4.3 Cambodia after the genocide

In Cambodia after the genocide

After the fall of the Phnom Penh regime in Cambodia in January 1979, CCFD worked greatly for the reconstruction of the country by supporting various development projects, particularly in the agricultural and health sectors. It also accompanied the return home of some migrants who had fled the tyranny of the Khmer rouge and who had come to live in France or in Europe. Some of these had returned home to become effective actors in social life.

CCFD also supported the Khmer Cultural Association in France animated by Nouth Narang, who also returned to Cambodia where he became Minister of Culture.

A precursor

Sergio's action in Cambodia, as everywhere else, testifies to a twofold concern, on one hand to promote the participation of peoples in their own development, including opposing certain initiatives by foreign organisations not respectful of Cambodians, and on the other hand to plead for the return home of Khmers from the diaspora whose presence and action were necessary for the rebuilding of the country after the genocide.

Bernard-Jean Berger, a French priest lived in Cambodia for several years including during the war. After returning in 1983, he was a privileged witness of the pedagogy and spirit of solidarity of Sergio.

The first time that I met Sergio was in 1984 in Asia. He had just begun to work for CCFD. I came back to Cambodia and he was coming from Bangkok. We met on the great boulevard of Silom Road. Bangkok, for Sergio, was undoubtedly the place where he had been a delegate at an international gathering of the YCW. There he had met some young militants from Vietnam. On a broader level, it was there that he discovered the Asia that would mobilise in the future. He was there with the whole weight of his life as a Christian militant. Arriving at CCFD, he was at a turning point of his professional life. He was conscious of this and he was very happy the day that he returned home to tell Denise his wife that he had got the job there.

He did not want his mission simply to help people but to help them to develop as whole persons and to act for every one. He lived out “advocacy” action in favour of development long before the word was even invented by western organisations. I had understood from our first meeting that Sergio was not in the line of those people who practised charity but of those who with a concern for just recognition had confidence in every human being, wanting them to stand up, to become responsible for themselves while respecting their whole dignity.

Several years later, I recall seeing Sergio cry. In this country, Cambodia, where history had created a truly unique context some people believed that anything was allowed. It happened on a street in Phnom Penh, on the footpath outside the Hotel Asia. Some NGO leaders were laying down the law in the country, taking themselves for ministers of I don't know what... Sergio, seeing this, exclaimed: “But it's extraordinary how they intervene in the place of people. For who do they take themselves in deciding alone the destination of hectares of land or the configuration of the Mekong?” Some certainly acted as those with authority or power often act, full of themselves and placing themselves above the law. Little after, he had also heard a certain expatriate say things like: “They disturb us at customs, demanding papers, visas, etc. even though we are coming here for them...” Sergio's reaction: “When a Cambodian arrives in France, people consider it normal to pass through customs and to show their passports to verify that everything is in order”.

There could not be no double standard. Without doubt there were often lots of excuses for this style of behaviour, because there were not always answers. However, it is important to remember the situation in Cambodia during the 1980s when the “Khmer Rouge” drama had left the country drained. The least carer who remained in the country was called a nurse; a nurse received the title of doctor and if there were around fifty doctors still left in the country, it was from among them that the Minister of Health had to be found. The support of NGOs was therefore absolutely necessary and the temptation was sometimes great to go beyond the framework of the spirit of service and over to a zone of power and decision-making. It was the same in every field. And certainly in the agricultural field when one understands all the importance of agriculture in Cambodia where 80% of the population is rural.

A great agricultural project

One of the first projects that Sergio was going to help to develop was precisely in this sector. The story is not banal. A few kilometres from Phnom Penh there is an agricultural high school, Prek Leap, which had been a barracks during the war during the 1970s. This old and very beautiful agricultural high school opened by France during the years of protectorate was now in ruins. The management had been carried out by French agronomists. In 1982, the place was empty but the idea of re-opening it had started to emerge.

There were two former students in the country who had reached the level of agricultural technicians. That was enough to make them directors of the school and I remember one of them saying: “But I am not capable of doing this. I am not competent!” However, he was the person called upon by Sergio and supported by him. The former director of the school was still living perhaps somewhere in France. Our former student technician remembered his name and he was not difficult to find. He lived in the suburbs of Le Mans. It was the beginning of a beautiful story of co-operation between Mr Poisson, CCFD through the intermediary of Sergio, and the Prek Leap high school. The French engineer was retired and his health was poor but he agreed to come and give a hand to relaunch the school, to explain to the Cambodians former students where all the material went. He also explained how to make better use of the soil, showed them how to use irrigation and how to rebuild the piggery at a suitable location.

Later, Sergio invited the Cambodian director of the school to visit France for the Lenten campaign. Together they drafted a major development project in partnership with Anne-Marie Berthelot1 from the French Ministy of Agriculture, and the Rouillon Agricultural High School near Le Mans.

