Year Zero to 2005
Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
71Trip End Apr 22, 2005
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I wore a pained scowl for the better part of the afternoon. I stepped back less than three decades and saw the remnants of Cambodia's most devastating and darkest hours. I visited the S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum followed by a ride out to Choeung Ek, better known as the Killing Fields.
Just two weeks prior to the fall of Saigon in 1975 a militant band of radical agrarian communists, the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh emptying the city completely. The entire population was ripped from the capital -- hospital beds, schools, cafes, government offices, homes and temples were laid bare. The entire monetary system ceased to exist, rendering all currencies and banks null and void. Their leader, Pol Pot declared it the Year Zero and during his almost four year reign he watched, as by what many accounts claim as one-third of the population was exterminated by way of mass executions and starvation. Anyone who was not already a member of the Khmer Rouge was suspect, and if captured regardless of innocence or guilt were photographed, brutally tortured, forced to sign false confessions and murdered. City dwellers were especially deemed untrustworthy, as were the educated, foreign born and even those who simply wore eyeglasses. Women and children were not spared --if you could form sentences you could very well be considered a traitor and a threat to the Khmer Rouge. The lucky children were sent to forced labor camps to grow rice under the harshest of conditions and often were separated from their families. Many died from disease, beatings, and ironically enough, lack of food as the rice was exported to China in exchange for arms. Other children were trained to be soldiers, some as young as 11 years old, many of whom so brainwashed they had their own families jailed and put to death.
And all of this was on the heels of a secret war led by the United States under Nixon and Kissinger that carpet-bombed the Ho Chi Minh trail as it wound through Cambodia. By the time the Vietnamese helped rid Cambodia of Khmer Rouge control in 1979 they entered a country that had been hopelessly tossed back to the Stone Age.
A former high school-cum-prison, the S-21 was one of the main temporary detention centers in all of, what was then known as, Democratic Kampuchea. It stands as a harrowing reminder of man's inhumanity to man, and interestingly enough it was all documented by the perpetrators.
When the liberating Vietnamese forces entered the complex, the Khmer Rouge were still hastily murdering the remaining prisoners, and desperately attempting to destroy the thousands of documentations of their crimes. The blood was still wet on the floors and a confession stopped mid-word in a typewriter. It is estimated that 17,000 prisoners entered the S-21. Seven survived.
Stepping into some of the tiny cells onto the still blood-stained floors, the air was still and stifling. A bed of exposed metal coils that once was used to chain prisoners for interrogations and beatings still sits by a barred window - its iron shackles weighed to the floor. At one point I walked into a small bricked-up area, and as I turned to leave, my foot hit a metal hook bolted to the floor. This is where iron rods slipped through chains attached to ankle cuffs. People slept like this unable to move. I was all alone in the room. I looked down and I just stood there and felt the dark sludge pour over me. Thousands of screams were heard here, thousands of bodies were lacerated by chains and whips, thousands were murdered in these suffocating dark rooms.
I dragged my feet toward the next room where hundreds of black and white photographs are on display of the victims. I'd seen quite a few of these of these mug shots before in my history books and online. I tried to look at each one, if only for a second, just to honor them but I was looking for one in particular that had moved me more than all the others -- then after maybe 50 or 60 faces I found her. She was a woman with shoulder length hair, her head is slightly cocked to the side, and her eyes stare blankly -- in her arms she holds her child. I'd seen it many times but seeing it here takes on another dimension. I press my hand against the photo. And pause.
I went and sat in the yard by the lynching posts. All of this happened during my lifetime. All the while my life was bright, my world was clean and this --- this was just a few lines read by a newscaster on television and broadcasted into our air-conditioned living room.
"That sounds depressing, why would you want to see that?" a coworker had asked before coming here. It is difficult to explain to some people why I travel the way the do, why I don't care for taking vacations, but rather prefer to explore and learn. I sat there in the dirt and tried to answer that. It is a question I've been asked often by non-travelers and each time it angers me. Perhaps it's because I've never been able to quite articulate why it frustrates me that others can turn a blind eye to someone else's pain, and yet all I came up with is another question to answer them:
How can someone's pain be so precious that they cannot bear, to at least witness, what someone else has borne?
The drive out to the most famous of the Killing Fields (there were many throughout the country) is a rough ride down a rust-colored dirt road. Everything along the way is covered in the red dust: the trees, the cars, the people --everything. Even with the windows rolled up tightly, the dirt was billowing in through the vents. The taxi rammed in and out of potholes so fast through the puffs of dry clay it was tossing me from side to side. We arrived at a dead end and my driver told me that he'd wait in the souvenir shack to the left.
Past the wooden shed-turned-museum entrance at Choeung Ek, stands a tall glass stupa filled with thousands of human skulls categorized by age and sex. Wasps stand guard hovering inside keeping the onlookers at bay. Surrounding the stupa are pits protected by low wooden fences and labeled as to how many bodies are buried in the small mass graves. There were some listed as being in the hundreds in a size a little larger than two king size beds.
As if in a daze I wandered around taking it all in, grave after grave. At one point I came across a white woman with both of her hands pressed hard against a tree. She was mumbling through her tears in French, "We are sorry, we are sorry". I worked my way around and read the metal sign nailed to the tree, "Chankiri Tree Against Which Executioners Beat Children."
I was numb during the twenty minute ride back into town to my hotel. So many of the images I'd seen swarmed in my head as I trudged up the stairs to my room. I stood on my balcony gazing at the city and trying to make sense of it all. I leaned on the balestrade and and looked down and just stared. I imagined the tanks rolling in down the street -- not that long ago -- on a day not unlike today right below where I am standing.
There is one thing in particular that I saw today that will stay with me all of my life. In a corner under the stairs in S-21 someone had written in English, "Our revenge will be the laughter of our children." When I got back in the cab a girl was walking with her mother holding her hand and she was smiling at me and waving. I waved back while swallowing hard the lump in my throat. I forced a smile.