1/5/10: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
This blog is many things – awesome, funny, insightful, well-written, inspirational, life-changing, filled with pictures of good looking people – but serious it is not. However, some days can only be written about with a sense of seriousness, and today was undoubtedly one of those days.
I am a bit ashamed to reveal this now, but before mapping out our itinerary around this time last year, I had never heard of the Khmer Rouge or the Pol Pot regime. However, given the relative lack of news coverage this tragedy has received, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you haven’t either. If you ever find yourself in Phnom Penh, it’s something you’ll never forget.
(Rather than turn this into a history lesson, I’ll try to focus on our experience today, so please forgive me if I don’t define things. That’s what wikipedia’s for.)
Our first stop today was the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, the most famous of a number of sites in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge executed any and every perceived threat to their idealistic agenda. (One quote from the regime that I thought put their philosophy into perspective went something like, “It’s better to kill ten innocent victims than to let one guilty person go free.”) Upon our arrival, two things immediately stood out to me. The first was the impressive stupa just beyond the entrance.
The second was the chilling sound of children that filled the air. Sometime since the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979, a school was constructed right next to the Killing Fields memorial. During the hour that we spent imagining the pain and suffering endured by millions of innocent people, many of whom were children, the air was filled with laughter and chatter as if it was coming from the pre-tortured children themselves.
In a morning that has impacted our trip unlike any other, we walked from memorial to memorial – from a gravesite that contained over 100 headless corpses to one of only women and children, from the stupa filled with victims’ skulls and clothes to the exhibit detailing many of the methods of killing. As if this wasn’t enough, our next stop was Tuol Sleng prison (more commonly known as S-21), the schoolhouse-turned-prison where approximately 20,000 “threats” to the Khmer Rouge were held during the reign of terror.
Upon arriving at S-21, the first thing we noticed was a group of Asians (I won’t specify nationality in order not to offend, but also because I really can’t tell these kind of things) smiling, laughing and posing for pictures in the courtyard in front of two of the buildings. This was almost as difficult for me as was reading the countless tales of people who had unnecessarily lost their families to the ruthless Khmer Rouge. Of the 20,000 inmates who passed through S-21, only seven lived to talk about it.
Because all the guides were busy when we paid our entrance fee, we latched onto a guided group as we toured the four buildings. Prisoners were kept in cells less about 2.5 feet wide and six feet long and were subjected to a variety of torture methods in the weeks or months before they were taken to die at the Killing Fields. I could hardly squeeze through the openings into the cells and could hardly stomach some of the pictures of the badly mangled people who probably relished the refuge the cell provided from the torture.
What I think I will take away most from today is how awful of a tragedy this four year period of Cambodian history was, yet how little I imagine most Americans know about it. I don’t remember ever discussing it in history class, and even though the trials of some of the leaders of the regime are continuing today, I don’t recall any news coverage about them. But from 1975 to 1979, somewhere between one and three million innocent people lost their lives in some of the most inhumane ways one can imagine. I personally am glad that rather than hiding from the past, the Cambodian government has chosen to educate people so that it will never happen again.
Picture of the Day: