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Day 205: PART II Cambodia's Genocide (2 Days In)

“The problems that face our world are daunting in their depth and complexity. Sometimes it may be hard to see where--or how--to begin. But we cannot be paralyzed by despair. We must each take action toward the goals we have set and in which we believe. Rather than passively accepting things as they are, we must embark on the challenge of creating a new reality. It is in that effort that true, undying hope is to be found.”

-       Daisaku Ikeda, President of the SGI “Making Hope”

Where to even begin? I’ve just spent the last seven hours taking in the living memory of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge genocide. To make sense of what I just saw doesn’t even make sense, but I have to at least try. I don’t think I can fully ever process injustice of this kind of magnitude. I don’t think that ever happens, and Cambodia’s present day is evidence of that. Walking the streets of Phnom Pehn is evidence of that. Healing is an ongoing practice – it’s messy and takes unbelievable perseverance and will power -- and I wonder what quality of retribution is taking place not just at the level of the Tribunal Court, but in the daily lives of those who lost some, if not all, of their family members to the fanaticism that ran rampant for four destructive years. Life goes on per usual at the surface, but the deepness of Cambodia’s war history runs beyond what you and I can imagine in the collective consciousness of the people. My feelings of distance and confusion, since landing in Cambodia, are also grounded in that very intangible reality.

Photos of Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge took over on that fateful April 17th

Photos of Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge took over on that fateful April 17th

To get a sense of just how demonic the Khmer Rouge was, just look at the man who started it all, POL POT. It is unfathomable how a man who was given every opportunity to succeed, transformed in the very opposite direction. In the early days of his life, he became a Buddhist monk and was later sent to study in a prestigious university in Paris, where he received an education in radio engineering mechanics. While in Paris, he was exposed to the ideas of communism and took a particular fervent obsession with Maoist ideology (similar to the trajectory of Vietnam’s emerging revolutionary hero, Ho Chi Minh). Saying it again – how a man who received every opportunity to succeed and do good in the world became Cambodia’s genocidal dictator makes absolutely no sense. It never will. How a man who envisioned a free Cambodian people living cooperatively in an independent classless, agrarian society turned that vision into one of the bloodiest totalitarian dictatorships in which he betrayed his VERY OWN PEOPLE, makes absolutely no sense. It never will.

After killing off 2-3 million of the country’s population (of 8 million) in the name of radical Maoism (so unfathomable that he owes his ideological extremism not just to communism but also the “god kings” of the Angkor empire), Pol Pot’s regime was toppled by both the defectors and Vietnamese troops – yet that didn’t stop him and the top leaders of regime. They continued to rule from the remote countryside where Cambodia and Thailand meet, and (not even kidding) continued to represent Cambodia’s official seat in the UN for TWELVE YEARS after the genocide. Can you believe that the Western world was duped, or turned a blind eye, for that long? A mass murderer sat in the United Nations for twelve years, and completely got away with it. What does that say about the international community’s systematic blind spots today?

Skull remains that have been preserved at Cambodia's largest Killing Fields. They have been categorized by gender, age, and method of murder. Imagine looking up to eleven stories of skulls, bones and preserved weapons, painting a picture of what unimaginable horror looked like nearly 40 years ago.

Skull remains that have been preserved at Cambodia's largest Killing Fields. They have been categorized by gender, age, and method of murder. Imagine looking up to eleven stories of skulls, bones and preserved weapons, painting a picture of what unimaginable horror looked like nearly 40 years ago.

All prisoners are photographed upon arrival at the detention center, including babies, children and mothers.

All prisoners are photographed upon arrival at the detention center, including babies, children and mothers.

This utopia that Pol Pot created was based on eliminating all the “new people,” anyone with an education or ties to others abroad, including intellectuals, students, teachers, government officials of the former US backed regime, doctors, lawyers, artists, engineers, monks, etc. His vision was to completely redesign the Cambodian race with “old people,” those who were uneducated workers and laborers of the land. He did away with all forms of modern technology and institutions, outlawing free speech and communication, money, education, commerce, religion and electricity. The entire country shut down and on that infamous day of April 17, 1975 (which marked Year Zero, the start of the regime), the Khmer Rouge donned all black and evacuated every city across the country. People were forced into labor for 12 hour days, fed meals twice daily and lived in the most depleted inhumane conditions. These were all former city dwellers without a clue about how to grow rice for a whole population, yet they were forced to make it happen. If they didn’t produce, they were simply left to die from starvation or were put down by the Khmer Rouge cadres – mostly young boys recruited from the country’s rural towns.

It only gets worse from here, and I understand if this is all too much to digest. In the crazy world we live in today, this kind of history unfortunately does NOT feel out of place, in fact feels more real than ever. With the levels of insanity ruling governments today (not excluding our very own), the very least I can personally do is honor the realities of that historical horror, to find courageous empathy in the very indescribable discomfort of my own psyche and heart. I hope you can try to.

