Friday, November 29, 2013

Pardon My Ignorance

When I was preparing for my time in Cambodia, I wasn't sure whether I should read as much as I could about the country in advance, or just learn as I go. I had heard a little bit about a civil war and regime that had caused much damage to the country in the 70's but in my mind, at the time, it was a vague and short history that didn't really hit home until I found myself standing in Cambodia, in what was once a high school yard turned torture camp. On the plane ride over to Cambodia, I had a used copy of The Killing Fields, an edition nearly as old as I am, and I read it in one sitting on the plane. What I read only touched the surface but it was an incredible story of survival and pain, friendship and loyalties. Standing within the gates of Tuol Slang Genocide Museum, I was still surprised by the use of the word "genocide" as I wasn't really understanding the full scale of the atrocities that happened. 

When I was a young girl, in the early 70's, my parents took our family on a whirlwind 30 country in 30 days type tour of Europe. By bus. I was only about 6 when we went, and I admit that most of my memories revolve around good food, pretty dolls I picked up along the way, and strange occurrences like losing my Dad at the Sisteen Chapel (which I swear was called the 16th Chapel for years afterwards.) One day I do remember clearly, was the day we passed into Berlin, wall still intact, and the soldiers came aboard our bus with huge machine guns and sullen faces, scrutinizing our passports and hassling the tourists on our bus that were of Indian or Jewish descent. I didn't understand at all. I also remember the heavy silences that somehow my brother and I observed without misbehaving, in the yard of a concentration camp where Jews were exterminated. 

Standing in the yard at Teol Slung, I felt that same heaviness. This time in the heat and humidity, I could understand the torture and the injustice that took place  here, and it came to me that it had occurred while I was a girl, 6 years old, standing in the yard of a concentration camp, hearing that the world would never allow such a thing to happen again. 

The Khmer Rouge marched into Pnomh Penh as saviours of the Cambodian people. Unfortunately, the regime was about to unleash years of horror so incredible, that the imaginations of the Cambodians could not even perceive it. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, police and former military were told to report to an office to receive new training and positions to uphold. They rushed to report, eager to rebuild Cambodia, and were summarily exterminated. The Khmer Rouge also told everyone in Pnomh Penh to take 3 days worth of food and clothing and leave the city for the countryside so that they would be safe from incoming American bombs. A densely populated city, migrated, mostly on foot, into the countryside.  The sick from hospitals and elderly were pushed in their very hospital beds. Unfortunately, they too were duped and those that were strong were relocated into rural settings to begin life again at what the leader, Pol Pot, called "Year 0" - trying to restart Cambodia as a communist country at year 0 of development. The sick, the weak, the young were exterminated. Those that disobeyed or even gave a hint of reluctance or emotion, were either killed immediately, or were sent to Teol Slung to be tortured, for months on end, until they were sent in the middle of the night, in the back of a truck, to be killed and buried. 

The torture rooms and cells of those incarcerated speak volumes in their silent witness to the horrors they saw. When at last, the Khmer Rouge were finally overcome and forced to retreat, they burned as much evidence as possible but this place stands as evidence. Thousands of photos of victims were burnt but the negatives were recovered and perhaps the most haunting thing about the museum, is the sheer number of faces, young, old, beaten and scarred...staring out from the photographs. Mothers with young babies nursing or alongside them, forced to watch as their babies were tortured. Young men hung and beaten, nearly drowned and then revived to endure more beatings, old men incapable of uprising and young boys too young to know what they were accused of. 

The rules of "Duch" - the lead torturer and interrogator at Teol Slung Prison

Women young and old were brought to be tortured and raped for any imagined infraction.
After suffering months of torture, both physical and mental, they were taken to the Killing Fields by
night and killed at the edge of a mass grave.

Men and boys alike, accused of being CIA or KGB sympathizers, were tortured into confessions, Often shackled to a
metal bed alone with electric shock and tortures devised by what can only be called criminally insane, until they too were taken by truck, blindfolded and naked, to the Killing Fields and executed, often by blunt instrument because bullets were too costly to waste, on the edge of a mass grave. Those who weren't killed immediately were covered with DDT and then buried alive. 

Some of the collected clothing of victims of the torture

A woman is photographed with her toddler clinging to her

A young woman, maybe a mother or sister, has a small boy behind her
on the metal bed, as she is photographed.

And then we stood in that place, quietly, waiting to leave and someone said it. "How could the world let this happen ever again?" and while most agreed, I heard the whispers of Syria and Rwanda, of Bosnia and of Sudan and the DRC, and even of our own First Nations people in the formation of a country as beautiful as Canada and I can't imagine that I live in a world where this happens and we are so desensitized that we would change the channel when the news of it comes on. 


Bill Koop said...

You did a good job of summarizing this experience. I, too, was very fuzzy on the details of Cambodia. As a young teen, I lumped it all into the VietNam war and didn't really process it until I saw it for myself. Very sobering what people can do to each other when under Satan's control!

Susan Miller said...

This was very well written Shelly - it describes the horror of the Khmer Rouge and the nearly 4 years they ruled Cambodia. Even though the country is still trying to revive from those sober years, hope is on the horizon.

Jason, Shelly, Aidan and Easton said...

I'm glad we were able to share in that experience, you guys. Incredible day.