I didn't take any pictures; I didn't want to be distracted from the gravity of what I was seeing. A picture is worth a thousand words, though, so there are a few scattered throughout this post - ones I found online that spoke most to me.
I'm all about light-hearted fun, but I think neglecting the dark, uncomfortable parts of history means we aren't learning from them. I hate to think that all that suffering was in vain and humanity will continue this cycle of torment. Maybe I feel Responsibility tugging at my sleeve. I guess it's been on my mind a lot lately, especially now that I'm so close to going home (the date on this post may say May, but we all know I'm about six months behind…). While traveling the world, you see so many people you want to help, circumstances you want to make better and ignorance you want to change. I meet a lot of people who are genuinely making a difference - by volunteering, by teaching, or by having family and friends donate to a website they set up so they always had something for the little kids they met along the way (that one really impressed me). It makes you think about your own impact on the world. How am I going to leave a mark? How can I take this experience and really make the most of it? How can I begin to help all of the people in the world with so many different but equally urgent problems? I think I now know the answer for me - to be a positive influence for those around me and hope that it ripples out into the world; to make changes by example rather than judgment; to relay what I've seen and the impact it's had on me, in hopes that it impacts someone else, and makes whatever it is more relatable (less foreign and scary) for them. It might not have the same impact as, say, developing an ebola vaccine, but each little bit helps, right?!
In 1975 (only 40 years ago), the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia and held it until 1979. In that time, they managed to kill almost two million of their own people. In a country of only 8 million, that's one in four. The communist rulers specifically targeted professionals, those with an education, and those who could speak other languages or had any tie with foreign governments (ironically, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, studied in France and was fluent in French, as well as his native tongue). They combined Cambodian nationalism with xenophobia (a fear and hatred of foreigners and all things foreign) to target people with Vietnamese and Chinese heritage and any people brave enough to question the government. People were evacuated en mass from their homes, herded to the countryside and forced into collective farms and forced labor camps in an attempt to make the country self sustaining (mainly by growing lots and lots of rice). The Khmer Rouge wanted to close Cambodia off to the rest of the world; to bring back a pure Cambodian people (sound familiar?). They brainwashed children, trained them how to torture by practicing on animals and then made use of their newly acquired skills on prisoners. Museums, monuments, photographs and stories unraveled this horrible story for Nicolle and I.
We saw two sights dedicated to the victims of the Kmher Rouge - the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is an old high school that was converted into a prison nicknamed S-21. It's two, three story white washed buildings surrounded by barbed wire. The rooms still house steel bed frames, instruments of torture, shackles, and pictures of some of the 14,000 prisoners, 12 of whom made it out alive. The wooden towers where people were tortured and hung still stand in front of one of the buildings, like guards who never left their post. Barbed and razor wire surrounds the perimeter and the windows are filled with iron bars and more barbed wire. The walls are a stained, dirty yellow and there are brick solitary confinement cells, the size of a small closet, on the ground level. Black and white photos of the dead show the diversity of prisoners - from mother's holding their children to the elderly hunched over with age. Everyone got a photo taken when they entered, many with a pair of eyeglasses, betraying their intelligence and threat to the communist way of life. The later photos show the same people, with now emaciated protruding ribs, dark bags under their eyes and, often, black and blue bruised skin. They're filthy, starved and too often beaten and bloody. This prison was mainly for intellectuals, political prisoners, journalists, foreigners who weren't lucky enough (or chose not to) get out, and whomever else they deemed as a threat. It's eerie to be there, knowing how many people left only after their lungs had taken their last, tortured breath.
The Killing Fields were almost peaceful on their vast, now green plot of land with a river running around the back perimeter. Our tuk tuk driver took us through the city to a series of small, rutted dirt roads that made for a bumpy, dust filled ride. As we got out, he told us that his father had died in these Killing Fields. We walked in and purchased the ticket and an accompanying audio guide. There's a big tower directly upon entering, but per the audio guide, we saved that until last, walking though the rest of the grounds first. The sights included sign posted mass graves, the tree they'd slaughtered children against, fragments of cloth and bone underneath your feet, a glass box filled with victims' clothing, black and white photos of people lining up to die, with guns pointed at their heads and a ditch already lined with bodies in front of them - things that should fill the screen of a horror movie, not the history of the 1970's. We walked through this as the audio guide changed between history of the communist movement itself, and stories of the people involved - the prisoners, the guards, the survivors and the dead. The memorial, the big tower and last sight on the audio tour, houses more than 5,000 victim's skulls. It's a beautiful, white Buddhist stupa complete with Nagas (magical serpents) that slither from the corners. The glass case in the center holds white skull piled on top of white skull. You can tell how some died, noting holes and large indentations. Some even have pieces missing; big, gaping holes exposing the now empty cavity. The audio tour ends as you're circling this tower of skulls, whispering it's last sentiment into your ears:
“This was hardly the first case of genocide. We never thought it could happen here. But it did. And the thing is, it can happen anywhere. It did in Nazi Germany. And in Russia, under Stalin. And in China. In Rwanda. In the US, with its Native Americans. And in Argentina, and in Chile. Tragically, it will probably happen again. So for your sake, remember us – and remember our past as you look to your future.”