Being on the road has slowly become not just an adventure, but also a way of life, however temporary. Most days are filled with something new, something amazing, or something unexpected, and usually we feel rewarded and fulfilled. But just as important, there are days like today.
We just hit Cambodia, which is everything and nothing like people have said about it. After visiting the Tuol Seng Museum (aka S-21 or Security Prison 21) where an estimated 17,000 Cambodians were held, tortured, and killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, we headed a few miles out of Phnom Penh to the Choeung Ek Genocide Center, simply and bluntly referred to as “the killing fields”. There are no words that can fully describe the terror or the pain and suffering that occurred here. I could try, but I would fail to capture the horrific magnitude of what took place in recent history. Just like I can try, but fail to understand how human beings can do such things to other human beings, and how we continue to fail to learn from history.
The brief knowledge I had of the Khmer Rouge was pretty ummm…shall we say, basic. By that, I mean all I really knew was that they were a political party that terrorized Cambodia during the 1970s and tortured and killed thousands of their own people in order to build a self sustaining communist country of workers. But knowing the “basics” is not enough.
That knowledge gleaned from a few lines of info in some news article or textbook does not do justice to the victims and their families. Some people wonder why places like these are preserved and made into tourist sights. It’s a valid question. Particularly for victims or surviving family members whose only wish is to forget or who want their loved ones’ remains respected and properly cremated, in order to honor them according to Buddhist tradition. But as a tourist, I can say that the value of preserving and maintaining such places is necessary. Change can only come from education. And the lessons gained from visiting the very site where unspeakable acts took place have far reaching effects.
We stood inside the cells and walked through the halls of the former high school-turned-prison in S-21. Even now, there’s a ghostly sadness all around. We stared at the gallows, really gymnastic high-bars turned into torture devices, complete with the original jugs that were once filled with fecal matter into which victims heads were submerged. We read about the ideology and practices of the Khmer Rouge.
You were killed if you were a doctor, teacher, student, monk, military or government officer, artist, writer, singer, actor, “intellectual” (or if you wore glasses) or city dweller. Only peasants were spared in order to create a population of self sustaining farmers.
Money was abolished. Cities evacuated. Buildings destroyed. The regime created such a sense of distrust among the people, that no one could trust a living soul. They separated men from women, parents from children. If you were suspected or reported as doing anything against the rules, you were taken to one of the “security centers” and tortured into giving a false confession, then executed. Friend betrayed friend, neighbor killed neighbor, and in many cases sibling turned against sibling.
Today at the “killing field” we came face to face with the mass gravesites. In some areas, there are still piles of bones set aside. We saw the stupa filled with level upon level of the nearly 20,000 skulls that have been exhumed thus far. We saw the “killing tree” where children and babies were killed by holding their ankles and smashing their heads against the tree. There were even faded articles of clothing in a small heap at the base of the tree along with some bones. It crushed my heart.
To say this blog entry is depressing would be an understatement. But to not blog about it at all would fail to capture our experience and would be unfair to the people who lost their lives and those who continue to suffer. It dawned on me during our tuk-tuk ride that every single person we come across in our Cambodian travels who appears to be at least our age or older, is a survivor of the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
This astounds me. That this is all so recent that it’s barely classifiable as history. And with the trial currently taking place, it must be opening some old wounds for much of the population today.
The Holocaust. “Ethnic Cleansing”. Somalia. Haiti. Rwanda. Darfur. There are no comparisons to be made when it comes to crimes against humanity. Only shame…anger…disgust….and also hope. We can’t change the past.
Green grass now covers the pits of the mass graves, but that doesn’t change what happened there. If we learn from the mistakes of the past, then there is hope. Given the state of the world today, we are still a long way away.
But for each museum or site of this nature that we’ve visited, I have not been the only tourist with tears in my eyes. And despite the outside daily clamour, it is respectfully, sometimes shockingly silent.
People emerge changed. There is hope.