Warm memories from the Cold War

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Khim Sophanna lived in Germany for 12 years before returning to work at an NGO promoting human rights and liberal capitalism. Thoerung Buntha

Warm memories from the Cold War

The second part of a project looking at Cambodians who went to study in communist East Germany during the 1980s looks at what they did when they eventually came back

It was a sausage that first perplexed Khim Sophanna.

One of some 4,000 Cambodians sent to communist East Germany in the 1980s, he was on a plane to East Berlin to begin a six-year-long academic scholarship when a stewardess placed a monster-sized link before him.

It was 1984 and Sophanna’s first time outside of Cambodia.

He stared down at the meaty delicacy with callow confusion and froze.

“I was very pleased to have a whole sausage - we had very little meat in Cambodia – but I didn’t know how to eat it,” Sophanna recalled.

“I wasn’t used to eating with a knife and fork. In Cambodia we used spoons and forks, but not knives.”

For the then-22-year-old son of a rural primary school teacher, the porky encounter would be the first of many awkward moments while adjusting to what would become his home away from home in Germany.

Now some 30 years later, Sophanna and dozens of other Cambodians who were sent to Germany to study and train during the final decade of the Cold War are the focus of an upcoming photo exhibition presented by German cultural centre Meta House and its partner the Goethe Institute.

Meta House founder Nico Mesterham, who came up with the idea, said each of the 11 Cambodians featured in the exhibit had been profoundly affected by their years abroad.

“They learned a lot there. And they felt they were very warmly received,” Mesterham said. “They see these as precious moments in their lives.”

Through 1979 to 1989, Cambodia’s relationship with the Soviet Union gave hundreds of Cambodians the opportunity to study or train abroad with scholarships granted to study in Soviet-aligned countries.

East Germany, said Sophanna, was the most developed of the socialist states and thus the most sought-after destination.

But the exhibition, said Mesterham, did not dwell on geopolitics.

“[The political history] plays into this project, but what you will see on the wall is people’s stories.

We are not talking so much about politics for this exhibition,” he said, adding that the upcoming exhibit was the second installment of an ongoing project.

The first installment, which debuted last year at the Meta House, was made up of old “souvenir photos” shot in Germany, a treasure trove of archival artefacts that the Meta House had meticulously gathered from Cambodian returnees.

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Thousands of Cambodians went to communist states such as East Germany in the 1980s. Photo supplied

“Selfies you would say today,” quipped Mesterham.

The exhibit, in contrast, will shift the spotlight to some of those Cambodians’ lives today, three decades later.

“These people have seen Germany. They have experienced German culture. They have German friends and family. But in the end, they came back to Cambodia,” said Mesterham.

“The idea is to have a complete documentation of something that is almost forgotten,” he added.

Along with the photographs, Mesterham and his team have been collecting memorabilia and conducting interviews, portions of which will be displayed at the exhibit.

The ongoing project, said Mesterham, was an embodiment of the Meta House’s raison-d’etre, “to document the history of German-Cambodian relations,” he said, adding that he eventually planned to make a film on the Cambodian-German returnees.

The photos in the exhibit were taken by local self-taught photographer Thoerung “Alex” Buntha, 22, who takes German-language classes at the Meta House.

“It was quite a challenge at first. I was very nervous, because it is my first major photography project, but since starting, my passion for German language and culture has flourished.

And I’ve sharpened my photography skills,” said the bright-eyed Banteay Meanchey native, who is in his final year at the Institute of Foreign Languages in Phnom Penh.

Buntha’s subjects come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

There are a group who in East Germany learned how to produce artificial limbs and now work at the Orthotics Components Factory at the Ministry of Social Affairs, where they still use East German-made machinery.

There is Kaoeun Kanika, who was sent west to learn mechanics. He opened up an auto shop when he returned to Cambodia and now teaches German at Meta House (he is Buntha’s teacher).

And there is the sausage-shy Sophanna, who was sent as a young man to study Marxism-Leninism at Karl Marx University in Leipzig city.

From his dorm room he watched the “Monday demonstrations” there, a protest movement that would become instrumental in toppling the Berlin Wall.

After the wall fell, Sophanna remained in Germany. Like many Cambodians still there, he travelled to West Berlin to apply for political asylum, but after three months he grew tired of waiting and returned to Leipzig to continue his studies.

By that time, Karl Marx University had changed its name to Leipzig University. Following suit, Sophanna switched his major to political science.

In 1996, Sophanna moved back to Phnom Penh where he landed his current job at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a German NGO that promotes human rights and liberal capitalism.

He still returns regularly to Germany, where he has a 25-year-old son with a German woman from who he has since separated.

“Germany had a very good impact on my life. When I was living there, time ran very fast,” concluded Sophanna.

“Now, after coming back to Cambodia, I look back and think, ‘Oh my, how long it was’.”

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