A transition role

In his own mind, Sergio considered CCFD's presence and the role that it played as transitional. He wanted to prepare the period that would follow the “domination” of NGOs. Thus, in 1994, Sergio expressed his disagreement about a film that some filmmakers, full of their own importance, wanted to make in Cambodia with the result that the film was postponed. “We seek above all, he said and wrote, to support modest local initiatives. We cannot become the spokesperson for a project which in reality belongs above all to the Khmer people of Cambodia who have suffered from the terrible events that we all know. We are not the representatives of the Khmer people who exist themselves! That is why during each of his missions Sergio was never alone but always wanted to be accompanied by one of another Khmer from the diaspora.

In another field, Sergio contributed greatly to giving important roles to Sr Marie-Jeanne Ath, Thun Saray and many others. The first was very active with refugees through the Jesuit Refugee Service2 (JRS). The second worked for the defence of human rights (ADHOC)3.

Sergio's great originality in Cambodia during the 1980s was to highligh the work of Ratana, Dara, Vanny or Sovanna while other French NGOs were still talking about Paul, François ou Jean… These Cambodians, people said, are still children and after all they have lived they need time to get things together... Like an echo Sergio would reply: “Indeed, that's exactly why they know what they need, because they have that experience behind them and they know what they are talking about and they need to heard and supported in their efforts to relaunch the country.”

CCFD took on this involvement for three years to work with a significant agricultural technical research team. It was a major and very demanding requiring many trips by westerners and numerous field trips. It concerned research on the shape of the Khmer plough which dated from the upper Middle Ages. The study reports came one after another to find a new model that would be more efficient. The farmers looked at the research with an almost total disdain. Because they knew exactly why the plough was equipped with an inferior blade: it was used to level the bottom of the trench to prevent the water from draining from the rice field. After long months of research, the final report concluded that the plough in use was the best adapted. As for the farmers, they already knew it for a thousand years! Some technical bodies sometimes forget the human dimension, the knowledge of people in the field and who are perfectly in phase with a place in which they live and work with their families for generations.

It was based on this kind of thinking that Sergio came to give CCFD responsibility in Cambodia to a former college principal, Kang Kiri, a man who had suffered greatly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. And to support Youk Ngoy, young economics professor, who became rector, as well as Pichara4. Or another person who is still there today because their presence had been respected at that time.

It is also important to recall the action of Onesta Carpene in Cambodia during the 1980s. She is now deceased but she always had so much to say. She was of the same fabric as Sergio. She had developed militants in the Christian Worker Movement teams in France and Italy. And even though some looked upon her as the grey eminence of local communism, Sergio had confidence in her. She had an extraordinary importance and showed unequalled courage. It was not funny or easy to live in Phnom Penh in 1983. Even today, the Cambodian government knows what it owes to Onesta and through her to Sergio.

Developing the reconciliation process

In 1992, Sergio wrote: “Based on the circumstances and the significance of the programs being supported, CCFD works in various ways but always in close relation with partners from the country, whether as sole external support, or with a group of Catholic development organisations within CIDSE. Or with other French organisations, or even with, and this is important, with Cambodian diaspora organisations in France and in other countries. It also seemed important to us to contribute to the establishment of relations of confidence between the communities on site and those who have decided or have been forced to live overseas.” Saying this, Sergio also took part in the building of the reconciliation process.

It was Sergio who organised the return to Cambodia of several personalities who would perhaps never have returned without his support, including former ministers or agricultural technicians who were so useful for the country. The socio-political situation of Cambodia included many constraints that limited the action in the field. This is why during one seminar Sergio strongly emphasised the evolution of the situation and why he gave such priority to support for the birth of civil society and non-governmental organisations. At the same event, he stated that “to understand the philosophy of involvement of CCFD in Cambodia, it is necessary to understand that CCFD wants to support projects that are presented by partners involved themselves with rigour and perseverance. And to avoid the relationship of donor and donee, which necessarily engenders a mentality of passivity and abandonment in the development process”.

“It is a question of giving as much as possible, he continued, to preference for integrated programs of development, i.e. including various aspects of life in society and in the given sector. Thus, one cannot sustainably improve the health of a people simply by giving medical help. Health is only one component of a harmonious development for people including improving nutrition, housing, access to work, education and culture, water hygiene, raising the standard of living as well as respecting human rights. Intervening in only one of these domains is to take the risk of ineffectiveness.”

Sergio expressed well the profound thought of Father Lebret: “The development of every person, the whole person, and all people”.

