American Woman Helps Former Khmer Rouge

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In her knit blouse, cotton print pants, and comfortable shoes, Linda McKinney looks all set for a trip to the mall. She's got a Jeep Cherokee in the driveway and a classically middle-America source of concern: A contractor is putting a new roof on her house.

But this isn't suburbia, it's Cambodia. And Ms. McKinney isn't going shopping, she is headed out to visit former members of the Khmer Rouge, the Mao-inspired rebels who ruled this country in the 1970s and killed more than a million of their countrymen in the process. Since then they have led brutal lives in Cambodia's jungles, stealing rice from villagers, killing wild animals for food, and kidnapping Westerners for money.

Perhaps it's no surprise that someone who served in the Peace Corps and on the staff of California's famously liberal former governor, Jerry Brown, should find herself in the Cambodian countryside helping ex-guerrillas. But McKinney does seem to have found a niche where she can exercise talents for bringing people together and putting common sense into action.

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"An angel come from heaven," pronounces Chuk Rin, the commander of the Khmer Rouge fighters and their families who have benefited from McKinney's efforts. (See story, Page 7.) Two years ago she even convinced American officials to donate US military rations to feed the Khmer Rouge defectors - a post-cold-war moment if ever there was one.

"I always have time for Linda McKinney," says Kenneth Quinn, the US ambassador to Cambodia. "She reached out to a part of society that others didn't reach out to," including land-mine victims and poor single mothers.

McKinney gets more than supportive words from US diplomats - over the past five years her programs have received roughly $1.25 million from the US Agency for International Development.

In an era when the idea of helping people in other countries is increasingly out of fashion, not to mention the growing congressional unpopularity of using US tax dollars to do so, McKinney's efforts seem to be an example of doing good and doing it well. She has succeeded the hard way, remaining personally involved in her projects and keeping her attempts to help Cambodians narrowly focused. Any effort at social change "has to start in the small places, and it has to go deep."

Linda McKinney is a straightforward woman, satisfied in her work without being overbearing, and modest without being piously so. She says she is "uniquely privileged" because she knows that what she does in Kampot has made a difference. "I never see it as some sort of ultimate sacrifice. I see it as exactly the opposite."

Well, maybe a little sacrifice is involved. She seems pretty happy that a steadier supply of electricity in Kampot has recently made it easier to keep fresh butter on hand for breakfast.

* * *

The problems that McKinney has addressed were born in the cold war, which took hold of Cambodia with murderous intensity. When nearly a century of French colonialism ended in 1954, communist groups began struggling for power, and the country was gradually drawn into America's conflict in Vietnam. Massive bombardments and minor invasions by US and South Vietnamese forces set the stage for Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.

Their terrible rule was brought to an end when Vietnam invaded at the end of 1978, establishing a more restrained but still authoritarian communist regime. The Khmer Rouge then fought the Vietnamese-backed government from the countryside.

Isolated, preoccupied by civil war, Cambodians could do little to solve their problems during the 1980s. But Vietnam's decision to withdraw its troops in 1989 opened the way to peace. Cambodians around the world - a diaspora driven out by seemingly ceaseless war - took notice.

At the time, McKinney was a consultant for a Long Beach, Calif., group called United Cambodian Community (UCC), whose membership included migrs concerned with the reconstruction of their homeland. Some of the migrs sent her to Cambodia for several weeks in 1989 to take a look, see what could be done, and come up with a plan.

The opportunity came at a good time. Long divorced, with her two children grown up and out of the house, McKinney felt free to do something different. "Cambodia chose me," she says. "I had a feeling that this was where I needed to be for a while."

She determined that UCC should work outside of the capital, Phnom Penh, and try to help some of the most vulnerable people in Cambodia - those disabled by land mines - by teaching them skills that would enable them to earn money in their villages.

Trained in human resources and having worked as a children's advocate in California state government and elsewhere, McKinney says she has "no known qualifications for what I'm doing." But the needs in Cambodia seemed obvious. "My values say that if you are not economically secure, if you don't know whether you're going to eat tomorrow, probably not much else is possible in your life," she says.

McKinney returned to Cambodia and made her way to the southern town of Kampot in September 1992, amid the flurry of anticipation that preceded a landmark United Nations-backed general election held in 1993. It was a hopeful time, but on her first night, in the blackness of a country with very limited supplies of electricity, she was awakened by an eerie, siren-like wail.

