When I first moved to Cambodia, a colleague took me to my first meeting UN meeting on land rights. As I sat around the table, listening to updates on land disputes and forced evictions within the country, I noticed that people laughed at really awful things. "That's what happens when you've been here a while," my colleague whispered to me, after noticing that I sat there, silent, mouth agape. At the time, it weirded me out.
I understand now: People cope, in any way, by any means they can, and sometimes that involves laughing at some of the political and social realities, many of which are ridiculous, disheartening and frustrating to no end. For other expats, it means drinking themselves silly; yet, for others, leaving the city whenever the opportunity arises.
Why do people stay? How do they continue to do this work? These are questions I myself have tried to answer this year, though unsuccessfully. I believe that people who work in this sector in Cambodia burn out quickly - over the course of the year, I have met four lawyers, all of whom have independently warned me about the intensity of land rights/human rights work here, how it can affect you. For each of those lawyers, the answer to continuing their work in Cambodia came in the form of moving out of the country and working regionally on these issues, finding a home base that is safe and comfortable: Geneva, Chiang Mai, Melbourne, Manila. As much as I can surmise, the answer came in establishing distance, drawing boundaries.
Over a year later, I do not have answers. I only know that somehow, at this time in my life, this work clicks with me. As idealistic as it sounds, I feel fortunate to be able to contribute through my profession.
But this year has been so very intense.
To be continued . . .