|Phnom Penh confused, surrenders|
On our last day in Phnom Penh we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing
Fields to gain some understanding of the tragedies Cambodia
suffered under the Khmer Rouge. Visiting both sites in one day was intensely emotional.
The Khmer Rouge,
led by Pol Pot, came to power following a period of great
instability, only five years after the king was ousted in a coup. Well, a brief look into history shows Cambodia had been
going through similar turmoil for nearly a thousand years due to aggressive
neighbors and powerful colonial interests. Pol Pot, however, took
over in 1975 during armed struggle with communist Vietnamese occupiers and just five days after
the United States withdrew forces and ended an eleven year bombing
campaign. The people of Phnom Penh actually welcomed the Khmer Rouge
soldiers, believing them to be liberators.
The dark truth
became clear quickly, when only days later the entire city of nearly
two million was forced to evacuate. In fact, all urban centers were
evacuated as the country recklessly converted to an agrarian
economy. People perceived as threats to Pol Pot’s vision for Democratic
Kampuchea were either executed outright, or tortured for information before being murdered.
Our first stop, the
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was once a prison center, codenamed S-21, where the
accused were held and tortured for information. The facility, once
a high school, has been well preserved since 1979, when the
Vietnamese drove out the Khmer Rouge. Of perhaps 17,000 who entered, there are only seven known
survivors. Their pictures and those of many hundreds who were killed
are featured in the make-shift prison cells that held them. These men
had looked directly into that camera, each with his own despair,
confusion, anger and fear, and now they stared with the same great
humanity into me. I cried. S-21 is a disturbing place.
from the city center, Lindsay and I walked around more than one
hundred mass graves at one of Cambodia’s infamous killing fields. It
is estimated that 20,000 people were killed at Choeung Ek. Nine
thousand skulls have been found. These men, women and children were
not shot, or gassed, but murdered with regular farm shovels,
machetes, and hoes right next to the pit where they would be buried
with a hundred or more others. Their clothes still wash up after
heavy rains. Some were visible, half buried, when we visited, a
reminder of just how recently they were worn by the victims.
such crimes are allowed to happen and that so many must participate,
in this case thousands, to carry them out. Standing in prison
chambers and walking through the field, imagining the inhuman acts
committed against beautiful, innocent people was deeply saddening. So
much so for me that the experience was broadening. It was one of those special times when we feel an expanded sense of being through a deeper connection to humanity and life in general. I hope I will continue
to feel more and be thus more alive, that some good things may grow
from that haunted field.