Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Most of us agree that Pol Pot’s despotic regime in Cambodia marked one of the darkest periods of the 20th century, with a death toll of some two million victims between 1975- 1979. The Khmer Rouge, a communist party government that took power in 1975 following a civil war, tried to convert Cambodia to an agrarian-based society.
A Cambodian child needs hope to overcome the legacy of death. Photo: Faith Bogue.
Millions of citizens, especially city dwellers, educators, intellectuals, police officers, and other former officials of authority were shipped out to the infamous Killing Fields, subjected to forced labor and terrible conditions, tortured, and executed. The Khmer Rouge’s goal was to implement anti-imperialist ideals and create the ultimate work force.
I had the opportunity to visit Cambodia in 2008 and observe the vestiges of this genocide first hand. I questioned how people, being surrounded by dying family members and utter despair, could convince themselves to keep on living. I stood shell shocked in front of photographs from the genocide, shook while touring the S-21 prison where an estimated 17,000 prisoners were tortured and killed, and cried when I found out the “flower bed” I had remarked on was the site of a former mass grave.
Our tour guide dully explained that during the genocide, his father was taken away to be executed, his mother committed suicide, and his grandmother fell into insanity. How, I pondered, could anyone possibly cope with something like this? How could someone live through the starvation, torture, and dehumanization? The loss of family members?
As someone who enjoys empirical, fact-based research, what I discovered surprised me. The immense and overarching power of hope, a word that has come to be regarded as a clichÃ© term often associated with Hallmark cards and presidential candidates, actually offers a tangible benefit in helping people both to survive conflicts and improve their situation afterwards.
Ethnographers who have studied conflict report hopelessness as a wretched human state in which people wither and often give up. I have researched the concept of hope for several years and have concluded hope not only helps people survive conflicts, but it helps them rebuild their lives afterwards. Instilling hope is the first step in effective development. Foreign aid may pour in, embassies may spring up, and policies may change, but those who believe they have no future often do no fight to improve their circumstances, and no matter the aid given to them, it will not help a person who has lost hope.
I also focus on hope because this focus brings with it a call to action. We can instill hope. We have that power. We may not be able to change the world just yet, but we can make people believe it is possible to change the circumstances they are in. Instilling hope is a necessary first step to the future success of development, as we need to work with the hopeful, instead of for the hopeless.
Several academics discuss the virtue of hope during and after conflict situations. Carolyn Nordstrom, author of Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-First Century, touches on the power of violence to destroy the future. Life takes meaning through the choices of how to shape one’s future: to plant a garden, start a business, have a child”¦ these choices become meaningless when one has little faith in the outcome. She comments that “the death of hope is an equally traumatic war casualty. Unbearable circumstances become bearable only if there is some belief that they will come to an end” (Nordstrom, 2004, p.67).
Nordstrom, who has traveled throughout Asia and Africa for her ethnographic work, tells the story of war through ambiguous sources and stories that span continents, in an effort to show the similarities in form that war takes, no matter the time or the place. In one instance, she encountered a man who told her “to have war cut across your life time and again, you begin to fear to hope for a solution, for each time war comes again, the pain of crushed hopes is devastating”¦ after a momentary lull, a lull where you got your hopes up, the violence erupts again”¦ So you begin to fear hope, because it hurts too much. You begin to stop hoping. But this is a kind of death. People just give up, that’s the giving up of hope. Some people just wither up, like walking dead” (Nordstrom, p.67).
The knowledge that one has the possibility of a bright future helps people to continue living. In the long run, the “death of hope” affects people after the conflict has passed, when they have little hope that others will help them overcome their circumstances.
Vincent Crapanzano, Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York, wrote an essay titled Reflections on Hope as a Category of Social and Psychological Analysis, which draws on the work of JÃ¼rgen Moltmann, who suggests “hope and anticipations of the future are not a transforming glow superimposed upon a darkened existence, but are realistic ways of perceiving the scope of our real possibilities” (Crapanzano, 2003). If, as Moltmann suggests, hope merely sheds light on a realistic future, then a person who believes something better to be unrealistic could theoretically shed hope as an option willingly.