Her first, fearful thought was that it was some kind of emergency. With no command of the language and no one to turn to, "the only thing I could do was wait for dawn." She later learned, that the sound came from a frog. Still, she says, "it was grim in the beginning."

* * *

Strange animal noises were the least of her worries. Although McKinney had the endorsement of the central government in Phnom Penh, it took a while to win the cooperation of local officials. "Being tough worked," she says.

Until the local force of Khmer Rouge fighters defected to the government side at the end of 1994, the biggest concern was security. Most expatriates in Cambodia avoided Kampot because Khmer Rouge fighters sometimes crossed the single-lane highway that connects the town with Phnom Penh, and foreigners worried the rebels would kidnap or kill them.

Except for a 10-week period in late 1994, when US diplomats insisted she remain in Phnom Penh, McKinney has made the three-hour drive an average of once a week for the past five years. "I knew I couldn't be afraid to go up and down that road," she says. "I mean, I was going to spend time here. I had to neutralize that situation." She decided to drive herself, rather than hire someone else, figuring that it would be harder for would-be attackers to "shoot your mother."

Kampot itself posed some challenges. Many of the buildings in the town of perhaps 30,000 people are decrepit relics of the French colonial era. Potholes compete with pavement all over town, and the potholes are way ahead. The municipality has been without electricity for as long as three months at a stretch, because pre-World War II generators supply power.

The town offers little in the way of entertainment for middle-aged American women. McKinney says isolation from family at home and even other Westerners in Cambodia has been tough - she is the town's longest-term expatriate, and Kampot has never been home to more than a handful of foreigners at a time. "Movies?" she jokes. "Do they still have those?"

But living conditions have gradually improved. McKinney's whitewashed home has a walled garden and a breezy verandah, and despite frustrations with her contractor, she is adding a second story and a better roof. Although the house would be considered modest in California, it's posh in Kampot. Like homeowners everywhere, McKinney says the place has consumed all of her income.

* * *

The UCC center has graduated about 600 students in its five years, many of them land-mine amputees and veterans of Cambodia's conflicts.

The four-month courses teach skills such as chicken-raising or the repair of radios, cassette players, and televisions, vocations designed to turn one-time outcasts into income-earners. But many things have to be taught at once: literacy, human rights, business management skills, even health education.

"The hardest part is undoing feelings of despair and hopelessness and having no place in the community," she says. Another program caters to widows and single mothers and provides much-needed child care. These women are among the most disadvantaged in Cambodia - they are poor, uneducated, and find it hard to work because of the need to spend time raising children.

She has recruited teachers, administrators, and other workers in Kampot, and her key managers have been Cambodian-Americans. Her programs employ about 28 people, most of them full time. Support has also come from a New York-based charity called the Trickle Up Foundation, Rotary clubs, and private donations of time and money from interested Americans.

In late 1994, despite appeals from then American Ambassador Charles Twining and a provincial governor, McKinney wasn't certain she wanted to get involved with Khmer Rouge defectors. But when she drove out to the land the government had provided the rebels in exchange for peace, what she found was "wretched humanity." There were plenty of "old ladies and sick babies," she recalls, and families without even a plastic tarp to shield themselves from the rain. Many had only a few handfuls of rice for food.

McKinney agreed to help the thousand or so people - 300 fighters and their families - at first by organizing emergency supplies from the US military and other groups. She says the assistance, which has since included demining, road-building, and vocational training, has been like bringing people out of the 16th century: Many had never been in a bathroom or seen a refrigerator before they stepped out of the jungle.

It makes sense that an outsider should be the one to ease the transition of one-time Khmer Rouge followers back into Cambodian society. For years this particular group had terrorized residents of the region, often stealing food in the course of their attacks. They continue to live in their own village, Cham Kar Bei, about 20 miles from Kampot.

* * *

McKinney is now considering how she might do more fund-raising in the US, though her work pretty much ties her to Kampot. She's also hoping that new found access to e-mail (address: UCCKampot@uni.fi) will bring the world a little closer. UCC, the organization that initially sent her, has faltered in the meanwhile, and McKinney has since created her own organization, called the UCC Development Foundation.

She is vague on the subject of her future. "You don't ever really finish something," she says.

In any case, there is more to be done in Kampot.

"What's needed here is not that difficult, it really isn't, but you need an enormous amount of endurance and patience, and perhaps love and compassion to get through the hard parts.

"Everything is needed here, so you can start anywhere. Wouldn't it be wonderful if a road engineer showed up?" she asks.

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