In 1986, it took the foresight and freedom of a character like Father Pierre Ceyrac to invite me to open a drawing course at Site 2 and thus launched an activity that no need seemed to require. Without him, nothing could have been started, and nothing could have ever made sense. So I want to open the PHARE story with a testimonial-homage to this great man.
Father Pierre died in India in June 2012. When he was alive, he would cut short any attempt on my part to say thank you, thank you for all he did for each of us, and in particular for myself. It was impossible then to keep track of the gains and losses I thought I owed him. Each time I had to restrain my outpourings of gratitude. Father Pierre would have nothing to do with it… The testimony that I’ve always wanted to bear for him is therefore not for him.
And the question “why” remains. It is testimony to the power of Father Ceyrac’s absolute and total commitment to action; it is about the multiplying effect it had on those who had the privilege to be part of his entourage, or even to be on his team. It is therefore about a message of hope that I want to share. It is about me looking back on my own life, to make the effort to find the words for the fundamental values that he taught me. It is about concluding this part of my life spent with him, as much as it is about the hope of establishing a solid basis for my future endeavors.
It was in 1980, after 43 years spent in India serving those in need, and following a request from his provincial supervisor, that Father Pierre Ceyrac first arrived in the Phanat Nikhom refugee transit camp near Bangkok, Thailand, for what was to be an ad-hoc mission. At that moment, the tragedy of Cambodia turned a new page in its history. The Vietnamese invasion had driven out the Khmer Rouge. The border between Thailand and Cambodia saw massive arrivals of Cambodian refugees. Some of them were looking for a host country, and they gathered together in this transit camp near Bangkok. Six months later, his mission completed, Father Ceyrac asked the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Pedro Aruppe, to be sent to the Cambodian refugee camps on the border.
I first met Father Pierre in India, in 1974. I would meet him again years later, in 1985, on the Thai-Cambodian border, in the refugee camps. And this is how I arrived on the border of Cambodia as an administrator for Handicap International. At the end of my contract, Father Pierre suggested that I join his teaching team from the Thai NGO COERR (Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees). He asked me to teach drawing to children in Site 2’ orphanage.
Therefore, from 1986 to the closure of the camps in 1993, I stayed with Father Ceyrac’s team. His concept of coordination was the polar opposite of what I had experienced with Handicap International. It was no longer about controlling what were understood a priori to be unhappy expatriate workers preoccupied with the sole goal of doing as little as possible. Yet, with Father Pierre, it was completely different. He didn’t care about details; he was concerned with the essential. He built all his relationships with his team members on the basis of total trust and respect. Never once did he hover behind our backs with prying eyes (for which he had no time anyway), checking to see if we were cutting corners. Instead he set the bar high through example. His official statements were always too short; he had once declared – and stuck to it – that monthly meetings would not go over an hour. Something rather unorthodox when looking at other NGOs, even much smaller than COERR, who held an abundance of meetings – sometimes even several times a week – with no end, mired in the trivial, where people would take the floor to speak about pretty much anything, to prove how hard they worked.
Father Pierre was not just light, but freedom. It was wonderful to work with him (although exhausting as well!) because we progressed with complete freedom. We were encouraged to undertake with all the risks that it involves, possible deadlocks, but also fruitful ways. Father Pierre was never concerned with power relations. Power was – I believe – so foreign to him, so strange, that he was left at a complete loss when those tactics worked against him. Working with him was not only an opportunity, it was a privilege.
Here is an anecdote that says much about him : every month, the United Nations – which was in charge of the camps’ management under Thai paramilitary direction – organized a meeting with each of the NGO coordinators. During one of those meetings, the theme of the discussion was “What is your program and what are your problems?” Every time, each coordinator would report at length on new developments, but when our own coordinator’s turn came, he simply said : “Well, I don’t have a program, and I don’t have any problems.” I’ll let you picture the puzzled and baffled expressions on his counterparts’ faces. But coming from Father Pierre, even such radical challenges were accepted, because they aimed to re-center what was essential, without placing judgment on anyone.
