The saddest, most troubling, confronting day I have spent travelling, or any time for that matter. Thinking of it now as I write this tears come a little to my eyes. This isn’t the story of my country or my people but it is a story about how horrible humans can be to other humans and it is terrifying and sad. Very very sad.
Starting your day with a trip to a Genocide museum, followed up with a visit to a sombre piece of earth where thousands of people were murdered isn’t your normal day sight seeing. The following may be disturbing to some people as I discuss the sites where a genocide was committed..
The day started with a trip to the Genocide museum located within Phnom Penh. The museum was originally a school, turned into one of the Khmer Rouges most infamous prisons S-21. Now it is a place of remembrance. Walking through the rooms it’s not hard to imagine them as the classrooms they where originally. Chalkboards sit on the front wall where the teachers would have stood and the tiled floors look like they are meant to be lined with desks.
The ‘feel’ of a classroom is soon dispelled by the beds, chains and torture instruments left over from more brutal times. Photos on the walls throughout the rooms document the brutalities and fatalities. This place will never be a place of learning or laughter again. Looking down from the balconies you see the graves of the last 14 people to die here, who were discovered when the Vietnamese army defeated the Khmer Rouge.
There are several Killing Fields sites in Cambodia, the most well known and the one closest to Phnom Penh is Choeung Ek. A place where over 8000 people where systematically murdered by their own country men in the name of a crazed dictator.
What’s crazier is this regime was supported by International governments and given a seat in the UN council until the early 1980′s.
On a positive, or at least practical note this was one of the best organised and informed sites I have visited. On entry (included in your entry fee of $6) you receive an audio guide in your language, these tapes are available in many] languages. As you walk the circuit of the Killing Fields the story of what happened here unfolds through the narrative. You are taken on a brutal journey of atrocities and nightmares that you wish where only found in the worst of horror movies, but they actually happened, here.
The audio is also necessary as there are few remnants of the time left as most of the physical structures were removed when the regime fell, to be used as fire wood and building materials for desperate people. All that remains are large ditches, the remnants of where the mass graves where exhumed. Bits of cloth and fragments of bone scattered around, pieces that continue to surface as time, rain and wind blow of the dust and continue to give up reminders of the dead.
The sad thing is that this is not something that happened once and will never happen again. It happened before with Hitler, it’s happened since in Rwanda and is most likely happening today in parts of Africa. How one human being can cause such pain to another is beyond me.
I realise me, one small person writing a blog and getting teary doesn’t change a thing. In fact I know of many people who chose not to visit this place while in Cambodia, and I understand that choice, it’s depressing and heart wrenching and not an enjoyable day out.
In Australia we say on our remembrance days ‘Lest we forget’. We remember the wars we fought in, not to glorify them but to remember that people suffered and fought for freedom. I like to think we remember so that we can stop these things happening again. I can’t speak for others, but my reason for visiting the Killing Fields was that if we chose to forget or ignore that these things happened then they will continue to happen.
These things are still happening now, and I am not naïve enough to think that a bunch of tourists visiting a memorial changes anything. But maybe, hopefully, one day in the not to distant future, enough people will start to say enough and these atrocities will be something only written about in the history books.
Cambodia today to me feels mostly hopeful. All the people I have met smile and laugh and seem to my foreigner eye to be happy and moving forward. The government though as my tuk tuk driver informed me is still, ‘very bad’.
A more recent account of Cambodia’s situation today can be found here – http://keochan.tumblr.com/post/72148029405/a-story-about-cambodia.