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Cambodia's Dark Past

CAMBODIA | Friday, 29 June 2007 | Views [955]

In history classes we'd learned a bit about Cambodia and some of it's peoples' struggles through civil war, famine, and the Khmer Rouge regime.  Nothing puts it into better perspective than being here, seeing the memorials, sights, hearing the stories, and seeing the life long impacts Cambodia's dark history has left upon it's people.

The everyday reminders surround us on the streets:  Amputees abound, hoping for donations, and some have turned to a more entrepreneurial approach- bands of amputees creating beautiful music on the streets and selling their CD's.  Still others hobble alongside the street children, competing for book buying customers.  Most heartbreaking is when a young boy wheels up his elder brother or father or grandfather who is a land mine victim, the man has no arms or legs - asking us for a donation, and we feel so shameful, drinking a cold beer in a cafe.  We wish there were more that we could do, besides the small donations that could be given across the hundreds of victims; but so much more is needed than just tourist donations or the occasional meal... a social support infrastructure is required to help these individuals who are unable to help themselves.  While there are organizations that seek to provide aid and assistance, it's heart-breaking to see the sheer numbers of those in need.

Our experience visiting the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the Genocide Museum Tuol Sleng Museum was chilling.  These sites document and display evidence of the horrific atrocities committed during 1975-1979, under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime.  During this time it's believed that between 1-3 million (out of 7 million population) Cambodians were brutally tortured, killed, or had died of starvation and disease in labor camps.  We learned that the regime killed anyone they perceived to be impure, or a threat to their regime, for example:  monks, teachers, people who wore glasses- spoke many languages or appeared educated, those associated with past government, capitalists, and entire families of related to these people.  They looked to create a nation state of peasants who would do as they commanded, without question or hesitation.  

The Tuol Sleng Museum was once a high school, that the Khmer Rouge converted into their main interrogation and torture center, otherwise known as S-21 or Security Prison 21.  It is now believed that upwards of 20,000 people were taken from this torture center to be executed at the Choeung Ex "Killing Fields" extermination camp.  What's most disturbing are the records and photos of each prisoner that were maintained by the regime. Photos of men, women and children - registering them into the center, photos of them being tortured, and photos of the execution.

At the Choeung Ex extermination site we saw the memorial with 8,000 victims skulls piled high.  We learned more about the mass graves and methods of the regimes gruesome execution techniques.  What's so hard to understand, with the attention and focus of western countries in that region during that time, that this had continued to go on, and so many lives were lost.  It wasn't until the end of the Vietnam war, and the invasion of Vietnam into Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge started obliterating towns just over the Cambodian boarder, that finally brought an end to the living hell the Cambodians were facing.  

As a tourist another perplexing aspect of the tourist trail, is when tour guides try to convince you to go to the shooting range after seeing these sights, where tourists and others can use a hand grenade to blow up a cow.  A thought and concept to us that's just plain wrong.  We are fortunate to have the chance to see what we've seen today, and while difficult to see, it's something that text books just can't describe or put into clear enough perspective.  There are still human rights atrocities committed today throughout the world.  Hopefully lessons from this brutal regime allow the world to address other such violations of human life before it gets to the extent that it had in Cambodia.

Tags: Culture

 

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