Cambodia Part 1: Beautiful, intriguing and deeply disturbing

It’s difficult to express what I think and feel of Cambodia so far. The countryside is beautiful, the people are warm and friendly, even the capital seems fairly calm and quiet. Yet in the first few hours of arriving, we heard a fellow westerner on our bus from the border being asked whether he wanted to go and shoot some animals with an AK47, go and throw some grenades, or have some happy time with a 13 or 14yr old girl…..‘whatever you want is no problem no problem, you just come find me, it’s no problem’ (we got the impression that nothing’s out of bounds here if you’ve got the money)

Although horrible, when you hear some of the horrific history of the country and see people with missing limbs and disfigured faces it becomes slightly easier to understand why right and wrong can become so blurred. Every face over the age of 30 has lived through the hell that happened here – and the country is still traumatised. So a brief warning- I’m processing my thoughts and I’m going to ramble about what I’ve seen today and most of it was very ugly.

First we went to S21, the school that was converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison for torturing and killing. Thousands of photos of the dead line the walls, blood stains still evident on the floor, torture equipment still in place, tale after tale of the horrific, unspeakable pain and suffering that humans inflicted on each other. The brutality of it shocks and angers me. I wanted to direct my anger and disgust at the tourist I saw who was able to smile and laugh while wandering through the building.

Barbed wire along the walkways at S-21 Photos of those imprisoned at S-21 Rules of Tuol Sleng a.k.a. S-21

We then went to the mass graves at Cheung Ek, (aka the Killing Fields) where most of the prisoners from S21 where finally killed. There are over 19,000 mass graves in Cambodia- we saw about 10 each with the remains of between 100-450 men, women and children (in total somewhere between 700,000 and 3,000,000 people died due to the KR regime – the total is not clear). More stories- the killing ‘games’ that were played, the executions carried out in the night masked by music played over a loudspeaker. Most of these atrocities were carried out by kids who’d been torn from their families and sent to ‘re-education camps’ where they were brainwashed by the KR to hate, to fear and to kill. Some even killed their own parents.

Cheung Ek Killing Fields Killing Tree at Cheung Ek

The memorial ‘stupa’ (see below) holds some of the remains of those exhumed from the graves….there’s 17 tiers each filled with bones.

Skulls preserved in the stupa at Cheung Ek Tiers of the stupa at Cheung Ek The stupa at Cheung Ek Killing Fields

Unbelievably, the UN let the KR represent their victims on the UN council till 1991 and it is only within the last 3 years that courts have been set up to try some of the senior KR leaders responsible for the regime and killings.

How can the Cambodians live, apparently peacefully, alongside the very people that slaughtered their families? Why did Pol Pot ever think that eradicating the educated, the ‘wealthy’, the religious and those of mixed ethnic background was a good idea? Why did he think that families should be broken up and every good thing banned? Was it insecurity, fear, jealousy or too much power that drove him?  …I feel numb- I’m not sure I really want to understand.

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