Loung Ung, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, described the moment when she decided to abandon her hope. In her book, First They Killed My Father, she explains that after Khmer Rouge soldiers took her father away, she decided “”¦I cannot allow myself the luxury of hope. To hope is to let pieces of myself die. To hope is to grieve his absence and acknowledge the emptiness in my soul without him” (Ung, 2000, p. 108). Her reflections further elucidate how conflict strips people of hope, as victims of the Cambodian genocide began purposely not hoping because they believed their hopes to be unrealistic.
An interesting aspect of hope is that it denotes very little action as opposed to a related emotion: desire. Crapanzano examines how hope is desire’s “passive counterpart” and has the ability to transform into desire. Crapanzano argues that people act on desire, while they do not often act on hope. Hope is passive, and depends on an outside participant to fulfill it, whether it be God, the fates, or other people. “You can do all you can to realize your hopes, but ultimately they depend on the fates- on someone else. I desire her. I hope she will desire me. I do what I can to bring about her desire, but finally there is a limit to what I can do. I can only hope” (Crapanzano).
Crapanzano describes both hope and desire as having “something still outstanding,” which is important for people facing illness or death who feel they need to complete their lives, to solve that outstanding thing. Those who feel they have more to look forward to work to continue to live. Crapanzano notes that “hopelessness is itself, in a temporal and factual sense, the most insupportable thing, downright intolerable to human needs” (Crapanzano).
PinYathay’s survivor memoir, Stay Alive My Son, highlights his experiences with this phenomenon. When viewing his dying sister Keng in a hospital, he states “I knew that she could not survive. Hope for her, for myself, for all of us drained away. We were all destined to follow her. Seeing her, seeing that she too knew the truth, I forgot my father’s words. In this hell, death was preferable to life. For Keng, for us all, death was not an enemy to fight, but a friend who brought relief from suffering” (Yathay, 1989, p. 144). The other patients surrounding him were silent. They too saw death as an escape and did not fight to avoid it. They had no hope that tomorrow would bring a better future.
When stripped of everything one owns and forced to survive under terrible conditions, the average person’s emotional response is to try to give some sense of meaning to the events around them. Karen J. Brison and Stephen C. Leavitt’s article Coping with Bereavement: Long-Term Perspectives on Grief and Mourning, presents the findings of a cross-cultural study on mourning which demonstrates how culture and emotional experience are connected.
Different cultures’ belief systems make sense of personal tragedy in different ways. Negative events “all stress the capacity of prolonged suffering (from illness, depression, and chronic pain) to shock people out of their commonsense worldview and to prompt them to use cultural beliefs to find meaning in apparently senseless pain” (Brison & Leavitt, 1995). The authors suggest that life changing events require people to change their belief systems and worldview in order to frame the negative experience so that it makes sense. “We also draw on psychological theories of bereavement that view mourning as a process of adjusting to a new reality” (Brison & Leavitt).
These debates imply that great mourning and grief fundamentally change the soul, to the degree that a human cannot return to a previous state, or somehow reclaim “normalcy,” but must instead create a new world “in terms of which their suffering makes sense” (Brison & Leavitt). Prior to a long term conflict situation, victims rely on hope to keep their spirits up. Having reoriented themselves during the conflict to no longer rely on hope, these victims then search for an alternative.
Within the Cambodian genocide, victims often reoriented themselves so that they embraced anger and the desire for revenge as a replacement for hope. Brison’s and Leavitt’s theory leads me to believe that perhaps people replaced hope, when they were in a situation where feeling hope was dangerous, and the future looked bleak, and depending on others is not an option. These atrocities may have shifted victims’ ideas of hope so much that they believed that hope would not get them through what they were experiencing and decided therefore to replace it with an alternative, yet equally powerful emotion that would enable that person to want to survive: anger.
In this sense, anger is just another manifestation of hope, a hope that the person will be able to make sense of the tragedy around them and come out even in the end. The ability of hope to transform, sustain people in living, deliver a future, and provide people the will to survive has been demonstrated, but not what happens when that hope is lost. In that case, they embrace an emotion they feel they can actually act on, which is anger.
Cambodia is a special case in this regard. Alexander Hinton, a professor at Rutgers University, wrote in his essay, A Head for an Eye: Revenge in the Cambodian Genocide, about the cultural idea of disproportionate revenge that is rooted in Cambodian culture. He writes, “one of the most chronic and volatile sources of violence in Cambodia is a ”˜grudge’ that leads to the desire for ”˜disproportionate revenge’” (Hinton, 1998).
