So there I was hunkered down in the jungle next to my friend, a very proper British gentleman. We watched as military cars and trucks rushed to and fro looking for the two white guys they had heard had gone across the border. It’s been about ten years ago now since Benedict and I hid amongst the trees and vines, sweating like pigs while we waited for our local friend to arrive so that we could jump in his pick-up truck and speed away.
I recall the few hours before we sat in the jungle . We had crossed the border in a large canoe on our way to visit the little village of Ler Per Her. On the short river journey I remember asking about the large plot of barren land and destroyed huts a kilometer from where the village lay. “That’s where the village used to be,” came the response. “The army attacked a year or so ago and the villagers had to relocate. Now, with all the landmines about, it’s impossible for the villagers to return.
As we entered the village, we were met by the village headman. He greeted us with a big smile, clapped Ben on the shoulder and wished us both warmly welcome. But before we crossed into the village he wanted to warn us that they had intercepted radio correspondence between two enemy army divisions. They were both only a few kilometers away and were planning to attack one of the three villages in the area within the next day or so. He went on to say that if the village were to be attacked that we would need to leave as quickly as possible. Other than that he wanted us to enjoy our short stay and hoped that we would join the villagers in their Sunday worship service. Both Ben and I were stunned. Weren’t they afraid? Shouldn’t the villagers be preparing to flee? Shouldn’t they be gathering provisions, packing their belongings, making sure their loved ones were near in case the call came to abandon the village?
In the course of the day, Ben and I met with hundreds of villagers. We joined them in their worship service, visited their school (of which they were extremely proud), ate meals with them and partook in village life. We found out that they were indeed afraid. They had all experienced having to flee their village before. They could recall the hard-eyed soldiers who had attacked, burning and destroying and then laying mines so that after the soldiers had left the villagers could not come back and rebuild or even try to reclaim some of their belongings. That fear, that sense of anxiety, the ugly scar of earlier attacks was a part of their everyday lives. Yet at the same time there was joy, a sense of hope and marvelous beauty and grace. I saw worried looks, but I also so faces lit up by face-splitting smiles.
Maybe that’s why, when I sat with my friend on the “safe” side of the border, and our ride finally arrived with our local guide yelling, “Jump in, fast, fast,” I couldn’t help breaking into a huge smile myself J.
Now as I look back and think about Ler Per Her I realize that I was confronted with one of life’s illogical paradoxes, a rich and deep paradox, far away from the simple black and white, yes and no world that I liked to live in. It was a messy life, one filled with villains and heroes, often the same people.
After note – For a few years the village swelled as IDPs (look it up if you don’t know 🙂 ), flooded it in hopes of using it as a jump off point to cross the border. Eventually, though it faced one to many attacks and everyone was scattered. Ler Per Her no longer exists. But her memory lives on.