This was Christmas eve. We don’t celebrate Christmas, but I will always remember this particular Christmas. Its kind of hard to ever forget.
Between 1975 and 1979 I was between 9 and 13 years old. Things that concerned me was, which teacher I would get, would I make the 1st hockey team, did Peter Sullivan like me? Crap. Things that kids & teenagers think about. Normal stuff.
What is horrific to comprehend is that not far away over ½ of Cambodia’s population was tortured and killed by their own country men. Children were forced to work in rice fields for 16 hours a day, fed 1 cup of rice porridge and slowly but surely starved to death or died from disease. Its incomprehensible that these kids were my age and this happened in my lifetime.
The story: (condensed of course)
Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Pehn on April 17 1975. The people were at first ecstatic as they were all sure that the end of the civil war was a god send. BUT they were systematically marched/driven/forced from their homes in the city by the KR, told that the Americans were coming to bomb the city, and they were heading into the countryside for safety. But immediatly, within hours, word got around that any person who was in the country’s military was being executed where they stood, so families were from the start trying to hide their own just to survive. They were told they could return in 3 days when the KR had restored the city and rendered it safe. Almost all would never see the city again.
The KR’s plan was to return Cambodia to being a rural based country. Anyone who had any skills, any intellect or any prior militory involvement was tortured and executed.
Teachers. Doctors. Historians. Professors. Professional People. Business People.
The Killing Fields
His mother was tortured and finally killed. He was 10 years old and sat with her trying to save her for days. He managed to steal some rice from the KR’s kitchen but couldn't get her to eat it, so he ate some himself and then kept it for 3 days trying to get her to eat.
I guess in the mind of a 10 year old if he could get her to eat, she would possibly recover. She didn’t.
She was a teacher. Some crime!
We ventured out to the killing fields, which in perspective has the remains of a really a small percentage of the people that were killed under the KR, but it is where they took the bodies from the prison after they were killed. Well that’s not exactly all. It's also where they marched women and children that they had rounded up (some up to 8 months pregnant) and bludgeoned to death beside the mass grave they cast them into. It's also where they decided that a bullet was too expensive and just started smashing peoples skulls in with waddys.
Years later our guide went to the killing fields to try to find his mothers body and managed to find the mass grave she was buried in, but in his words “there were so many bones, and he couldn’t know which ones were hers.”
The stories are horrendous. The damage to their country obscene. The fact that they have dragged themselves out of that hole is goddamn amazing. These are a resilient people.
To see it today, it is both serene and horrific. Hard to describe but harder to breathe when you are there.
The fields themselves were awash with butterflies. Mostly I know it's because of the flowering ground covers, but I liked to think that it was maybe the souls of the dead, flying around us, celebrating their wings.
Maybe they were just butterflies.
The Genocide Museum
Those that survived were forced into the country to work producing rice in the fields. The land was exceedingly over worked and couldn’t sustain this populous. The city people had no knowledge of farming at all. Disease was rampant and the soldiers worked their way through the workers, torturing anyone who wasn’t working hard enough, or they thought was against the cause – or because they just felt like it.
The prison (where the genocide museum is located) was a school before the KR turned into their death camp. For the entire 2 hours we were there, I could hear children laughing and was imagining them playing. Somehow as upset as I was, obviously my mind was trying to negate the images and stories that I was hearing. I just wanted to know that at one time, this building held happier times.
- Get a really good guide. Ask people in your hotel, people you see in restaurants - any locals, if they can recommend someone. Seeing our guide, in tears, standing at the edge of the mass grave his mom was buried in was something I will never forget. His grace and ability to pass the stories of the people, more than the war, was instrumental in our understanding of the Pol Pot regime.
- Go to the Killing Fields early in the morning if you can. You need it to be quiet.
- Hat and Sunscreen - Phnom Penh can get really hot and still.
- Tissues and lots of them. You're going to need them.
- Comfortable shoes. Its a big day, but I would recommend doing them both in the one day.