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A UN Volunteer's First Impressions

A UN Volunteer's First Impressions

When I was selected to join UNTAC as a United Nations Volunteer, I felt inspired. For more than two decades, Cambodia

has been a symbol of civil war to the people of Bangladesh. As a U.N. Volunteer (UNV), I would have an opportunity

to become familiar with the war-devastated but historically rich nation and experience first hand its transition

to democracy and peace.

Before arriving here I knew only a little about this land of pagodas. Though geographically this country is not

far from Bangladesh, economic and cultural differences-and the lack of political and economic relations between

the two peoples-have kept us apart for a long time. The political instability of this country never touched the

mind of my people.

As I stepped off the plane in Phnom Penh on June 19, I felt excited but also worried about the danger of land mines.

My heart started thumping as we flew above the city. As the green trees and red earth of Cambodia came into sight,

I thought that we were being thrown into a barren land ready for the cultivation of peace.

As our plane landed at Pochentong Airport, I dropped all my worries, fears, and depression in the aircraft and

took my first breath in Phnom Penh. I was prepared for the delapidated condition of the airport, but not the giant

billboard advertising "Tiger Beer" welcoming us to the city.

My group of 25 UNVs from Bangladesh were taken to the Hotel Renakse, opposite the Royal Palace, by two members

of the UNV Support Unit.

Shortly after arriving I took a two-hour walk around the central part of the city and the banks of the Mekong River.

The ornate architecture of the buildings, a seemingly stable social life, and the politeness of the people impressed

me. I started thinking that this assignment might give me a lot of rich experiences and joy.

Talking with people I met in the streets, I tried to find out about their experiences of the devastating war, which

has affected everyone. I found most people were eager to share their sorrows with foreigners, especially UNTAC

personnel.

An old woman, whose husband and only son were killed in 1976, broke into tears while telling her story to me. She

now supports herself and her four young daughters by operating a small hotel in front of her hut.

Her story and her sorrow shook me, transporting my mind to the three million souls martyred in my own country's

war of independence in 1971. Something happened with the Cambodian people also, and that's what brings us together.

The Cambodian people impressed me in two ways: their cordiality and their desire for peace. When I talk with them

I'm treated like close family. Their sense of dignity in talking with a foreigner, accepting them even in their

sitting room, touched me deeply.

Mixing with them I understand that the local people do not want to see bullets anymore; they want peace. As a nation

they are hardy. All members of the family, young and old, male or female, are hardworking.

The socio-economic needs of this land are very critical. I find two classes here. One is elite and rich, and the

other is poor. There are very few in the middle position. I don't know how this elite class has come up during

these two decades of war, while others push a cyclo every day. I traced a generation gap here also. Almost all

of the city dwellers are between 10 and 25 years of age, and from 45 years old onwards. Very few are between 25

and 45 years old. This must have been caused by the war they've faced for a long time.

Language is a barrier for the UNVs, preventing communication with the local people. But in my first few days in

Phnom Penh I cautiously applied my beginning Khmer to communicate with them and it helped a lot. I was able to

make them understand my food habits and what I am interested in learning.

Nowadays-after more than a month here-Phnom Penh and its inhabitants are becoming much more familiar to me. I hope

my UNTAC experience will help me to reach the heart of the people of Cambodia.

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