Another anecdote: one day, on the brink of an angry outbreak, one of the heads of the United Nations yelled at Father Ceyrac : “Your team is nothing but a swarm of uncontrollable missiles !” Father Pierre, in delight, spread the story around, telling it to anyone willing to listen, adding : “Never have I received such a sincere compliment!”
Father Pierre constantly repeated that one must aim to “be” and not to “do.” “Being and not doing” didn’t mean not doing anything, of that we were sure. With him there was no Saturday, no Sunday, no day off. He always stood with those whose cause he had taken up: the refugees.
Through his total commitment, his luminous presence, his never-failing support for all of whom he had taken responsibility (the refugees and the members of his team), he provided the will to take up any challenge.
And this is how I – the one who never gave up a single holiday when I was working with Handicap International – forgot more and more about breaks and taking due days off. Step by step, my drawing lessons and my young pupils became my only “obsession”.
Unfortunately, sometime around the years 1989-90, the regional director of JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service) decided from the seat of his desk in Bangkok that Father Pierre had had his day and that administration was to be handed over to a younger Jesuit. The replacement of Father Pierre at that level of administration was a catastrophic decision; no one is a prophet in his own land! The Jesuits had not always acknowledged Father Pierre for what he was – far from it. He surely stood in someone’s light. And what we – humble laymen and women – received with gratitude, the religious professionals undoubtedly, by comparison, took as an accusation of their modest and imperfect lives, of their difficulties in reconciling with the fundamental choice of living in accordance with Christ, I would imagine…
End of 1989: following the fall of the Berlin wall, the geopolitical balance of the world was being reconfigured. Cambodia and the resistance camps, which had fulfilled a strategic role in the confrontation between capitalist and communist forces, were losing their position. Up to that time, the camps represented a showcase for the Western world. Nonetheless, from 1990 on, the camps were about to lose their role as showcases for the confrontation between East and West in the context of the Cold War. Soon they would be seen as quagmires. The discourse on borders among NGOs was itself about to drastically change. Refugees were not going to be seen as members of the Resistance anymore, but as hostages in the hands of the leaders of the Cambodian Resistance and also as economic refugees. This is how, after losing the land under their feet when the camps were settled definitively in Thailand, their presence lost its significance for the noble cause of the struggle.
Photo Eric Brencklé, Crowd in Site 2, 1986
It is something quite terrible and frightening to witness sudden radical reversal in official discourse, as sudden as it is cruel, with everyone falling into line unwavering or unwitting in the adoption of the new official word, dumping into oblivion the debates alive just one week before ! One can even begin to wonder what freedom of thought actually means!
I remember a comment Father Pierre made at the time: ‘One could say that Site 2 is a place of evil. It has been said and it has been written. But it is also a place of beauty, of grace, more keenly felt than anywhere else. Despite a backdrop of anxiety, worry, pain, nightmares of the past, and uncertainties of the future, there is a human grandeur which, I believe, is not to be found anywhere else.”
 All citations of Father Pierre are from the film Ombre et Lumière ou la supplique des enfants de la frontière by Véroniqe Decrop (France: PHARE, 1993).
Photo Carole Dupuy, Site 8, 1987
In saying this, he was responding to imperious assertions that were becoming more and more common, most notably from the mouths of some of the heads of UNBRO (United Nations Border Relief Operation), the United Nations organization in charge of the camps. To me, the obvious “evil” came from the betrayal that the resistance camps were experiencing. They were being stabbed in the back with the best intentions of the world, which was pretending to “protect” them, and to separate the hostage populations from their representatives, now declared corrupt.
From that point on, Father Pierre remained on the border, but had no official function or as a simple chaplain to the Catholics of the camp. Which, of course, was to remove the pulpit from which he could state a legitimate word. For years he had managed to keep all the NGOs and all the disrespectful words to the refugees (he had something of the fawn trainer, but a trainer without whip, with the sole weapon of his big smile and his friendly lucidity).
