I heard this amazing story from a friend recently, a professor in anthropology.
She had the opportunity to meet with the renowned peace negotiator Johan Galtung. Galtung is the grandfather of peace and conflict studies. At the age of 77, he has spent over 50 years negotiating peace agreements with conflicting groups all over the world.
My friend asked him over lunch, "Mr. Galtung, you've negotiated over 70 conflicts all over the world. What is the common denominator in all of these negotiations?"
Mr. Galtung hesitated for a very long time. Then he opened his mouth and he said, "Everybody wants to tell their story."
Wherever there is conflict, mistrust or dissension, just next to the desire to "have one's way," is the desire to be heard and acknowledged.
My family and the country of my heritage is one that saw war and conflict for nearly 30 years. Cambodia fought a long civil war while being bombed by the United States, only to devolve into a state of madness wherein the government began to turn on its own people. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, nearly a quarter of the population, almost 2 million Cambodians died of execution, starvation and disease.
My parents never talked about their story of survival until one Christmas day five years ago when they made a confession to me. They told me that even though they had raised me, my brother and sisters as one nuclear family, we were not nuclear at all. In fact, we are a patchwork quilt of survivors. In effect, my family was formed during the Cambodian genocide.
I decided to make a documentary film about their story, called New Year Baby. I also wanted to create a forum so that stories of the Cambodian genocide could be passed from one generation to the next.
I'm starting a new organization called Khmer Legacies. The mission of Khmer Legacies is to document the Cambodian genocide through personal videotaped testimonies. The idea is to have the younger generation interview their parents about their story of survival. These videotapes will be used as an educational tool - an opportunity to tell the larger story of the Cambodian genocide.
I have to confess that it's not an easy job. Like my parents, many Cambodians don't want to share their past with their children. As much as Khmer Legacies is about recording people's stories on videotape, it's also about changing the culture. Taking a conversation of shame and transforming it into one of honor.
But it's my belief that despite the secrets we keep and the shame we hold inside, Cambodians truly want to be remembered and acknowledged. With patience, love and powerful or active listening, these stories truly beg to be told.