At the same time, Sergio did not forget that CCFD was a Catholic organisation and that as a result I to had to maintain close relations with the Church in Cambodia, which by its own history, had kept up strong links with France. It is necessary to recognise that the mistrust of politicians – which was particularly true in Vietnam – was also real with respect to a “Catholic Committee”. It improved gradually thanks to the admirable awareness raising and explanatory work on Sergio's part which required much patience. It was he who was able to arrange the return for the first time as part fof a humanitarian delegation Yves Ramousse, the bishop of Phnom Penh, who had been expelled to Thailand at the time that the city was seized by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

It required audacity

In the same way and in the same spirit, Sergio sought to open up Cambodia towards the Asian NGOs in other countries such as Thailand or the Philippines. This was far from easy given the state of relations between the various countries. However, the same spirit led to the holding of an important three day seminar in Phnom Penh in 1993 of which Sergio was the main organiser.

During all these years of Sergio's presence at CCFD, there was always a strong link with various organisations. This was also for Laos and especially for Vietnam. We can also say the same for the Cambodian Welcome association as far bringing together Khmers from various backgrounds. The links were also maintained under the leadership of Lidia Miani who succeeded Sergio at CCFD. The association had launched a long term development project since they were seeking to work with Cambodians in France in the socio-cultural field through the foundation of a House for Young People and Culture. This type of project evidently cannot be compared with building a school or digging a well. It required audacity to accept to support such an action. And Sergio took the risk.

It was necessary to hold up both ends of the cord, namely promoting real sense of responsibility by young people in Cambodia with the support of young Khmers in France and with Cambodian Welcome. I can still hear the leaders telling us: “When you are here, you, the French, everyone works well.. The adult Khmer leaders tell us: “That's good, young people, you are doing very well.” But as soon as you leave, the doors of the administration close and they tell us we need to listen to the adults. They say: “Who do you think you are to give us lessons!”

Sergio immediately understood this issue. For him, a project was not defined first of all by a study or a dossier or by certain criteria or calls for proposals. It was the project of several young people who wanted to live. It was as if we heard from Sergio that slogan of the YCW: “Every young worker is worth more than all the gold in the world because he is a son of God”.

If today, in our development organisations, we can better appreciate the place of advocacy, then, we can truly say that Sergio was also a pathfinder, a precursor.

Who cares about the political regime…

Yuok Ngoy is currently the rector of the Institute of Economic Science in Cambodia. Sergio had enabled him to pursue training in computer science in France with a scholarship from CCFD.

I had the opportunity to meet Sergio in 1990 in Phnom Penh. I was then vice-director of the Institute of Economic Science. Sergio wanted to support the implementation of a computerisation project within the university. At the time, computers were virtually unknown in Cambodia. The Paris Agreement had not yet been signed and the political regime was socialist.

Sergio supported me with a scholarship from CCFD to get training in the new computer technologies and later to assist other Cambodian students. He also enabled me to bring back to Cambodia some computer material (computers and printers) so that future generations in Cambodia could acquire mastery of these indispensable technologies at a time of the birth of globalisation.

This professional relationship progressively developed into a genuine friendship and fraternal relationship. Sergio often returned to Cambodia sometimes accompanied by his family.

In 1992-93, I experienced a difficult period of my life and I was very ill. I owe my survival to the assistance that Sergio enabled me to follow my medical treatment as well as an operation in France because the sanitary conditions in Cambodia at that time did not provide for care for such an illness. It could not even be diagnosed in my country.

Honesty and humility characterised Sergio. It did not matter about the political regime. What was important to him was simply the defence of the weakest.

Hope after the genocide

Kang Kiry acted as relay for CCFD in the implementation of projects in Cambodia. To some extent he was a collaborator of Sergio from 1991 to 1995. Kang shares his memory of a man who knew how to bring hope to Cambodians at a time when their morale following the genocide was at its lowest point.

Sergio and I were responsible for the co-financing of projects that aimed to rebuild the social, economic and political tissue of Cambodia which had emerged from a terrible and unprecedented situation. It was an action of education for the resurgence of a whole people, democracy, human rights, non-violent action.

Concretely, we established various projects: literacy for adults, basketmaking, cattle raising and redistribution of calves... Other actions included granting loans for small people to launch basic trades, all done in highly necessary partnership with GRET5, the reinstallation of expatriates at Battambang with CFDS6, as well as drilling wells and building dams, etc.

For his friends and collaborators, Sergio had a gentleness and a disconcerting sensitivity. He was an indefatigable worker. Many of the plane trips were not always pleasant, without even mentioning the fact that he had to leave home for so long, but he profited from the time on the plane to work on his portable computer.

A man has just disappeared, leaving an emptiness among us and in our hearts. But as a worthy son of Christianity he knew how to build hope in us even when our morale was at its lowest. He taught us that it was necessary to work for sincere, disinterested solidarity, an effective North-South partnership as well as for the end of wars and conflicts and for development and non-violence.

