Forgive me for going out of order, but as I was posting our (already 2 and a half month old) pictures from Phnom Penh, this wave of deep emotion washed over me and I knew that I needed to write about our experience now. I have and always will be an advocate for humans. I don’t care what country you’re from, what color your skin is, or what language you speak. God says that all humans were made in his image and, with that at the core of what I believe, I write to you with a heavy heart about the genocide that happened in Cambodia just over 30 years ago.
For anyone who thinks that genocide is a thing of the past, ancient history, let me remind you that indeed it is not. Humans have not evolved so much that dastardly evils no longer exist. What pains me most is that this happened and no one knew. No one stepped in. No one tried to stop it. And to this day, not many people even know it happened.
This genocide took place under the regime of Pol Pot from 1975-1979. It began with the evacuation of big cities as people grabbed whatever they could carry and left, thinking they would be able to return in a few days. Little did they know, this was the beginning of one of the greatest travesties of mankind. The Khmer Rouge began killing everyone associated with the previous regime, the educated and the “Westernized.” Then they began recruiting child soldiers, forcing brutal labor in camps, and demanding that the food produced go to the army. People were worked to death, “disappeared”- never to be heard from again, raped, tortured, brainwashed, starved and killed. Before coming to Phnom Pehn, I began reading the book “First they Killed my Father.” It was the riveting story of a little girl who lost most of her family to the 4 year reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge. It is a book I highly recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the killings in Cambodia (there is also a sequel- “Lucky Child”).
Trent and I began our time in Phnom Pehn by visiting the most well-known of over 300 Killing Fields, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. This solemn audio tour takes you to where the truck loads of people were dropped off, under the cover of night, to be silently slaughtered by the thousands. It leads you to the site of the old detention centers and the Executioner’s working office. You see where they kept the chemical substances that they used on their victims and you can see the common farming tools that were turned into weapons against the innocent and helpless people of Cambodia. Continuing on, you walk to the Longan Orchard where people were worked to death by the regime.
Then you come to the mass graves.
I can’t really describe what it is like to be standing next to places where, at times, over 400 people were slaughtered, sometimes even beheaded. It is a solemn moment that can only be reflected on with deep sadness and gratitude for the life that we live. There were glass cases full of bones and fragments of clothing that come to the surface when it rains or floods. Most of the sites were memorialized by colorful bracelets offered in memory of the lives lost there.
Then came the Killing Tree.
Forgive me, I need a moment here.
This tree is where a former Prison Director admits to bashing babies and small children’s heads in. He swung them like baseball bats, holding them by the legs, and crushed their little bodies. When this tree was discovered there were still brain fragments stuck in the bark. I cannot imagine this barbaric act, nor can I stomach it.
The last stop is the 17 story Stupa memorial, where they have memorialized the remains of the victims of Choeung Ek. It is a chilling sight, but a beautiful memorial and hopefully, a reminder for us all. The remains of 8,985 people are entombed in the Stupa, although it is estimated that there were closer to 15,000 people killed. As awful as it was, there was beauty springing up all around it: lush, green plants, beautiful flowers, butterflies and wildlife emerging from the scattered remains. If you’ll indulge me, it was (in my mind) analogous to the Cambodian people now. The Cambodians are healing. They are beginning to come back to life, beginning to flourish again after such a great tragedy that killed over one third of their population. They are emerging from their history triumphant, strong and beautiful.
After Choeung Ek, we went to Tuol Sleng, another genocide museum that was formerly the S 21 Detention Center of the “Kampuchea Democratic.” This school that was once used for learning was turned into a place whose sole purpose was detention, interrogation, inhuman torture, and killing after (forced) confessions were obtained and documented. As we walked in, 14 white graves stared us in the face, in stark contrast to everything around them. These were the last people to be tortured and killed in this detention center before the Khmer Rouge fled. They were unable to be identified due to the tortures their bodies endured.
A large wooden pole that was once used for P.E. stands out in the yard. This pole was used to hang people upside down by their hands (tied behind their backs) until they lost consciousness, whence they would be dipped into a barrel of filthy water which shocked them back to reality. They would then resume their questioning until they got the desired “confession,” at which point they were executed.
The classrooms were turned into holding cells- only 0.8 x 2 meters wide, where individual prisoners were caged. Thick glass windows were meant to stifle the screams of the tortured. Outside there are rows of iron bars covered by barbed wire from top to bottom. These were not to prevent prisoners from escaping, for there were ample measures already in place; rather, these were to prevent people from committing suicide. That’s how bad it was.
This detention center has been turned into a museum. It has rooms full of torturous devices, shackles, and chains. There are rooms with row after row after row of the haunting pictures of those who were detained there. Old and young, male and female, no one was safe from the Khmer Rouge. There were even several documented foreigners killed there, even one from my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Seeing all of this would be enough to break anyone’s heart, but I haven’t even gotten to the worst part. You see, for me the worst part is that Pol Pot (the regime’s leader) was never prosecuted. Pol Pot, after all his atrocities against humanity, got to die of a ripe old age in his home, surrounded by his family and loved ones. It seems so unfair that a man who denied the basic dignity innate to every human being, endowed by God our Creator, was able to die in such a humane way. It makes me sick. What makes me even sicker is that the other people of high status in the Khmer Rouge have also not yet been prosecuted. Aside from one man, none of these men or women will even admit to the things that any Cambodian can tell you took place. They have all hired extremely expensive lawyers that specialize in defending those who have been charged with “Crimes against Humanity.” My heart hurts for the Cambodian people. My soul longs for justice. There is one man, who I mentioned earlier, who became a Christian long after his time with the Khmer Rouge. This man admits to the atrocities that occurred during the four year reign of terror by Pol Pot and his crew. Not only does he admit to it, but he is repentant, he has asked for forgiveness. He has complied with authorities and has been able to provide mounds of evidence against these other people. However, sadly it is unlikely that any of these others will ever be tried for their crimes. It has already been nearly 30 years since the Khmer Rouge fell apart and not one of them has been brought to justice… I write this post so that you will remember, so that you will pray, and so that by knowledge and understanding, this will never happen again.
Books I recommend:
The Tears of my Soul and After the Heavy Rain by Sokreaksa S. Himm
First they Killed my Father and Lucky Child by Loung Ung
When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him
Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs of Survivors