Warning: This is not going to be a very pleasant post. I’ve just returned from the Killing Fields and the S-21 in Cambodia. So apologies in advance for the depressing stance but I feel an overwhelming compulsion to corroborate my experience…
I feel disgusted, right down to the very pit of my stomach, that this genocide occurred. I know it is just one of many that have occurred through the passage of time and history however I struggle to believe how quickly and brutally this one took over. The drastic numbers of victims is a similarly shocking statistic (one out of every four Cambodians died) as is the fact that most of the commanding officers (including the leader Pol Pot) never suffered justice for their drastic crimes against humanity.
(A poster displaying the rules to be strictly adhered to in the S-21)
Clearly I could be talking about many genocides that have happened in the past where similar facts apply. I know that. And I’ve visited two concentration camps throughout my previous travels where similar atrocities occurred. Where millions of more people died. I know that too. But visiting the two primary sites of this massacre that took place in Cambodia, shockingly only 33 years ago, has affected me today like nothing else ever has.
(Skulls displayed of hundreds of victims)
I’m not going to get into the cold hard facts about the regime of the Khmer Rouge; I am not a historian and won’t begin to bullshit my way through the facts and stats of their murderous regime. This is more a post to explicate my emotions and to discuss the values of visiting places like these.
Throughout my time spent there I felt an increasing feeling of horror, empathy, sorrow, and disbelief. Fairly standard emotions when visiting death sites I would imagine. Walking through some of the old torture rooms and tiny prison cells I felt extremely uneasy; I had a tingling up and down my back and a knot of nausea in the pit of my stomach.
There were hundreds of pictures displayed of the victims- both headshots and dead bodies. Pictures drawn of torture methods. Torture weapons displayed. Maybe it comes down to the fact that I’ve never seen such blatant scenes of violence before; I don’t remember being so shocked at the displays in the concentration camps. Vietnam was similarly shocking- the War Remnants museum was an excruciating experience, displaying hundreds of pictures of victims affected by ‘Agent Orange,’ a poisonous substance Americans sprayed over Vietnamese land.
(One of the many torture rooms)
It’s a tough thing to witness for sure. Some might wonder- Why would I go there? I actually wanted to leave halfway through visiting the museum (which to be honest I found a lot more gruesome than the fields). But then I thought what kind of person would I be if I just ignored the awful aspects of history and humanity? What if we all did that? The whole point of turning the fields and museum into a tourist attraction for the Cambodians is to enlighten the current population to their harrowing history, to display the devastation inflicted upon them, all for the sake of some demented vision, so as to hopefully stop the same thing from ever occurring again in the future.
(stand commemorating a chemical storage building that once stood here)
Many of the soldiers and officers in the Khmer Rouge were peasants plucked from rural villages, with little or no education and thus no idea of how the rest of the world worked. Pol Pot’s deranged vision of an ideal Cambodia was thus able to progress with the recruitment of people who had little choice, knowledge or freedom in the matter.
(Mass Grave Sight)
Interestingly it links in my mind to the book I am reading at the moment, ‘ Three Cups of Tea,’ an absolutely inspiring book on the lifes work of Greg Mortenson, who founded, built and maintained over 55 schools in the remote Karakoram Mountain region in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His answer to terrorism was, simply, education.
To quote from the book: “Mortenson’s approach hinges on a simple idea: that by building secular schools and helping promote education-particularly for girls-in the world’s most volatile war zone, support for the Taliban and other extremist sects will eventually dry up” (Kevin Fedarko, Parade Cover Story, April 6, 2003).
(Mass Grave Sight)
I wholeheartedly agree with this philosophy. I truly hope that all future generations, particularly those living in remote quarters, can be provided with education; to remain accurately informed about the state of the world, to avoid history’s disasters, and to procure the skills and qualifications needed to acquire work for themselves.
(The Killing Tree)
I feel that this issue is particularly relevant in my life at the moment, even as though some sort of force is calling me to action. Having been to this place, having read this book and having a strong desire lately to volunteer as a teacher in Nepal, it seems as if the stars are aligning no?
Whether or not I do volunteer in Nepal though, I feel privileged to have my education, my freedom and my opinions and I pray that someday, everyone else in the world will as well.