Friday, November 15, 2013

A Sobering History

Cambodia has had a very heavy history for the past few decades. After a civil war in the 1970s, the country was taken over by the Khymer Rouge led by Pol Pot. A staunch communist, Pol Pot forced citizens out of the cities and into the countries into agricultural collectives, where many of them died of starvation and strenuous labor. He also engaged in a campaign of violence, torture, and mass murder, eliminating those considered "enemies" of his regime. 3 out of every 8 people in Cambodia died during this time.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S 21, is an infamous site where many prisoners, maybe 20,000, were held and tortured. It had been a school before it was taken over by the Khymer Rouge and transformed into a place of horror. The original structure has been preserved as a musuem to honor the memories of those who lost their lives.

We took a short tuk tuk ride to S 21 on our first morning in Phnom Pehn. The site is quite chilling - the blocks are made of individual rooms, first used as classrooms and subsequently as cells for detainment and torture. 

All of the cells are open - some contain the metal frame of a bed and a photo of a prisoner. Visitors walked along in silence along the halls and pathways, peering into rooms, imagining the past.

I found myself unable to walk more than a few steps into a room, as if it were still haunted by the evils of the past. I did not go past the barbed wire in the second block of the prison, which housed tiny brick cells within each room.

The Khymer Rouge, like the Nazis, were quite systematic about documenting the records and lives of their victims. In the third block were entire rooms full of photos of these individuals whose lives were so cruelly taken. The museum is an important place to visit to learn about Cambodia's history, but I would caution those that are very sensitive to be prepared. 

We had planned to go directly from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, a site outside of Phnom Penh where the massacres actually took place and where the victims were buried. However, we decided to shelve the trip at that moment, in order to give ourselves some time to internalize and reflect upon the tragedies that we had glimpsed already.

Therefore, it was not until our last morning that we ventured out to the Killing Fields. Be warned - it is a very bumpy ride from town! We hired a tuk tuk driver to take us there, and travelled for about an hour over dusty, crowded, and bumpy roads. I recommend wearing sunglasses and a mask over your nose and mouth.

We took a very well-made audio tour of the grounds, which both explains the significance of different sites on the Killing Fields and some of the deeper history of Khymer Rouge. Interlaced with this information are personal stories of survivors.

The fields are eerily serene, with the green grass, beautiful trees, and chickens roaming around the paths. All of the original buildings used by the Khymer Rouge were torn down shortly after the Killing Fields were discovered, but the audio tour direct you to signs that indicate what had passed at the spot. 

Visitors wander up the paths and around a peaceful lake, and everyone is silent because they are listening to the audio guide, with the exception of a occasional school tour. It's difficult to believe that nearly 10,000 people were killed and buried on this site. 

Most of the graves have been excavated, though after each rainy season the soil gets sifted around and bones and pieces of cloth surface. Museum guides clean up these remains every few months, so it is very likely for visitors to spot remains on the ground. We found a tooth half buried in one of the dirt paths.

The tour, which lasts about an hour, takes you around the entire area. The last stop is the stupa that memorializes the victims. If you take off your shoes, you can enter the inner area, which contains 5,000 skulls that were found on the site.  

Again, an important place to visit, but not for the especially squeamish. 

It's hard to imagine how people could do this to each other, and to their own countrymen. Pol Pot was never punished for his crimes - he lived to past 80 years of age. The Khymer Rouge continued to be recognized as the official government for a number of years after the genocide had occurred. At that time, this outrage could have been partially due to the fact that little was known about what had happened in Cambodia. 

We hope that by learning about these atrocities in history, we can be better informed to make sure that they do not repeat themselves, yet there is still much amiss in the world today that cannot be blamed by lack of knowledge. I wonder if in 10 years, 20 years, we will look back at events that are happening now and question how we could have let it happen.

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