I wanted to to go Phnom Penh and, at the same time, I didn’t. The reason I was going there was to visit the museums, but I was not ready. But… would I ever be? Cambodia’s history is full of light and darkness, of greatness and terror, and we should learn them both. And not only learn, we should talk about it, shout it to the wind, because episodes of genocide like the one Cambodia went through should never happen again.
The Khmer Empire was a great and powerful Hindu-Buddhist empire that extended over most of mainland South East Asia for several centuries. The famous Angkor temples, constructed in the by-then capital (nearby today’s Siem Reap), is one of the largest pre-industrial urban centers, and allow us to admire the greatness of the culture and architecture of the empire.
The empire declined and, centuries later, Cambodia became a French protectorate, from 1863 to 1953. King Norodom, the same one that searched the protection of France, relocated the capital to Phnom Penh and ordered the construction of the Royal Palace and its associated buildings.
The Royal Palace somehow reminds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Even though less impressive, it was more enjoyable, since it was much less crowded and the weather less hot. It was a beautiful area of calm in the middle of the chaotic big city.
After five years of civil war, the khmer rouge entered Phnom Penh one morning in April 1975. People were happy, relieved, the war was over, they would finally live in peace… except, they could not. That day was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted more than three years.
Yesterday I was playing hopscotch with my friends. Today we are running from soldiers with guns.
Loung Ung, “First they killed my father”
The population of Phnom Penh, who had received the soldiers with happiness and cheers, were told to flee the city under the pretext of a US bombing attack. People who refused to leave the city were killed. Money, private property and education were banned. Cities were emptied and all people were made to move to the villages, were they had to work on the crop fields under slavery conditions. Families were separated, workers were not given enough food, and many died of starvation and sickness.
We are starving to death. Many people are dying in the village. Yet the government trades our crops to buy guns to kill more people.
Loung Ung, “First they killed my father”
Suspects of being traitors were sent to prison, and there were many. Any person showing signs of education or high intellect was suspected: cadres, doctors, monks and nuns, even people talking several languages or wearing glasses were accused of traitors and sent to prison, sometimes with their whole family, children included. Tuol Sleng or S21, previously a high school, was only one of the nearly 200 prisons the khmer rouge held. There, prisoners were taken a photo on arrival, and kept in small, separate cells. Most were tortured. Some died, others were sent to the killing fields.
Choeung Ek, the killing field outside Phnom Penh is, also, only one of over 300. There the prisoners were sent to never come back. The killings always took place in the night, so the darkness and the music they put would help keeping the murders a secret. People were buried in mass graves. Today, a memorial stupa stands in the middle of the fields, containing the remains of some of the men, women and children who perished there.
It is estimated that around 14000 – 20000 people were held at S21 and died either at the prison or at Choeung Ek killing field. Only a few survived. Overall the country, almost 2 million, 25% of the population of Cambodia, lost their lives under the khmer rouge rule.
Visiting the S21 prison and the killing fields was hard. I went first to the prison, and all along the visit I felt a lump in my throat. Near the exit, one prison survivor was there selling books, signing them, getting pictures with the tourists. He was smiling all the time, an honest, genuine smile. And somehow that broke me, and I cried. It is still too early to analyze all the emotions I felt in that moment, but I do know that it left an important mark in me, in my trip, in this experience.
There is something I realized, that day and during my trip in Cambodia through the people I met. Life goes on, we should move on and look at the future with hope, hope that episodes like this will never repeat, hope that there will be peace in the future. In the S21 prison museum, in the highest floor, there was an exhibition of children’s drawings, a peace project done in collaboration with a Japanese school. I would like to end this post with some of these drawings, because even though we should not forget the darkness of the past, we should look at the future with hope.
** FURTHER READING **
- Loung Ung, “First they killed my father”: powerful book written by a survivor of the regime from the point of view of a child.
- Documentation center of Cambodia
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