The Darker Side of Cambodia
Today, we left the comforts of city exploring and delved deep into the history of Cambodia. Our day started with meeting Lucky, our local guide for the day and he would takes us on a gut wrenching journey through the dark years of Cambodia. His personal story of family loss could be felt in the emotion of his words as he walked us into the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge. We would hear the story of the millions who died amidst the hands of children no older than 13 or 14 years old. The massacre of human life for no reason other than genocide. We would walk in the field that was the hollowed ground to where thousands perished by the hands of children soldiers and this field was only one of hundreds throughout Cambodia. This killing field would be the location where more than 20,000 Cambodians would loose their lives in horrific deaths in the late 1970’s.
As our group quietly walked through the field. We would view the grass and weed covered mounds of dirt and the small fenced in areas that had been identified by locations of the murders and burial of women and children or of the beheaded soldiers. The young guides descriptions of the massacre left a chilling mark on everyone and for most choking back tears was becoming more difficult simply from just listening to this young guide speak of how he never knew his own grandparents. Lucky stopped us near a tree and explained in detail about the trucks arriving at midnight and unloading the people. Then he told us to look down at our feet and said notice,the shredded cloth in the ground? That is the clothes of the people who perished. Years of weathering had worn eroded the ground exposing the remains. He then asked us, “do you see the roots beneath your feet? That is not roots. It’s the human bones of some of the 20,000 people who perished just in this field alone. There are too many people here to reclaim, too much to gather them all.
We looked down and amidst our feet were shards of weathered human bones and tattered, faded clothing. We just froze not knowing where to move to, We were not only a visitor to the history, we were now literally standing in the middle of hallowed ground, amid the remains of the people. His young voice resounded, “look around, they are everywhere, under your feet, under the water at the pond, under the trees. They are everywhere.” It was chilling and nauseating at the same time, the field already had a feel about it when we arrived. A heaviness weighted the air, but now, not only was the story real with the words and emotions, his words now had given a visual impact and texture.
It is those moments when you are already trying to process the history and contain an emotional response to what you have heard, but now it’s no longer just words. We are standing among the dead, the heaviness in air is greater and the silent eeriness of the field made the hair stand on the back of your neck like a faint charge of electricity rippling through the breeze. It’s overwhelming and it’s no longer a story and text of history, it is real to all of us.
We left the Killing Fields and went to Tuol Sleng Prison or locally known as S-21, a former school house turned into the darkest of prisons. An interrogation center of the Kmer Rouge, now a museum dedicated to the lives lost and the surviving 8 prisoners of S-21. We walked among the buildings, the empty rooms and the tiny brick cells still seem to echo the horror of the past. On the lower floors of the building, lines of black and white booking photographs outline the walls of the prisoners as they were brought in to the interrogation center. More than 12,000 would pass through this prison and on to a death of torture or a death at the killing fields. The rusted beds and blood stained walls and floors remain strong reminants of the genocide. We walked slowly through the building, the vacant eyes in the photographs seemed to stare back in desperation from the faded images, a look of hopelessness among all the images of men, women and children. The images went on and on, wall after wall until it seemed they all faded into one collage, too much emotion, to much information, to much horror to process.
We walked outside, into the bright sunlight and hot muggy day in Phnom Penh, a big sigh to attempt to compensate for the emotion just experienced. Then, Lucky gathers us and walks us over to a small stand, he introduces us to an elderly man, 83 year old Chum Mey, a survivor of Tuol Sleng. As we shook hands with Chum Mey, our guide Lucky tells us, “now you understand, now you see”.
As we gathered to leave and return to our hotel, Lucky tells us to have a good lunch and that he was leaving now for he had an opportiunity to interview the killer, he had finally received an opportunity to speak directly to one of the child soldiers of the Khmer Regime, that soldier now in his 50’s. Lucky was hoping to get some answers to why from the interview.
Our journey through Tuol Sleng and the killing fields was a harsh reminder of the autrocities of civil war and political unrest. It was a lesson in history that none of us, young or old will ever forget.
Signing off tonight from Phnom Penh, Cambodia