It was a time of seeking precious gems and minerals. I had just hiked the Appalachian Trail and was irrigating the hay fields of a dude ranch in the shadow of the Grand Tetons in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, when Barton Biggs returned the favor.
Before working on the ranch, Barton had joined me on a job working for a mineral exploration company. Not striking it rich experientially, we both soon left that company. Now, he had just arrived to serve as the founding editor of The Cambodia Daily and asked if I might like to manage the business side of the paper.
My goal was to continue seeking precious and varied experiences to put in the crucible over the fire and refine them to the pure, uncorrupted truth.
I had wanted to live and work with people in another culture and get some answers to some of the deeper questions of life. I hadn’t intended this new endeavor to be serious, strenuous, life altering, or to raise more difficult questions. I imagined sipping on an icy daiquiri while chatting it up with the locals. The insights I’d elicit from their outlook would combine with my own western sensibilities to get closer to the ultimate and universal truth.
Publisher Bernie Krisher invited me to join the staff and I bought a one-way ticket to Phnom Penh. That is when I began my research of the tragedy that was recent Cambodia history.
Barton and Robin McDowell were on the ground, somehow managing to put out a paper on a daily basis through those early 20-hour work days, thrashing through spotty electricity and frequent computer crashes while trying to manage a Cambodia staff whose orientation toward life, work, journalism and just about everything else was based upon a different foundation.
In addition to the practical reality of publishing a paper—English and Khmer—each day, they had to try to teach Journalism 101 to a group that was just developing an elementary grasp of English. So it was with great relief in a week in late November when they received photojournalist Matthew Roberts, Associate Editor James Kanter and me.
In an upper room of the sweltering Renakse Hotel, we churned out the paper.
The days were long, arduous, trying…the printers would often strike, the other journalists in town harassed us over the quality of the printing (it looked photocopied, poorly so), staff were frequently detained as they returned home in the early hours of the morning, the nature of digestive tracks was rather irregular and so on.
One journey to Kompong Som for a weekend, an attempt to escape the rigors and stress of Phnom Penh for a short respite, resulted in serious injuries when I had a moto accident at a military checkpoint.
This was followed by sleepless nights of infection spent in a shore-side bungalow, the silence shattered by assault rifle fire as the guard shot a thief trying to steal our motorcycles.
It took me five days to get x-rays and 10 days to get custom-made crutches tall enough for me.
Kelly and Dominic, who tended my wounds at the Rendezvous Restaurant in Kompong Som, were captured and assassinated by the Khmer Rouge the next month.
It didn’t seem these experiences would yield anything precious in my crucible.
Periodically, each of the expat staff would experience a minor breakdown. Fortunately, relief arrived in the form of Robert Bingham, Thomas Beller, Cowie Kim, Gretchen Peters and a few others who made the grind more endurable.
But greater than their presence were both the tremendous need and the tremendous spirit of the Cambodian people. It elicited in us something greater, the ideals which drove us to work so diligently at making the endeavor of the Daily a success. None of us anticipated the workload or difficulty of the conditions we encountered, and it’s doubtful many of us would have sought the work if we had.
But something in us changed.
Each expatriate Daily staff came to terms with some degree of disillusionment. It didn’t seem as if our efforts resulted in any “success.” We expected democratic ideals to flourish as soon as we waved our wands earned from the finest US universities. There would be an immediate cessation of corruption and the squandering of resources for short-term gain.
Wouldn’t our efforts bear any fruit?
Despite the disillusionment from unmet expectations, something greater drove us, something that I doubt many of us recognized at the time.
What I encountered in Cambodia in the early 1990s raised many more questions than were answered. I returned to the US at the end of ’95 with my health in shambles, my mind confused and my spirit shattered.
Soon after arriving in the States, I responded to the call to ministry hoping seminary might help provide me with answers to these questions, chief among them “How could a just and loving God allow these tragedies?”
I didn’t find the answers I sought, but my conviction that I was to live and work with the poor matured. For in doing so, I discover a priceless treasure. I call it the presence of God. Since then, in addition to pastoring a church, I’ve managed a homeless shelter, pastored a refugee community in El Salvador, directed a ministry with the homeless in the streets of San Salvador, and now I serve as a Federal Prison Chaplain.
Looking back, it is a calling that took root in Cambodia. It’s not what I expected. Rather than pronouncing an eternal and universal truth, it is about proclaiming the truth of the reality of right now in each specific situation. That is what this paper does on a daily basis, while trying to pass that ideal on to others.
The Cambodia Daily is like a crucible.
The differing elements were pretty tattered on their own: a people torn and traumatized by such violence, greed, corruption and animosity, a young and idealistic editorial staff of Cambodians and management of expatriates, a persistent, hard diving publisher and visionary.
The greatest element was the spirit of the Cambodian people, in which I witnessed a hope, a giving…a tremendous spirit that humbled me.
One day, a Cambodian friend took me to a dirt-floored hospital. A cousin had just given birth and hadn’t stopped bleeding. She was covered in a sheet stained by the blood of former patients and her family couldn’t afford the $10 worth of medicine.
Unable to digest, comprehend, or accept the level of suffering and trials they must endure, unwilling to face the reality, not willing to try to help by parting with my $10, I walked out angry. Though no one asked me for anything, I was angry with what I imagined were their expectations that I purchase her medicine. I was angry at the poverty, the injustice, and the God who allowed them to persist. And I was angry that my efforts didn’t seem to be helping the country. And I was angry with myself for turning and walking out of that hospital.
Later, after I spent the entire day with my friend’s family, nine people recently resettled in a 3-by-3 meter hut on a small plot of land after spending 14 years in a refugee camp. I saw how little they lived on, how they cared for one another, and how one employed person sustained the entire family on $50 per month. They fed me, even though they each had maybe only one change of clothes. We laughed together, and cried as they shared with me the joy, beauty, sadness and tragedy of their lives.
My vision altered by the time I was ready to go home that day, I offered to buy the medicine for the cousin. They had already bought it, using a fifth of that month’s salary. My pride was smashed, and I knew that I could never give a fraction of what they had given me. This is just one of the ways that some of the impurities in my crucible were eliminated while in Cambodia.
Ethical and responsible journalism is the most honest endeavor, and while “progress” in Cambodia may not have met anyone’s full expectations as of yet, the Daily is poised as a fulcrum upon which the society may turn.
As long as the Daily stays on course, it will serve as a crucible where the ideals of a people, of a group of young over-achievers, and of a visionary publisher, are refined. The truth will set us free.
(In addition to being Business Manager of The Cambodia Daily, Jim Elliott has hiked the Appalachian Trail, been a geologist doing mineral exploration, tended hay field on a dude ranch, managed a homeless shelter, pastored a church and a refugee community in El Salvador, directed a ministry with homeless in San Salvador and currently serves as a Federal Prison Chaplain. He enjoys playing the banjo and walking in the mountains with his “Salvadoran” Spaniel, Edgar.)