The jewellery of genocide

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The history of borderlands is a history of bloodshed, of competing interests and of changing influences.

It’s a history of how people interact, and fail to interact, at the margins of our small worlds, and is pockmarked with tales of victors and vanquished.

It’s also a history of survival, often against appalling odds.

In Cambodia, the notorious Khmer Rouge wiped out almost a fifth of the population – an estimated 1.7 million people – between 1975 and 1979.

In January 1979, the Vietnamese army took Phnom Penh, liberating or occupying Cambodia, depending on your viewpoint.

But while the Vietnamese arrival in the capital marked the end of the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s ruling force, it did not mark the end of the suffering inflicted by Pol Pot’s genocidal troops.

The Khmer Rouge moved west, towards the border with Thailand, and the killing went on.

Cambodians trying to flee to Thailand endured hunger and disease, while Khmer Rouge landmines along the Thai border took their own terrible toll. As many as 650,000 more people may have perished in the year after the Khmer Rouge were toppled, although it is all but impossible to verify such figures.

And, of course, the Khmer Rouge continued to kill, operating as a guerilla force for years.

Cambodia’s civil war is not considered to have ended until 1998, when Pol Pot died, a symbol to the Khmer Rouge of its bloody past, hated within Cambodia and demonised beyond.

One of those affected by the ongoing violence in the 1980s was a boy called Chantha Thoeun, born 36 years ago in Pursat province, which stretches from the Thai border in western Cambodia to Tonlé Sap, Cambodia’s huge freshwater lake.

Thoeun, an only child, had a sad start in life, losing his mother when aged just four.

Dad’s dead body

But far, far worse was to come just a few years later.

He said: “My father was killed when I was eight years old by a notorious Khmer Rouge soldier. It was a terrible time for me.”

Young Thoeun thought his father was sleeping, and tried to wake him.

He said: “I woke up to my dad’s dead body but I was only a young child and didn’t realise my father was dead.

“I begged him to wake up; sadly, I did not know that he had passed away.

“I wept and I wept, ‘Please, dad, wake up’, but he never answered me.”

So huge was the scale of suffering in Cambodia that such sad tales are anything but unusual.

But Thoeun’s tragedy also presented him with opportunity. He went to live with his grandparents and, as a teenager, began studying jewellery making in Phnom Penh.

Thoeun said: “I started learning to be a jeweller from the age of 14, helped by an orphanage centre.

“I studied for nearly four years in the jewellery section as well as continuing my education.

“After that, I started working as a jewellery artisan at one of the local fair trade NGOs in Phnom Penh.”

Thoeun had found his place in the world, and spent a decade at the NGO.

Eventually, in 2011, Thoeun started his own fair trade team of craftspeople.

He said: “Our aim is to give underprivileged Cambodian people the opportunity to be trained in the production, management, leadership and marketing of contemporary handicrafts and arts.”

Executed in their thousands

Thoeun is committed to helping his team economically, socially and spiritually, and takes pride in paying fair wages while offering a safe work environment.

But the bullets and bombs that so devastated his country and robbed him of his father remain central to his life; indeed, they are a crucial part of it.

Thoeun said: “We use Cambodia’s local, recycled materials as much as possible.”

Those recycled materials include brass bomb shells and bullet cases.

There is little doubt that many, indeed most, of these bullet cases helped to kill Cambodians in the 1970s and 80s – such was the scale of slaughter that the Khmer Rouge tried to save ammunition even as it executed its countrymen in their thousands, and many of those Cambodians whose bodies ended up in the country’s infamous ‘Killing Fields’ had been clubbed to death.

It is hard to imagine, living in a country where unfavourable football results count as a tragedy, that a bullet to the head could ever be considered a blessing, but such was the world that Cambodians found themselves in as the last millennium drew to an ignominious close.

Now those bullets continue to represent a blessing, albeit a blood-stained blessing.

Melted down, the cases and shells provide the raw materials for beautifully simple jewellery, which is exported around the world, bringing money to Thoeun and his team, and much-needed foreign currency to Cambodia.

Not all the bullet cases are melted down. Some are polished and turned into bullet-shaped jewellery which is sold, with poetic irony, through ethical outlets.

An organisation called Craftworks Cambodia exports the pieces, opening up huge new markets to Cambodian artisans.

Thoeun said: “We are very proud that our goods are sold in both local and international markets. It is unbelievable.

“We are so very pleased to produce jewellery for our customers through Craftworks Cambodia, and I hope we are able to make more and more in the near future.”

Away from Cambodia, those who stock Thoeun’s products know that bullet jewellery can be as controversial as it is eye-catching.

In Britain, an ethical store called Eighteen Rabbit has nurtured an exclusive relationship with Craftworks Cambodia and is proud to distribute the jewellery.

Eighteen Rabbit is based in the world-famous book town of Hay-on-Wye, in the Welsh borderlands that have themselves seen conflict aplenty (although, given that Cambodia’s civil war killed more than half as many people as presently live in Wales, the Welsh bloodshed has been mercifully modest by comparison).

Beautifully crafted

The owners of Eighteen Rabbit, husband-and-wife team Andrew Williams and Louise Davies, are sanguine about the brutal origins of the jewellery they are selling.

Andrew said: “There is no getting away from the fact that we are selling jewellery that has some tragic tales to tell. There are plenty of places where you can buy bullet-shaped earrings but not so many where those bullet cases have been recovered from civil war zones.

“But these pieces are beautifully crafted reminders of Cambodia’s dark recent history. As such, I believe they are far more valid as jewellery than imitation bullet cases.

“I wouldn’t criticise someone for having a tattoo that references a struggle such as Cambodia has faced – indeed, I’d admire them – and the same applies to this jewellery.”

Louise, who is also a Green activist, said: “Craftworks Cambodia works with disabled and impoverished artisans affected by war, poverty and other massive challenges such as HIV/Aids.

“There’s nothing chichi about this jewellery – it’s the difference between life and death for some people, as inappropriate as that may sound when talking about bullets and bombs.

“If bullet cases can help present-day Cambodians and also help keep the lessons of the Killing Fields fresh in our minds, then so be it.

“But let’s not be condescending to the craftspeople behind the jewellery – people buy these items because they look so striking.”

It’s not hard to find Cambodia’s bloody recent history on this border-town’s many bookshelves.

But history in books has a habit of hiding there, unless the reader is a particularly gifted re-teller of stories.

Earrings, bangles, necklaces and rings, though, remain on show to prompt comment and, in the case of Thoeun’s jewellery, act as a remarkable reminder of not just another bleak, bloody chapter in human history, but also an uplifting example of how resilient and resourceful the human beast can be.

And it provides proof that we don’t need to stop turning the machinery of murder into jewellery: we need to do it more.

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