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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - "It gives me hope that peace will come"

"It gives me hope that peace will come"

P OIPET, BATTAMBANG - War stopped for a few minutes as soldiers laid down their

weapons and knelt in prayer.

Children laughed, old women cried with joy

and hundreds of villagers spontaneously left their work to join the fourth

Dhammayietra, a pilgrimage of peace through war-ravaged Cambodia.

"I am

very, very happy because I think peace will come to my

country. I really hope

the monks will bring peace," said 50-year-old Khlin Pong, a mother of six

children.

"I would like to walk all the way with you to Vietnam, but I'm

too weak," she said, smiling and laughing with her family after being blessed

with holy water by the monks.

Mong Samon, 47, a mother of seven, said it

was the first time she had seen the Dhammayietra passing her simple hut.

Watching the 100m long procession, she said she now dared again to think about a

peaceful Cambodia.

"It gives me hope that peace will come, I am very

happy, the walk helps bring peace to my country," Samon said. "We've never had

peace here until today."

In the early hours of the new day, hours before

sunrise over the paddy fields, the march set off amid the sound of "Na Mu Myo Ho

Ren Ge Kyo", a phrase of a Buddhist verse.

The march crossed through

heavily-mined areas; under blistering sun in temperatures of more than 45

degrees; and even in tropical monsoon downpours. Thousands lined the roads from

3am and even earlier, waiting for hours with buckets of water decorated with

flowers and burning incense, which monks would douse in the water as a symbol

for ending the flames of war.

Soldiers from every army base and check

point on Route Five welcomed the marchers.

They laid down their weapons,

knelt in prayer and waited in deep thought to be sprinkled with holy water,

offering small gifts of food and water to the marchers.

"We (soldiers)

want to have peace as much as the people in the Dhammayietra - I have friends

who are at the front-line, they are very happy to hear about the peace march.

They don't want the war either," said soldier Var Veng, 38, who was guarding a

bridge.

"I'm very happy for the peace march to come. All of us soldiers

are very happy, it's the first time we have seen the Dhammayietra," said Veng,

who was plainly moved by the event.

Regiment 86 captain Seang Hach, 31,

happened to come back from a front-line position south of Battambang for

supplies when he heard about the Dhammayietra. He and his men decided to welcome

the marchers and were thrilled to be blessed with holy water.

"We just

came back from Treng. We want to welcome the international peace walk in our

country," he said. "We are very happy that maybe we can soon have peace in all

of Cambodia. Soldiers and civilians are the same, we all want

peace."

March organizer, the Venerable Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda

said: "The soldiers pray with us. Some of the soldiers are very good soldiers,

they pray that their bullets will not kill the Khmer Rouge because they are

their brothers."

The march began in Auschwitz, Poland in mid-December and

will end in Hiroshima, Japan in August. More than 500 Buddhist monks and nuns,

and 50 foreigners, began the 600km Cambodian leg of the international walk from

Poipet to Vietnam on May 8 as scheduled, despite increasing rebel attacks in the

northwest.

However, the march began with a sombre, almost ominous start.

The first sounds were those of artillery shells booming across the countryside.

Poipet had been shelled several times in the weeks leading up to the

start of the march, leaving 15 dead and more than 30 wounded. During the 24

hours the marchers were in town, it was quiet.

But on the evening of May

8, after one day's walking, reports reached the temple in Nimit where the

Dhammayietra was staying that Poipet had been shelled again.

Soon after,

a man came to the temple to pray. In his arms was the body of his eight-year-old

son; the boy had died from shrapnel injuries on the way to hospital.

"We

appeal to both sides to please stop fighting, for the good of everybody," said

Ghosananda.

"The shellings I heard... I felt nervous about it, I felt

fear, and then 20 minutes later I was asleep. Life goes on, people didn't seem

to bother so much about it, it's part of daily life," said Pol D'Huyvetter, 33,

from Belgium.

Though having been born blind, Robert Deyoung, 37, has

followed the march since Auschwitz. A psychologist in Chicago, Deyoung has

worked with war-veterans and victims of torture.

As with all the

international marchers, he was amazed and impressed by the thousands of people

showing their support for the march and the yearning for peace.

"In

particular when I walk close to the people and can hear them laughing or crying

and hearing their response to the water blessings... that touches me," he

said.

"I pay a lot of attention to the sounds around me: the people, the

landscapes, the traffic and certainly the terrain at my feet."

Sounds

Deyoung noticed as different from other countries on the march included "a lot

more children, especially infants and babies" and "a lot of laughter". He said

he felt determination when aware that he was walking with

amputees.

"Hearing the mortars in the distance certainly makes me aware

that we are in a war zone. The areas here are a lot more rural. These people are

really suffering a lot and are looking for joy and some way out. I really like

the people here, it amazes me that a simple walk can draw so much attention. It

is so important."

When the peace march arrived in Battambang city on May

12, after about 120 km, the pilgrims were greeted by more than 10,000 people.

Thousands more had greeted them all the way in to Cambodia's second

city.

The marchers were stunned.

"I'm really amazed and moved by

that, lining the roads for hours and in the rain - it's really incredible to see

them so patiently waiting for a statement of hope and non-violence," said one

26-year-old marcher.

"It leaves me speechless, I can feel the very strong

energy which makes them do it. I'm totally startled and touched by the people

here, how they put their heart into it," said Marianne Kurschner, 42, from

Germany.

Pol D'Huyvetter, who has been involved with the peace movement

for 14 years, said it was one of the strongest peace marches he had ever

experienced.

"This is a very powerful peace march, powerful in the way of

bringing out masses of people and getting their support."

"This walk is a

sign of hope that Cambodia can live without war. Here there is a massive

response to it and that makes it really powerful, which I see as a big

difference from other marches," D'Huyvetter said.

A 78-year-old nun from

Pursat province, who has walked all the three previous Dhammayietras, said: "I

want to go all the way to Vietnam, but maybe I'm too weak," but she kept on

walking.

Ghosananda, who at the age of 71 still leads the march for

around two hours every day, said that no matter how difficult it is for the

Cambodian people, the only way to find peace is to love the Khmer

Rouge.

"According to Buddhism hatred will only cease with loving

kindness. They (Cambodians) want peace and happiness - we tell them about loving

kindness, we have to love even the Khmer Rouge," he said.

Last year when

a monk and a nun were killed in a crossfire "we continued, that is our duty, we

will walk every year until there is peace," Ghosananda said.

"We appeal

everywhere to stop fighting. Many people have their family in the Khmer Rouge

zones, their own blood, we tell the people to tell the Khmer Rouge to stop

fighting because we march for peace," he said.

"It gives a bit of hope,

and makes the villagers feel a little better. They really want peace and we can

give them some encouragement," said Margot Grant, a 66-year-old veteran of the

earlier peace marches across Cambodia.

"Peace walks have become a

national symbol for the Cambodian people," said Bob Maat, of the Coalition for

Peace and Reconciliation [CPR].

Liz Bernstein, also of the CPR, was among

the six foreigners who after last year's shooting incident were kept as

temporary hostages by the Khmer Rouge, but she still believes that the most

important thing is for villagers to keep their hopes alive. "Everyday, what else

do they see but tanks and soldiers going down the road. It's their whole life,

fleeing from bullets, but there is a hope that there are some people are still

trying to do something," she said.

"Pol Pot showed that you can destroy

everything, all symobols, but you can't take it out of the hearts," Maat

said.

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