His face was a charred, burnt red. Like roasting meat pulled from the flames, it was a deep, swollen burgundy. His right eyelid had been blown away leaving a milky white ball with only the cloudy remains of iris and retina. There were no protective lashes or thick brows to shield the exposed ivory bulb. His left eye, relatively intact, was a crisp mahogany; it wasn’t a depthless brown, but a rusted wooden floorboard brown. His lips were a faded wormy pink and puffed up in the right corner. There were shinny burns and hard sores that disrupted the surface of his haggard, tender flesh. His hands were charred stubs, thick scar tissue nubs sprouted from where his fingers use to be. He fumbled with a navy blue baseball cap and sloppily mouthed words that only spilled out like dried beans on a linoleum floor. Hobbling toward me he continued to mumble and I, despite a twinge of compassion, pulled away, averting my eyes and briskly stalking toward a secluded indoor café.
He was a landmine victim. Cambodia is the single most landmine-ridden country in all of Asia. Every travel book and website I have read about Cambodia ominously warns against straying from well-worn paths, particularly up in the sparsely populated mountains and along the Thai border. Landmines are an American legacy; President Nixon had landmines planted during the Vietnam War, a measure taken to “quell” any insurgency that could be regrouping inside Cambodia’s borders. But it wasn’t the armed military or Vietnamese guerrillas who became the victims of the mines; women and children wandering across the open, grassy fields would be arbitrarily blown to bits. Pol Pot, the ugly and ferocious Marxist revolutionary, planted even more landmines – particularly along the Cambodian border with Thailand – to dissuade the victims of mass murder from fleeing to safety.
Landmines are indiscriminate killers. Princess Dianna knew this and campaigned tirelessly for the banning of landmine usage around the world. I saw the burnt face of the victim, now unable to work and to provide for a family. Begging and being paraded around like some guilt-machine are often last resorts of mothers and fathers with children to provide for. Medical care is limited and often costly. And landmines remain a major threat, particularly to the thousands of subsistence farmers etching a living out of the countryside.
I walked through a local NGO which has developed simple handicrafts that victims – who often times lose all or part of their legs – can make in order to live self sufficiently and with dignity. Some of these women sat on the floor of the shop front and smiled at me. They busied their nimble fingers wrapping colored cloth around stings of bead, creating dainty necklaces that I couldn’t help but admire. In my limited Khemai, we made small talk, but their unblemished faces and warm smiles were enough. I bought a small stuffed elephant for a friend’s daughter, and a woman missing all of her left leg and her right leg up to the knee said “good choice, thank you for visiting us.”
The pulpy-faced man hung just outside the little shop. I slipped a few folded bills into a donation box, but kept my eyes on the ground and I tried to innocuously slip away. I still could not look into his torn face. My heart split at the seams and I felt a mixture of disgust and compassion. How would Christ respond? Is it enough to leave a few folded dollars? Can I launch a campaign like the late Princess of Wales which impacts lives and stands as a testament before foreign governments? What little thing can I do?
My tuk-tuk waited just around the corner from the little shop. I had only enough money left to get back home. My heart was bloated with emotions: concern, revulsion, empathy, guilt, fear, anger, frustration and a genuine inability to process what a Christ-like response to this kind of suffering would be. But I did one small thing: I looked this disfigured man full in the face and smiled.