Not a topic to broach lightly, and even more difficult to write about. And I did not even live through it, like so many Cambodians.
I wanted to research more about the genocide before visiting this country recovering from losing around one-third of its population. Some of you may be familiar with this, some may not, mostly because it coincided with the Vietnam War, so most American attention was focused there.
Loung Ung wrote her story First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (P.S.)
about living through the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970’s. She was 4 years old when she and her family were forced to flee their home in Phnom Penh to essentially become slaves of the Khmer Rouge. Religion, education, money, music, dating, and reading were all abolished. Everyone wore the same clothing: a black shirt, black pants, and a red krama scarf. Loung, like most Cambodians at the time, worked from sun up to sun down, for meager food rations, only to do it all again, day after day. She became filled with hatred, and eventually trained as a child soldier.
Her story is unfiltered, written with such transparency, it is hard not to feel what she feels. It is hard to read her story, and it is hard to have those feelings, but not harder that what any of her people went through.
Loung also wrote a follow-up book Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind (P.S.)
When traveling to a foreign country, reading a book can give a glimpse into the life and culture of a people. I started reading “First They Killed my Father” in central Vietnam. There was a copy at the hotel we were staying at in Da Nang. If I say that this book deeply touched me, I would be putting it lightly. I felt such a connection to the Ung family and horror for what they endured. I cried for their daily realities and their suffering. How one can experience the hatred, harshness, fear and anger that Loung did-I cannot fathom. I finished the first book in two days and was physically depressed for what she went through. And I sit here on a plane flying from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur having just finished “Lucky Child” and cried no less than half a dozen times, which included while I was on the plane.
After reading “First They Killed My Father”, we visited both the Killing Fields and S-21/Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Definitely not the typical sightseeing, and a very somber day. The Killing Fields offered an audio tour at the actual location where multiple mass grave sites were discovered just outside Phnom Penh. This is only one of many mass burial sites found after the war.
We walked around the excavated grave sites, which are left as giant holes in the earth.
We also encountered shelters built above some of the grave sites. One grave contained over 450 bodies. Another contained beheaded bodies-the belief being that if the head and body are separated, then the spirit remains wandering the earth for eternity. Another grave contained only women and children, and the bamboo shelter overhead was decorated with bracelets visitors left to pay their respects.
There was a tree near the grave of the women and children where brains and hair were found. Khmer Rouge would beat young children and babies against the tree to kill them. I realize that this is a very graphic, however Khmer Rouge were very selective with their ammunition because it was so costly. Many of the skulls found had small holes or cracks from hammers, nails, and other tools used to bludgeon them to death. And if the victim did not die immediately, not to worry, as the Khmer Rouge used a number of lethal chemicals on the bodies to keep the smell at bay.
We continued to walk around the grounds, stopping on a bench along the water to listen to the optional audio tracks on survivor stories. There are, most likely, additional mass graves under water and in the surrounding area, however, they are choosing to let the bodies rest where they are. Because of this, there are bones, teeth, and cloth fragments that continue to appear after heavy rains. After awhile, the pieces are collected and brought to one of the shelters.
At the end of the audio tour, you can visit this memorial built for all the victims.
After visiting the Killing Fields, we were taken via tuk-tuk to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21). S-21 used to be a school, but was converted into a mass detention center for those thought to be conspiring against the Khmer Rouge. One building was left exactly as it was during Khmer Rouge rule, covered with barbed wire, and containing small brick cells where prisoners were shackled to the floor.
There were also two walls surrounding the school, both topped with razor wire. The Khmer Rouge regularly tortured prisoners here before shipping them off to the nearby Killing Fields. There were actual torture devices on display, as well as very detailed records of anyone who ever had the misfortune of being sent to S-21.
I honestly do not remember learning anything about Cambodia or the genocide that occurred in high school history or the “American History since 1877″ class I took in college. I think most Americans have no idea, yet genocide has happened/is happening right now. I am fortunate to have traveled to Cambodia, spending over three weeks in Kampot, Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap. I’ve seen buildings that appear tattered with bullet holes and blackened walls that may have come from fires. I’ve visited the Killing Fields where mass graves were uncovered and excavated. I’ve seen temples at Angkor Wat with beheaded Buddhas and scratched out apsaras (carvings) because the Khmer Rouge abolished religion. But I’ve also seen the same headless Buddha draped in gold fabric and being respected despite what has happened. The resiliency of the Cambodian people is amazing. The country is rebuilding and if you have a chance to read either book, or ever visit, I recommend it. I would go back in a heartbeat.