(disclaimer: Because I am tailoring this blog to my readers as opposed to making it a digital diary, I was really hesitant to publish this post now because my last few have been rather heavy. However, as my “editor” and photography pointed out, much of what Cambodia is today has been shaped by its history revolving around this topic. Many believe that the Khmer Rouge period has contributed to the impoverishment of Cambodia more than anything else. In light of how prevalent this history is, I decided to go ahead and post about this very important experience I had. I promise the next post will be more light-hearted!)
Let me tell you a story [but be warned, it is heavy and may be unpleasant to read].
One afternoon two girls–one Irish, one American–bargained for a tuktuk to take them on the long ride out to what is known by Phnom Penh visitors as “The Killing Fields” (one of hundreds upon hundreds of similar places located throughout the country). When spoken of, no one recommended it as a place where one would like to visit, but rather a place where any visitor to Phnom Penh ought to visit. So despite the foreboding storm clouds and their “end of week” fatigue, the two girls set off to do their tourist duty.
How does one prepare themselves to be a proper tourist at a genocide memorial? Is it right to pose in pictures? And if so, should one smile? Is talking above a whisper appropriate?
If ornate tombstones lined neatly in rows on a grassy green hillside give you the creeps, imagine walking on trails embedded with human bones. The two young women did not have to imagine it as they walked slowly along the trails that looped around the dozens of grass-covered ditches that serve[d] as mass graves. Crusty tattered clothing fragments tangled up in newly unearthed tree roots, along with the bones and teeth jutting out of the ground were all too real to them. In a way, the calm and peaceful voices of the audio tour narrators almost didn’t fit the setting.
Between 1975 and 1979, in the small, impoverished country of Cambodia, over 1 million people were murdered almost entirely in secret by the communist regime, the Khmer Rouge. Led b y Pol Pot, a fanatic leader who wanted to obliterate traditional Cambodian culture, religion, values, and everything in between, Cambodia’s city dwellers were forced to return to the countryside and lead lifestyles of “simplicity”–working agriculturally. In the four-year-span of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign, the country of Cambodia lost over a million of its population–often the most educated and gifted–in the dark of the night.
At fields much like Choeung Ek, truck-loads of unsuspecting women, men, and children were unloaded. Patriotic music blared all around them as they were led to a dimly lit office where they signed their name on a roster list. Little did they know that they were signing their own “death warrant”, for not long after, most were taken to newly dug ditches that would catch their bodies as they were hacked to death. Poison was spread on top of them to ensure death and prevent smell. The patriotic music helped to hide their screams from being heard by the surrounding farms. When there were too many people to be killed in one night, those remaining were locked up for perhaps the worst 24 hours of their lives until the next night.
This is just a glimpse of a history that our Irish and American girls experienced on that cloudy Sunday afternoon. Have you heard of this history before? It is not surprising if you haven’t, for it is almost a forgotten history. The remainder of this story is best left untold, for the rest of it should be heard and seen by those who will venture to experience it for themselves.
photos taken by Lily Robinson