Cambodians often quietly bear injustices with the intention of seeking a far greater revenge at a later point. Any action that causes shame, humiliation, or pain should be reciprocated with a far greater reaction. This is to show that the first victim is “higher” than the person who hurt them originally, because their harsh reaction shows the victim’s power. It also has the intention of scaring the first person to the point that they will never react.
This is important to note because many survivors of the Cambodian genocide recount watching horrors done to family members and deciding that while they had no hope, they would fight to survive to avenge the deaths of their family members, to try to make meaning out of and create a justification for their family’s deaths.
This desire for revenge links back to Crapanzano’s research about hope versus desire. The hope that one will be rescued may be gone, but the desire to act on violence against those who hurt you is powerful enough of an emotion to make people fight to survive. While the idea of disproportionate revenge is one that is deeply rooted within Cambodian culture and so may be something that is unique to the case of Cambodia’s recovery, Nordstrom also notes that hopelessness has the ability to cause aggression and create a cycle of violence.
Certain Cambodians wanted to survive to make meaning of their family’s deaths through the retribution against the Khmer Rouge. While family members and neighbors died around them, these people embraced their anger and fought to live. Thus a new interpretation of hope emerges.
Intense violence and unbearable circumstances force people to numb themselves, both to the bad in life and the good in life. This act of self-preservation is necessary during the conflict, and harmful afterwards. Anger and thoughts of revenge gained during a conflict only continues the cycle of violence afterward. Giving people hope will end this cycle and give people the idea that their actions can make a difference. The process of deprivation and mourning that comes with conflict shifts people’s ideas about the fruitfulness of their actions. We must shift them back.
The question we all ask is how can we help? We can create meaning so that survivors don’t have to. We can “re-orient” how victims of atrocities look at the world so they do not feel they must focus on their anger, revenge their families, and continue the violence.
Those of us who are involved with the United Nations, not-for-profit organizations, charities, humanitarian groups, social enterprises, and any other entity that endeavors to assist those most in need: we can help. Instead of retribution, we can focus on renewal and rebuilding. We can be that entity and guiding light in which people place their hope, the outside force that people rely on to fulfill their hopes. We can be a helping hand and positive presence, one that won’t walk away at the end of the war. We can teach people to hope again.
The same theories that applied to victims’ experiences within conflict, the moments when they lost hope, and therefore lost the will to live, apply to rebuilding their lives- we need to instill a hope in them to live better, to fight for a quality life. The influences of foreign aid and humanitarian work will not bear fruit until the seed of hope has first been planted, as we help people to realize that they must also help themselves through their belief in the effectiveness in their own actions to make a difference in their future.
Standing in the sweltering heat with my luggage, I was warned by our tour guide right before entering Cambodia not to make eye contact or place my hand near my purse, because if any children were to see this, they would swarm around me and beg me for money. I did as I was instructed and briskly walked past children with their feet bare, their clothing torn, and their hands stretched out.
My tour guide sensed how miserable I felt and patted me on the back once we were safely onto the bus, reassuring me that I had done the right thing, because “giving these people the hope that you will help will only encourage them.”
At the time, I didn’t think a lot about it and accepted what she said. But even now I remember my tour bus, which stood out against this impoverished background like a red splotch on a white wall, pulling onto a dusty street and driving away from the crowd. They looked on our bus in dashed hopes that we would do something to improve their lot in life. Looking back, I recognize now that my tour guide was wrong. We don’t want to encourage them”¦.well yes, actually, we do.
Faith Bogue is an honors student at Arcadia University in Philadelphia studying International Relations (Concentration in Globalization, Development, and Human Rights) with minors in Economics, German, and Mandarin Chinese. Faith has studied abroad in London and Beijing, and has both lived and traveled further throughout Europe and Southeast Asia. Faith is a recipient of the Gilman Scholarship and plans to attend graduate school at Oxford.
Editor’s Note: As the founder of Orphans International Worldwide (OIWW) and the International University Center Haiti (Uni Haiti), I agree wholly with Faith’s assessment that, in spite of foreign aid, those on the ground who fail to believe they have a future cannot fight to improve their circumstances no matter how much aid given to them – funding alone will not help a person who has lost hope. In the words of Jesse Jackson, then, we must keep home alive in international development.
Originally published in The Daily Kos, June 18, 2011.