In order to understand a country, and its current situation, you must first understand its history. This is particularly true in Cambodia’s case. But as a foreigner in this beautiful country, it is hard to understand and explain it when you cannot even begin to comprehend the struggles this country and its incredibly resilient people have seen comparatively recently.
Today was surreal. We are still trying to come to terms with and comprehend everything we have seen and experienced. So bear with us while we try and explain a concept and period in Cambodia’s history, that to us, seems to have no explanation; a period of time fuelled by nothing other than hate. A period that saw Khmer people torture, abuse, enslave and slaughter their own kind: The period of the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge was an extremist Communist party lead by a well-educated Khmer man named Pol Pot. In 1975 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge over threw the Lon Nol Government and captured the capital City of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge gained the trust of the Cambodian people by saying the party was a representative of the much beloved King, who at the time had fled to China. Having taken advantage of the suffering a lot of Cambodian people had already experienced, and a widespread lack of education, Pol Pot was able to rise to power in a way that gained him and the Khmer Rouge considerable support. This is when his oppressive regime upheld Pol Pot’s idealistic dream of an agrarian self -sufficient society in which there were no educated people, and everyone was deemed equal underneath his administration. And thus, his reign of terror, slaughter, torture and oppression began. The Khmer Rouge began arresting, torturing, and killing anyone within society who was deemed educated: Doctors, lawyers, journalists, teachers, bilingual citizens and even anyone who could read and write, were rounded up and killed in the most brutal of ways. Anyone deemed to be a sympathiser or believed to be working with the enemy were forced to face the same fate, even people within the Khmer Rouge. The rest, were forced to work in fields and on farms under horrific conditions and under the very real threat of torture and death. Today was the day our eyes were opened to this horror. Today we visited the S-21 Prison Camp and The Choeung Ek Killing Fields.
While we were aware of the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia’s heartbreaking history, it’s hard to prepare for what we saw today. The S-21 prison camp is in essence, the most ironic metaphor for everything the Khmer Rouge stood for. An old high school, a place of learning, education and childhood innocence stripped of its youthful naivety and turned into the most horrific of torture chambers and prison camps. The rows of rooms that once were safe places for children to grow learn and play, continue to stand spattered with the blood of innocent Khmer people whose lives were stolen from them in the most brutal of fashions. As an outsider going in, it’s hard to feel like you have a right to stand in a place where so many people were tortured, violated, stripped of their humanity and murdered. Even in the 40-degree heat it is impossible to walk around S-21 without goose bumps covering your body. Room after room filled with evidence of horror and brutality held behind these very walls. The dark, soulless wooden cells no bigger than a single mattress in length and width, equipped with metal shackles do nothing but send shivers down your spine. To walk through a room lined with the skulls and photographs of its victims, while consciously avoiding stepping on the spatters of blood that still remain on the floor, gives you a feeling that’s hard to comprehend let alone put into words. Given the way we felt walking around and experiencing what remains of the horrors of the S-21 Prison camp, it’s almost impossible to understand how this constant reminder of its horrific history affects and shapes the lives of Cambodian people living with the memories and scars of the Khmer Rouge every single day. It’s hard not to look at its people in a completely different light and it’s impossible not to respect and feel such a deep level of sympathy and admiration for them at the same time.
Despite already having been shaken to the core, there was still more to come. The Choeung Ek Killing Fields is still not something that we can believe is real. Every step you take in these eerily peaceful fields is a conscious one; doing your utmost not to stand and walk on what remains of its victims bone fragments and teeth. How could an environment so beautiful have held and housed such horror? As you stand by the sites of the mass graves you cannot help but wonder about the souls and innocent lives these fields have claimed. Who were they? How and why did they end up here? What was it about them that made them deserve this fate? But most importantly, are they at peace now?
There is little you can say as you stand in front of a beautiful old tree now named ‘the Killing Tree’. A tree used by Khmer Rouge soldiers to kill innocent beautiful babies and small children. How could any human being justify grabbing a baby by its legs and swinging and beating it against a tree until there is no life left in the child? What gives a person the right to control, manipulate and end someone’s life let alone in such a incomprehensively brutal and demonic way? These are all questions that flow through your head alongside the rush and whirlwind of emotions that overcome you at these places. It makes you question every fragment of humanity and leaves you numb to the idea that love, peace and compassion can exist in a world where this has happened.
Although endless thoughts and emotions surge through your body after seeing an experiencing these sights of pure evil, the most incomprehensible thing in our heads is how people can actually do this to each other? How has the human race not learnt from these atrocities and come together as a global population to uplift and empower each other? How is this kind of destruction and hate still occurring in the world? Undoubtedly, these kind of horrific tragedies come down to nothing more than perspectives and perceptions. We believe wholeheartedly that Pol Pot felt with every inch of his heart and soul that what he was doing was right. How could he cause such destruction if he didn’t? This leaves us thinking that the conflicts that exist in today’s society come down to the very same principles. How could Hitler persecute and murder Jews if he didn’t believe what he was doing was right? How could the United States drop nuclear bombs on Japan without feeling they were doing something in the best interests of humanity? How can these kind of conflicts and abuses of our own kind still go on without people bothering to consider or try to understand each other’s perspectives? With this mentality it’s hard to understand how and why such atrocities have occurred and still occur in our world. But despite seeing and experiencing such evil, we choose to remain optimists. If this much power, strength, effort and level of co-operation can be used for evil why can’t it be used for good? We choose to believe in the good in humanity and the ability for that to overcome evil. We choose to believe in the power of understanding and respecting one another and showing a little compassion. It’s hard not to when you see a society continuing to rebuild and be so positive despite having a quarter of its population brutally murdered or wiped out from malnutrition, disease and overwork. You can’t not be humbled when you know the entire population over 35 years of age in this country have been directly touched and affected by the Khmer Rouge, but remain grateful for every progression their society sees. While there is so much evil in this world, we will strive to always remain optimists. We just hope the rest of the world is eventually able to see the good in everyone else and fight for each other instead of against each other.
S, H and K