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Volunteering in Phnom Penh

by becca on November 14, 2009

Nate and I spent the past 5 days doing a quick volunteering project with an NGO in Phnom Penh called Sak Saum. In Khmer (Cambodian language), Sak Saum means “dignity.” They provide a safe environment for women in Cambodia who have been or at risk of being trafficked through a one-year program that combines counseling, mentoring, skills training and education. The program teaches the women to sew and their products are sold in the United States. The income generated by selling the products enables Sak Saum to pay fair wages, provide job security to those in the program and allow for the sponsorship of more at-risk females.

To help with sales, we created a catalog to showcase their current line of products. We spent a day and a half photographing bags, pillows, aprons and table settings then another three days writing copy, designing and laying out a 20 page catalog. All of the products are named after people who have contributed to the program, and in the catalog you will find the Nathanael men’s apron and the Rebecca handbag. Nate’s mom connected us with Sak Saum. She helps out by selling bags in Baton Rouge and has sent designs over for inspiration. So, there’s also an Anne bag.

We had a great time hanging out with the girls in the program and Emily, the adminstrator of the program, who showed us around Phnom Penh and the surrounding areas for a truely unique view of the city. Sak Saum is part of a larger ministry called In His Steps that helps orphans, widows, and poor families in a province outside of Phnom Penh. We were lucky enough to be brought out to the province to meet some of the families and learn about the problems they are facing. We brought sticky rice treats, which the children seemed pleased about. We also got to watch the children at the community center rehearsing for a Christmas program. Everyone was so beautiful, even the poorest, the uneducation, the HIV/Aids infected. Everyone wore a smile and received us graciously.

The final catalog that we created for the Sak Saum 2010 Collection looked pretty good and it felt really satisfying to help out. Sak Saum is always looking for additional distribution channels in the states, and the things the girls make are high quality and quite hip. If you’re interested in buying or finding out what you can do to help, contact Ginny Hanson at eghanson (at)

S-21 and the Killing Fields

by nate on November 12, 2009

The day we arrived in Phnom Penh we visited two of the cities most dramatic remnants of the Khmer Rouge‘s bloody reign of terror: Tuol Sleng (S-21), and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

The experience was chilling. The torture rooms were golden with sunlight pouring in through the windows yet in the middle lay the rusty bed and chains the victims were shackled to, with an image on the wall of the last victim found in the room, dead. The whole museum was very raw and honest in this fashion, with hundreds of b&w photos of the prisoners filling some rooms, and cracked skulls filling another. Just a few reminders of the past.

A Little Background

The Communist Party of Kampuchea, also known as Khmer Rouge, became the ruling party of Cambodia in 1975. They began a structure of “social engineering” in which all citizens were forced into fields as slaves. If you didn’t work, you were shot, or killed with the blunt end of a shovel. Education was a waste of time and agriculture was the key to wealth and prosperity for Cambodia. They reset the year to 1, and began a bloody reign that claimed 2 million lives of its own people.

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, though the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000-1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed.

Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags. Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners’ heads under water, and the use of the waterboarding technique.

By the end of 1979, cadres ran out of burial spaces, the prisoner and their family were taken to the Choeung Ek extermination center (killing field), fifteen kilometers from Phnom Penh. There, they were killed by being battered with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and many other makeshift weapons owing to the scarcity, and subsequent price of ammunition.