Grains of humanism

Pichara Leang arrived in France in 1974 at a very young age as a refugee. Thanks to Sergio he was able to study and to prepare to serve his nation. He is now an independent consultant in Cambodia for development NGOs.

There are not enough words to describe the humanity of Sergio, my mentor, my friend. Sergio is the one who prepared me to return to Cambodia to work for its development. Thanks to him, I was able to go further than I could have hoped. I had been a refugee in France since the age of 15 years. I got to know him during the 1980s, just as I had got to know CCFD, a bit by hazard.

A simple letter written to several organisations to express my desire to continue to study with the perspective of returning to my country with knowledge that was needed for it to re-emerge from an unparalleled human tragedy. A simple response from Sergio but was determining for my itinerary, my choice, my vision of balanced development, that of people who determine their own economic and political development. Sergio taught me to reason, to believe, to hope for a better, more just and more solidary world with a more equitable sharing of resources.

He always told me that I alone had to decide to be good, useful, integrated, just as I could choose the path of cupidity, indifference in the face of suffering of the poor, the abandonment to development, or the arbitrariness of politics.

Yes, thanks to Sergio, I was able to study geography and thus sharpen my analytical spirit to prepare myself to serve my country. I had already done it following the projects that CCFD was supporting during the 1990s. I also discovered something else during those years. Sergio taught me to prepare men and women with a more just, more humanist, more critical vision of development. I have thus maintained this philosophy in the job that I currently exercise which consists in supporting NGOs. I help them to step back from their claims and above all to become more involved in strengthening their consciences to know, to stay good, to stay integrated and to serve the poor.

It is true that Sergio has left us. But there remain in Cambodia men and women who are impregnated with his though, Doctor Huot, Kang Kiry, Ngoy, Meng Ho, Pichara and many others. They are so many grains of humanism that will produce other grains that will refuse intolerance, injustice and indifference.

Confidence in local actors

Jacqueline Heinrich, a Sister of the Providence de Portieux, like Anne-Lucie Vo Thi Ri in Vietnam, also worked with Sergio. She recalls her action in support of her sisters to return to Cambodia after the departure of the Khmer Rouge and describes the originality of the CCFD process in the rebuilding of the country.

Sergio had facilitated a first stay in Cambodia for the Superior General of the congregation at the beginning of the 1990s before the UN forces facilitated their return after the 1993 elections. At that time, several sisters were working in the refugee camps in Thailand and later in the Philippines. They were working closely with the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) which aided displaced people in the camps in Thailand. Later, the JRS Cambodia staff came to help prepare and facilitate the return to the country of the displaced people.

A possible return to the country started to seem possible for the sisters who had escaped the Khmer genocide. Six of them had suffered the same fate as the rest of the people and had not survived the regime.

So that the superior general could prepare this return, Sergio had facilitated an initial trip to Phnom Penh with Bernard Berger, a French priest who had always stayed in contact with Sergio. I know that Sergio also facilitated the initial return to the country of the first Catholic church leader at the beginning of the 1990s.

An Australian Jesuit Mark Raper who was then the director of JRS and who had met Sergio during these difficult periods pays the following homage: “Sergio was a marvelous friend throughout our long collaboration with CCFD. I was sorry to have lost contact with him. In many circumstances, he was an adviser for me who accompanied me on my first visits to Ho Chi Minh City and to Cambodia during the 1980s.”

Everyone involved in the structures of solidarity, encouraged and supported by Sergio, participated in the rebuilding of Cambodia ravaged by genocide. Thanks to them, the people were able to revive, families got back some land, the handicapped could get a job and dignity.

The JRS and CCFD way thus was different from that of certain powerful NGOs that arrived in the country with projects all ready to go and to which the people had to adapt themselves if they wanted to receive aid. On the other hand, the CCFD and JRS approach was based on confidence in the local actors. They were accompanies and encouraged to take their own responsibility. I myself was the witness of this extraordinary development work in the countryside, the formation of physically handicapped people, often victims of anti-personnel mines, work on which several of our sisters collaborate in Phnom Penh or Battambang.

We are very grateful to Sergio for all those links both in Vietnam, Cambodia and China. He never judged a person simply on their reputation. On the contrary, he knew how to see in every person he met not their ideology but a person in all their dignity of a child of God.


1 Anne-Marie Berthelot had been a teacher at the Rouillon Agricultural High School before she took up the post in the Ministry of Agriculture where she was in charge of aid to Cambodia in the agricultural field.

2 Jesuit Refugee Services (Services d’aide aux réfugiés animé par les jésuites)..

3 Human rights organisation in Cambodia.

4 See their testimonies.

5 GRET (Groupe de recherche et d’échanges technologiques) which worked with CCFD.

6 CFDS : Cambodia Family Development Services.