“Failure, loss, illness, pain can be our greatest teacher”.
Liz and I were joined by Sophie ( a fellow volunteer) and our friend Christie (from Mondulkiri) in a visit the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields so we could learn a little more about the atrocities committed by Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot during the seventies. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is located in a former prison (Security Prison 21) once used to detain and torture anyone thought to be an enemy of the Khmer Rouge. My guidebook reports (Moon Handbooks) this place has been dubbed, “Auschwitz on the Mekong”.
When the Khmer Rouge rolled in to Phnom Penh, in April 1975, days before the fall of Saigon, residents were mislead into believing they had to evacuate because the Americans were planning on bombing the city. The city was evacuated in a few days and more than 2 million people were suddenly on the move to the countryside. They were to be engaged in converting Cambodia to a sort of Agrarian Utopia! The Cambodians were forced to work in the rice fields for about 16 hours a day in the treacherous heat, on empty stomach replenished daily by just a bowl of rice. This was torture of a different kind and many of those who worked the rice fields eventually died of exhaustion. Anyone thought to be educated, had soft hands, wore glasses, had fair skin or spoke a foreign language was transported to prisons such as S-21 or the Killing Fields for interrogation and later execution. Entire families including children were killed to ensure no kid would grow up and take revenge for the deaths of his family.
It is a chilling place with stark reminders of the atrocities that were once committed there.
Photographs of the people who passed through and paintings that documented the torture inflicted is what’s left to piece the tale of the horrors that perhaps only the walls of this place can now fully bear witness to.
We watched a movie which brought to life the terrors of the time and shared the pain of families torn apart by the barbaric actions of one man and his followers.
Then it was time to visit the Killings Fields. Mass graves, spread out over what now appears to be an open field show few signs of these horrific times until you look a little closer. As we walk through the area we see the rains have eroded the earth to reveal bone fragments and bits of clothing. Signage on trees document the barbaric ways in which men, women and children lost their lives here. Many were buried alive.
The government has now built a stupa on the site to house the skulls, clothing and bone fragments that have been dug up. A stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.
About 4 people involved in the Khmer Rouge are now on trial but Pol Pot died of a heart attack in a shack near the Thai Cambodian border and never answered for his crimes. Neither will the many Western Governments that supported the Khmer Rouge for a long time or the hundreds more who were part of their cadres. More than 2 million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Today it has left a community that carries on with life despite tragic reminders of that terrible time. Most people bury their pain and never really talk about. Our guide at the Killing Fields explained his uncle had been killed here and he often wonders where his remains lie, as he takes visitors through the Killing Fields. Most people in Cambodia have lost family members due to this conflict. After all, more than a quarter of the population was destroyed during the period 1975-1979. Today, more than half the population here are under 15, a harsh legacy of this conflict.
We came away more than a little shaken that humans could behave this way to each other, to ensure their own survival. How would our own communities react, faced with the same decisions? Would you sacrifice your own life and the lives of your family or justify taking the lives of your fellow men, women and children so your own can survive?
“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”. Voltaire