Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Where to Even Begin?

It seems as though my posts about Cambodia are going to be pretty sombre, but I just want to say that we are really enjoying our time here in this beautiful country. Angkor was magnificent. Siem Reap is a wonderful city, and Phnom Penh has been great as well. It's just that it's hard to justify babbling on and on about the great food and massages and the warm weather when we see things such as this...

Today we visited the Choueng Ek Killing Fields, located just outside the capital city of Phnom Penh. Over the span of four years, two million innocent Cambodians were executed and buried in shallow graves here and in other locations throughout the countryside. They were taken from their families and homes; they were starved, tortured, and terrorized. They were imprisoned, held captive in the basest of conditions, and then driven en masse to these Killing Fields where, in the name of saving bullets, they were bludgeoned to death with farming tools. Their crimes, if you can even call them that, were of being former government workers (or having ties to government workers), professionals or intellectuals or anybody with an education (even wearing glasses meant one could read, meaning one had an education and was an enemy), or anyone who was not an ethnic Khmer (Cambodian). All the while, other Cambodians were forced into work camps where they starved to death while tending farms that grew food they would never get to eat. In the span of four years, two million Cambodians died at the hand of the Khmer Rouge. Families were separated and children were trained to be soldiers. Anyone caught stealing food to feed a starving family was beaten savagely, and the sick or weak received no medical care at all, as they were deemed unworthy of survival in this new society anyway, and were left to die.

The first thing I saw at Choeung Ek was the massive memorial stupa -- it holds a staggering nine thousand human skulls, stacked upon 17 levels. I was not expecting to be so overwhelmed by the horror which whispered by; I could only barely sense the pain and suffering that must have happened there, and it was still too much for me to handle. Silently, grimly, we approached the stupa with incense and flowers, and tried to absorb the meaning of those skulls. Many showed signs of damage from the vicious beatings bestowed upon them while their owners still lived. In the fields around the memorial were many depressions in the soil. These were mass graves, some of them containing hundreds of bodies, though they were only a few feet deep. Some prisoners were made to dig their own graves before being pushed into them. We walked the meandering paths which are still strewn with faded, tattered pieces of clothing and bits of human bone that are forever being revealed by the yearly rains. Of the estimated 20 000 people exterminated at Choeung Ek, only 9000 have been exhumed.

Shaken to the core, we walked around the perimeter of the memorial area and tried to relate the sunny day, the warm breeze, and the lush tropical vegetation with the horrors and nightmares that belong to Choeung Ek, before moving on to the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum. This museum, once upon a time, was a high school, but was converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison for "political" prisoners -- those destined to meet their ends in the Killing Fields. Here, prisoners were catalogued first. They were photographed and forced to give their biographies, which were kept in detailed files. They were shackled and imprisoned, sometimes for months, and tortured into giving confessions and names of other Khmer Rouge enemies. In the end, they were carried off to Choeung Ek. From 1975-1979, approximately 17,000 people were incarcerated at Tuol Sleng. There are only twelve known survivors from this time period.

The pictures of the men, women, and children that were taken to Tuol Sleng are on display for us to see. Nearly all of the people wear the black uniforms provided by the Khmer Rouge, and most of them have their hands bound behind their backs. It's impossible to read the expressions on their faces, but they could only have been terrified of what was to come and saddened for what they had lost. We saw the different cells that were used -- some were tiny, smaller than a bedroom closet, and some were huge and were meant for dozens of people lined up side by side and shackled together with leg irons. A few larger rooms had metal cots (never any mattresses) and were reserved for "important" prisoners. The open corridors were lined with a rusted mesh of barbed wire put in place to prevent prisoners from jumping to their deaths. The whole place had an oppressive, evil atmosphere, from the dark cells to the stained concrete floors, and I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

We remained quiet for a long time before starting into a circular and unoriginal discussion of "How did this happen? How do we prevent this from happening again? Who could do such evil?" We are not smart enough to know the answers to these questions. We just know that it should not happen again, and yet it has already.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the legacy of terror of the Khmer Rouge did not end in 1979. Land mines laid continue to plague the Cambodian countryside. The entire Khmer race is missing two generations: the one decimated by the Khmer Rouge, and the one that was not born. There were hardly any babies conceived, born, or surviving between the years of 1975 and 1979. Cambodia has truly had to start from zero, as the current culture is, in a lot of ways, only 30-odd years old. They should be proud of how far they have come, and it can be said quite definitely that Cambodia is one place that will not allow such atrocities to happen again.

ETA: Check out the album here, but I must warn that it may be disturbing for some.

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