaotic situations in Cambodia and Vietnam during the time brings to mind the countless other personal accounts of Cambodians who lived through the war (1970-75) and the subsequent rule of the Khmer rouge. One of the commonalities I found in these accounts was that war was indiscriminate. Whether you were a soldier who waged the war or a civilian who tried to escaped it, wars would haunt to the core of your soul. And they would definitely make you vanish from the world in no time.

War and genocide in Cambodia and elsewhere are destructive, the legacy of which remains with individuals who go through them long after they end. However, not only do they leave permanent scars on the lives of direct survivors, they also have immense impact on the whole society and many generations that come after them.

I have never experienced a war first hand. However, the stories of those who experienced them – whether they were the direct survivors, the citizens of the country at war, the outsiders who were trapped in the wars, or the reporters who captured the images of wars – struck me to the deepest level. I could feel their fears of death, their strength for survival, and ultimately their bravery of recovering from their trauma. I have been fortunate to be living a life without wars. However, given the long lasting impact of war and genocide, a positive peace, promised by the spirit of Paris Peace agreement signed on October 23, 1991, which effectively marked the official end of armed conflicts in Cambodia, has hardly been achieved. The recent 24th anniversary of the Peace agreement makes me consider the challenges we are facing today, the challenges left behind.

I was born into a family that survived. Following the Khmer Rouge regime, they worked hard for our survival. They made sure that I had enough to eat and received proper education. My family has sacrificed a lot for my own growth. not many girls or boys at my age have enjoyed such a privilege. However, children in my generation share one thing in common: we grew up under the same conditions. Our families started everything from scratch following the Khmer Rouge years. We grew up in a time when Cambodia was recovering from the war and genocide that gripped the country for many years. My family and many other Cambodians strived to rebuild their lives. Despite all the difficulties, many of us manage to lead a better life, at the very least, we manage to stay out of hunger.

To this day, I still see the struggle that Cambodian people go through on a daily basis. I have always hoped that I was among the last generation who had to experience the struggle shared by survivors in the post-Khmer Rouge era. When a new generation arises, the growth of our country does not ensure lasting peace and prosperity for each life. I still see children going hungry, being unable to go to school, suffering from domestic violence, abuses, discriminations and exploitations. It happens right in my neighbourhood, to my own relatives, and it occurs in front of my eyes. When I turn around, I would see children left hungry and beg on the streets. I keep wondering why after a generation has passed, they still cannot make the basic needs meet. Why can’t they still have enough to eat and why can’t all children go to school? What does the Peace agreement do to help improve people’s lives?

Kate Webb (right) with Chhim Sarath, a driver who was captured and killed.
Kate Webb (right) with Chhim Sarath, a driver who was captured and killed. Sylvana Foa/Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives

The destruction of war and genocide in Cambodia did not end at a ceasefire, a peace agreement or a national election. Without resolving its root causes, it continues to live with us on a daily basis. The legacy of war and genocide affects the living conditions of all people; it leaves behind all types of violence, ranging from direct to structural violence. Not only does it have tremendous impacts on the well-being of individuals and the society, the impact of violence is transferred from one to another generation. While direct violence may have reduced in its intensity, structural violence that is deeply rooted in our society is not faded from us easily. We still have to deal with the inequality in access to education, the problem of human trafficking, child labour, environment degradation and the cycle of poverty among the majority of the population. The obscurity of such violence has left most of us blind to the solutions. but what we should remember is that violence has not been blind to us, it is embedded in our society at all levels, from the individual to the institutional level.

We know that war was unkind to people. It took life and inflicted pain and loss on people. However, even after the war ended, a peace agreement was signed; there is still no guarantee for true peace. Violence continues to take place in our society. It is obscured from our plain eyes, but deeply entrenched in our everyday life. The structural violence we face every day is a true challenge in an apparently peaceful period. The official end of armed conflict was only the beginning of a long journey for Cambodia to deal with the real challenges. Each and every one of us has an obligation at our own capacity to end this long cycle of violence. The process does not take a generation like I have personally hoped for, but most likely a lifetime of a person or many generations.

Kate Webb said in the book’s epilogue that, if possible, she wished to meet with her abductors again under a different circumstance. Kate Webb’s unfortunate experiences occurred during wartime. After the war, if the soldier had survived and if she managed to meet him, her wish would be fulfilled. For Cambodia, even though the war and genocide ended more than 30 years ago and a peace agreement was signed 24 years ago, a promise for positive peace in Cambodia is still yet to materialise.

Kate Webb’s book On the Other Side: 23 Days With the Viet Cong is available at Amazon.com.

Savina Sirik is a graduate of the University of Coventry’s Peace and Conflict Studies and is currently a PhD student in the department of geography at Kent State University and director of the Museum of Memory, a project at the Sleuk Rith Institute – the permanent documentation center of Cambodia.

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