Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Any mention of Cambodia generally evokes a handful of thoughts -unfortunately it is rare that those thoughts concern the country's rich cultural heritage or its smiling, hospitable people. Instead, they are dominated by thoughts of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and/or the desparate situation the country faces with landmines. Neither of these is out of place, so we decided to confront the demons of Cambodia's past almost immediately upon arrival in its capital city.
Our first stop was the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek some 15 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh. This is an open field where more than 17,000 men, women, and children perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. On the site now stands a Memorial Stupa that contains nearly 9,000 skulls from an excavation in 1980. The skulls are categorically arranged by sex and age on a dozen or so platforms in the Stupa reaching much higher than one can see. Around the Stupa are shallow pits that once served as mass graves for the victims. The excavation left 43 of the 129 mass graves untouched, and human bones sometimes surface after heavy rains. Bits of clothing still litter the ground.
From the Killing Fields we went to the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Once a high school, Tuol Sleng became a torture camp, prison, and execution center. Today the place looks benign, with palm trees and grass lawns in a suburban setting. From the outside, Tuol Sleng could be a school anywhere in the world. But inside are weapons of torture, skulls, blood stains, and photographs of thousands of people who were murdered. Anguished faces awaiting relief from their pain seem to be calling from every photo, eager for their stories to be heard, thankful that we could now bear witness to their struggle.
All of this was a mere glimpse into the evil that was the Khmer Rouge. The whole of the Cambodian population was sent to forced labor in the countryside, and under Khmer Rouge rule nearly two million people would perish -almost one quarter of the population. I picked up one of the visitors logs that asked for comments. Countless times people wrote "Never again..." and yet in recent years we have witnessed other genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, and an ongoing slaughter in Darfur. When will it end?
The fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 didn't end their legacy of violence and terror for the Cambodian people. A vague estimate of 4 to 8 million landmines remain behind to this day and are still killing and maiming. (To be fair, this dizzying number of mines isn't the sole responsibility of the Khmer Rouge, although they were the worst offenders. The Vietnamese, the Khmer People's National Liberation Front, and many other warring factions deployed landmines without regard for the long term consequences to the civilian population. And while we're placing blame and pointing fingers, let's not forget the Chinese, Soviet, and American manufacturers of those mines.) As a result, Cambodia now has one of the highest rates of physical disability in the world. More than 40,000 have suffered amputations as a result of mine injuries since 1979 -and its quite apparant everywhere in Cambodia where we see dozens of amputees on the streets daily.
Although not located in Phnom Penh but in our next stop of Siem Reap, The Landmines Museum warrents inclusion here thematically. The museum is a small, volunteer run, 100% donation funded effort orchestrated by Aki Ra, a local deminer. As a child of 10 he was forced to lay mines first by the Khmer Rouge and later by the Vietnamese, and now he focuses his efforts on demining, education, and care for the victims of landmines. Personal tours of the museum are conducted by teenage victims, and ours was a young boy named Chet. Chet lost his leg to a mine when he was 10 and has been largerly on his own ever since. Aki rescued him from the streets of Phnom Penh and now he works, lives, and studies at the museum. Posted on the walls of the museum are photos and the stories of the victims. All have overcome so much and still they are tremendously ambitious. Many would like to become doctors or tourguides. They also help in the demining process, facing again the mines that maimed them in the first place.
Cambodia and its people have undoubtedly had a very chilling past, and are still a long way from recovery. The photos that we took were not for souvenirs but to give voice and recognition to those who weren't able to speak and never will be heard. For a very good read on that tragic time in Cambodia's history, we recommend two books: "First They Killed My Father" by Loung Ung and "Stay Alive, My Son" by Pin Yathay.