Photo Eric Brencklé, Site 2, 1987
One must keep in mind the peculiarity of the refugees’ situation. First, there was their condition, thoroughly dispossessed, at the mercy of a pyramid of authorities, who bore their full weight on their poor shoulders. This unusual situation, therefore, generated biased relations that could quickly intensify if one didn’t take care. People who had nothing more than a semblance of authority became leaders, empowered over a crowd of others whom had been jettisoned there through political and historical circumstances. The tendency to drift towards “them” or “us” justified itself in different ways. It was the refugees who lacked efficiency, according to the criteria set by the NGOs. The few occasional robberies here and there, the repeated and multiple requests for individual assistance… and soon enough the discourse became tendentious… Maybe we should add to all this the anxiety that can occur for people who have lost everything, placed entirely under the control of foreign powers, an anxiety complicated, in addition, by the latent guilt of being on the right side of the fence.
Generally speaking, and for all those reasons, expatriates faced a subconscious temptation to erect protective walls in order to avoid “contamination,” something that was probably very common. Father Pierre had abolished all those walls, as he always did with any cause, or, I would say, as he simply did by definition of who he was Throughout his whole life, whatever the cause, he maintained total commitment, which is why I can call him a saint – the real thing, the kind you dream about, not the dubious kind the Church elevates for political or strategic reasons, or even by esprit de corps.
Abolishing walls and fences didn’t mean sinking into some kind of pathos. Always close and always in solidarity, through tragedy as well as joy, and yet without ever overstepping boundaries. Father Pierre was absolutely and entirely without confusion.
It is quite mysterious to me, this ability of the great saints, to be so close to people without falling prey to emotional crowding. I think they develop another level of being, beyond the categories defined by a psychoanalysis focused on the id, the ego and the super-ego. They reach another dimension, both limpid and enigmatic, the dimension of the soul I would imagine, that so transcends the other three entities it governs them.
In his speeches he insisted on the beauty and nobility of the refugees and their cause. He used to say: “If you want to talk about them, then show their grandeur and dignity. Not their misery. And if you want to help them, do so with respect, with love. Otherwise do nothing! Without respect, without love, you have nothing to give them. On the contrary, you have so much to receive from them… The refugees, you have to go see them. And then you will discover their beauty, their dignity. Seeing only their material deprivation is the attitude of a rich man, of a colonialist. You can’t forget the beauty of things, of people, otherwise you turn sour! Every single person is a song.”
It was a constant reminder – going beyond the speeches – that didn’t just hold relevance for his team. He was a character, a major and unavoidable figure, in all the meetings organized by UNBRO, everywhere in the camp: at the terrace of the night market restaurants, in the evenings, even at dinner time… With his team, he was also always very attentive to every last detail. He forbade us to use cars within the camp, so we had to walk or bike in order to remain at the same level as the refugees, always… With Father Ceyrac, I therefore learned about commitment, to adopt the cause of those with whom I was to become very close, in this case my students.
Father Peter was very humble. Humility is an extraordinary strength!
In May 2012 I went to India to pay him a last visit, a last farewell. At ninety-eight years old, his body abandoning him, he alternated between long bouts of semi-consciousness, falling into the depths within. Then he would reemerge, making contact with his entourage. Speaking. Asking for time to talk about moments lost, spent doing nothing. I would tell him how much he did and that he could now go on and rest. He would invariably reply: “I could have done more.” He would then add: “No, really, I should have done more”.
The last image I keep of him: seated in his wheel chair, emerging from those long moments of semi-consciousness, immediately grabbing the patio rail to get back on his feet. An old fighter staying in the ring, right until the very end, still standing, always ready to get back into the fight.
« If one amongst us should lose his human visage,
by force he must be held to face into the wind »
Saint John Perse