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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Death returns to the House of Doves

Death returns to the House of Doves

BANTEAY PRIEB, the House of the Doves, used to be a military communications center

in Lon Nol times.

Under Pol Pot, the long buildings were turned into chambers of death. The Vietnamese-backed

State of Cambodia made it a prison.

Five years ago, Jesuit Service Cambodia (JSC) turned the site into a school for the

disabled, so that one day those affected by polio, mines and war could fit into society

again.

On Oct 17, Richard Michael R Fernando, 26, of the Philippines - the one they called

"Richie" - was killed at Banteay Prieb, in Kandal province half an hour's

drive from Phnom Penh, when he tried to stop a student from throwing a grenade. He

took the full brunt of the blast.

JSC staff said his action saved the lives of others.

"Once in a while we all manage to be astounded by the heroism of our fellow

human beings," wrote Belinda Olivares-Cunanan, the wife of the Filipino Ambassador

to Phnom Penh.

Fernando has been posthumously recommended for recognition from the Philippines government.

It was the second time in less than 24 hours that a group working among Cambodian

communities had suffered a violent loss.

On Oct 16, World Relief staff members Khoun Sokan and Toun Chantouen were executed

in a robbery along an isolated road in Kompong Cham province. Both were shot at least

ten times while on their single motorbike.

Fernando, from Quezon City, had tried restraining an unruly student who had threatened

to throw a grenade at other students.

"Richie died holding the man in his arms as they fell to the floor, so when

they found them there Richie, who was unconscious, was still cradling him,"

said Sister Denise Coghlan, JSC's Australian director.

"The man got up unharmed. Richie died instantly. His brave action probably saved

the lives of many. The student got on his bicycle and surrendered to the police immediately.

He is absolutely remorseful for what happened."

She cautioned people not to be quick to condemn the behavior of the disabled Cambodian.

She said he was a veteran of Cambodia's wars, and an orphan of Pol Pot's regime.

On the morning of Fernando's death, he had just been reprimanded for playing cards

with a new student.

"This incident only underlines the human tragedy of a country that has been

devastated by so much war, genocide, homelessness and poverty," Coghlan said.

In the wake of Fernando's passing, Coghlan said that the JSC offices had already

received about a thousand condolence messages.

The day after the death, Rob Alsop, a friend of Fernando's, said from Perth, Australia:

"In one of our many conversations at night after the lights had gone out, Richie

told me when the time came for him to die, he hoped it would be in the act of helping

or saving someone."

Olivares-Cunanan wrote in a tribute in the Philippine Daily Inquirer: "The other

evening I found myself sobbing inconsolably, and all the political events I have

been following suddenly became meaningless for a while."

To his friends, colleagues and pupils, from the night watchman to the cook, Fernando

had embodied the best qualities humans can spend an entire lifetime trying to attain.

During his 18-month stay in Cambodia - his first overseas posting - by their testimony,

he had achieved a lot, bringing hope and joy to those whom he touched.

Having mastered spoken Khmer in less than three months, Fernando had developed a

close relationship with staff and students, helping them to sort out their personal

problems and discuss their experiences. If Fernando was not taking students out on

weekend excursions into the country, he would accompany those troubled ones to their

home villages.

"Richie was always kind to the students and other teachers," said the night

guard Vibol. "He visited the students at night in the quarters and often took

his meals with them."

"Richie was gracious and courteous," said Anucha Vapeesa, a Thai welding

instructor. "He was entirely dedicated to his students."

After completing his daily responsibilities, which included teaching English, and

undertaking administrative as well as organizational tasks for JSC, Fernando would

play sports with the students.

He excelled at basketball and arranged for the building of a disabled-friendly basketball

court. He also trained some of the students for this year's Handicapped Olympics

in Phnom Penh. His students won the volleyball competition.

He led a simple existence, his admirers said. From a well-to-do Filipino family,

Fernando had given up a potentially promising career as a businessman to take up

the cloth.

"Richie had an extraordinary heart of compassion," said Klieng Vann, an

electronics teacher and school graduate, who spoke at the service given for Fernando

in Manila. "He had a strength which came from inside - a deep spirituality."

Had he lived, Fernando would have attended today and tomorrow's fifth anniversary

of school at Banteay Prieb, which will include a "Plant Trees, Not Landmines"

ceremony and peace dances.

Perhaps the most poignant tribute came from Enrique Figaredo, a Spanish Jesuit who

accompanied Fernando's casket to the Philippines.

"Our Richie went all the way. His final act very much symbolized the way he

led his life. He was a person of spontaneous generosity who placed the needs of others

above his own. When Richie died, there was a smile of accomplishment on his face.

It was a look of peace."

Meanwhile, similar praise was sung for the two World Relief workers, Khoun Sokan

and Toun Chantouen, killed in Kompong Cham.

"These two women were two of our best. Calm, mature mothers. Very hard working

as they served some 400 to 500 poor women every week. They spent their days and died

assisting them with small business loans and teaching them about health for their

children," said World Relief country director Joel Copple.

The women, killed Oct 16, were attacked and robbed on a stretch of road in Chakar

Leu district at about 4:00pm, as they drove back to their local office on a motorbike,

he said.

The bodies were found riddled with bullets fired at close range from an automatic

rifle, and perhaps a second gun was used.

"They did not have time to get off or were not allowed to get off the motorbike,"

Copple said. "Their bodies were found astride the fallen motorcycle, still clutching

the handlebars and each other."

A believed 400,000 riel in repaid loan money, which they had in their backpacks,

was missing.

"They were not robbed of jewelry nor was the motorbike taken," Copple said.

"The robber or robbers went only for their backpacks, suggesting they were targeted

as being known credit agents."

Sokan and Chantouen, part of World Relief's Gateway program - a credit and health

outreach to poor women and children in Phnom Penh, Kandal and Kompong Cham provinces

- had been meeting with a group of local women who receive small loans to start income-generating

businesses.

"Today's robbery was the first in the four-and-a-half years of the program,"

Copple said. "It is estimated that World Relief staff members in Cambodia have

made over 12,000 trips to and from neighborhood meetings without serious incident.

In a letter sent to the Post, Toto Ticao, a friend of Sokan, paid tribute to the

slain woman: "It is indeed tragic for you to have survived the genocide only

to suffer a brutal and violent death 17 years later.

"I can still remember seeing the tears in your face and the pain in your eyes

as you recalled those dark days of terror and suffering, hoping they will never happen

again for the sake of the children.

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