My first stop was the Killing Fields (also known as S21), the country’s largest and most well preserved execution center just outside Phnom Penh. To give you context, during the four years of the Khmer’s regime, 300+ killing fields were created to carry out executions of all the “new people” that were considered a threat to the regime’s power. In this center alone, 20,000 were murdered altogether and only a lucky group of seven survived. Held in a former Chinese cemetery, S21 tells the story of the 300+ executions that happened daily, and a play by play of how they took place. No detail is left out. Because the regime could not afford modern weaponry and bullets, they used basic agricultural tools to carry out these killings – we’re talking pick axes, bamboo sticks, ear cutters, etc. Trucks loaded with blindfolded Cambodians found guilty would be driven to the fields and lined up in a single file line. After being stripped of all their clothes, their skulls were clubbed to death and dumped into 16 foot deep ditches, where their throats were slit to ensure they were in fact dead. Chemical powder was thrown on their bodies to mask the smells of bodily decay. All this was carried out against the backdrop of loud propaganda music to make sure farmers nearby could not hear the dying screams of their people. In other more gruesome killings, entire families would be executed one by one starting with the babies. Soldiers would hold their feet and swing them against one particular tree while mothers and fathers watched, awaiting their imminent death.

Blood stains remain on the tree for all to bear witness 

Blood stains remain on the tree for all to bear witness 

Remember how electricity was cut off by the Khmer Rouge? They preserved a few generators to power the loudspeakers that blared propaganda music while executions took place, to both drown out the screams and prevent nearby farmers from raising suspicion. These very generators hung from the branches of this tree, which still stands today.

Remember how electricity was cut off by the Khmer Rouge? They preserved a few generators to power the loudspeakers that blared propaganda music while executions took place, to both drown out the screams and prevent nearby farmers from raising suspicion. These very generators hung from the branches of this tree, which still stands today.

While most of the bodies have been excavated and preserved, a few still remain in this lake (to the left). Benches dot the perimeter of the lake enabling travelers to sit and listen to the stories of those who suffered and survived to tell their tale. Other not so subtle beings are going about their (procreating) business right in front of me.

While most of the bodies have been excavated and preserved, a few still remain in this lake (to the left). Benches dot the perimeter of the lake enabling travelers to sit and listen to the stories of those who suffered and survived to tell their tale. Other not so subtle beings are going about their (procreating) business right in front of me.

Former mass grave which I believe used to hold bodies of decapitated defectors of the Khmer Rouge

Former mass grave which I believe used to hold bodies of decapitated defectors of the Khmer Rouge

Like I said, no detail is left out. Even during heavy rains today, skeletal remains will sometimes rise to the surface and later, be collected by caretakers of the site. A dyke has been carved out to ensure that flooding can be controlled, but if you ever decide to come here, please PLEASE keep that one in mind.

I know I have probably crossed some lines, even for the most advanced oversharer, but there is something about detail that helped me fully enter the mind-body-heart space of those who have no choice but to bear the weight of this unbearably painful history. If you’re still reading at all, I appreciate that you’ve entered this space with me. I don’t take offense if you haven’t either – if I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that everyone processes differently even if that looks dramatically different than your own. It’s all personal and relative to our own experiences with trauma.  

The second and final stop was the Tuel Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school turned into a detention and torture center (the stop before Cambodian “new people” were executed at places like S21). It was here that prisoners were interrogated and tortured up to three times a day until the regime had every means achievable to punish them, or worse, put them to death. Sometimes, prisoners were forced to create false confessions just so the regime could have a reason to validate their paranoia and justify their obscene methods. Something like twelve lucky prisoners survived.

Photographs of men detained before they were shackled in mass detention rooms

Photographs of men detained before they were shackled in mass detention rooms

Looking into an interrogation and torture chamber 

Looking into an interrogation and torture chamber 

Looking out onto the courtyard from behind bars 

Looking out onto the courtyard from behind bars 

So many blood stains 

So many blood stains 

There is just so much more to share, but naturally, we all have our limits and I’m accepting that my own process for understanding this history cannot be resolved within one blog or conversation. How could it? These things take time. Healing is messy, but with time bears integration beyond what our minds can figure out in one sitting. 

Spotting a jackfruit tree in the courtyard made me happy and hopeful 

Spotting a jackfruit tree in the courtyard made me happy and hopeful 

As I continue to learn about the genocide and its aftermath, I hope to find personal resolve in my own connection to the people who carry the country’s legacy today. I hope to transcend the distance I felt only a few days back when I first walked the streets of Phnom Penh. I couldn’t think of a more relevant organization than the Buddhist organization, the SGI – that emerged from the ashes of World War II in Japan – to help me see that transformation can happen in the most unlikely and impossible circumstances.

“Rather than passively accepting things as they are, we must embark on the challenge of creating a new reality.”

Tiffany Wen