PHNOM PENH – Keiko Kunichika, an atomic bomb survivor, has chosen to spend her later years running a free facility in Phnom Penh called Hiroshima House.
It was built by a group of Hiroshima citizens who recognized similar histories of ruin between the two cities.
“I remember those old days as if I had been drawn back into them,” the 73-year-old recalled of her first visit to Cambodia 21 years ago.
Cambodia had been brought to its knees as a result of the genocidal rule of Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge movement in the second half of the 1970s. Adults were despondent, while children were cheerful, playing with cards, skipping ropes or whatever they had to hand.
The scenes were similar to what Kunichika had witnessed in Hiroshima after the atomic bombing in 1945.
She was with her parents near Hiroshima Station when the bomb was dropped on the city. As she was 3 years old at the time, she remembers almost nothing except the huge sound of a massive explosion, and unspeakable dread.
Kunichika’s father looked around the city for his sister and friends, and soon became bedridden, developing symptoms of radiation sickness and dying less than a year later.
One day, U.S. soldiers gave her a large number of chocolates and cookies, which she brought home. But her mother threw them away, saying, “You mustn’t accept anything from Americans.”
Seeing the sad expression that clouded her otherwise good-natured mother’s face, Kunichika recognized this was painful territory and the two stopped referring to the atomic bombing and the war.
In 1994, Kunichika worked as a volunteer, helping Cambodian athletes who were participating in the Asian Games for the first time in 20 years.
At a farewell party for the Cambodians after the completion of the games, which had been held in Hiroshima, one of the athletes tearfully wondered aloud whether Cambodia could rebuild itself and make its children “as happy as those in Hiroshima.”
Moved by this, Kunichika and other volunteers decided to build a facility to help Cambodians overcome the legacy of hardship left by the Pol Pot regime, aware that Hiroshima had been able to rebuild itself thanks to the support of so many people from home and abroad.
The group of citizens, which became the Association for Exchange between Hiroshima Citizens and Cambodians, built Hiroshima House little by little over more than a decade before completing the project in November 2006.
The four-story brick building is located in the compound of Wat Ounalom, a monastery serving as the headquarters of Cambodian Buddhism.
Hiroshima House offers lodging as well as educational programs. Children who cannot afford to go to school receive lessons for two hours a day in English, Khmer, social studies and arithmetic.
“Japan rebuilt itself over the past 70 years despite the many casualties it suffered in the war,” a teacher told students in a weekly class on peace and Japan’s postwar reconstruction. “You should study hard and make (Cambodia) a better country.”
Students enthusiastically raised their hands, asking questions.
“Humans do the unthinkable,” Kunichika said, referring to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the Holocaust as examples. “I’d like them to become children who learn from history.”