“I feel extremely pained.
Without the Pol Pot regime,
I would have met my grandfather, my grandmother, my uncle, and my aunts.
Pol Pot’s group were such beasts.”
This is a quote from one of many Cambodians living today. Imagine never meeting your grandmother or grandfather or your aunt or uncle because they were killed…brutally killed with thousands and thousands (and millions) of other Cambodians.
It’s been almost two months since my return from Southeast Asia and the images from the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia are still fresh in my mind. How could they not be when you’ve seen photo after photo similar to the one above? Whether it was the years under the dictatorship of Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge or Vietnam or Henry Kissinger’s sanctioning of the illegal bombing…all have had such a horrific impact on this country.
But, you know what’s amazing? My encounters with the Cambodian people during this visit were filled with gracious, friendly, hard working, forgiving people. Always smiling…smile after smile…young and old. Ones that understood the history and the ones that had no clue.
Why no clue? Because this portion of the history of their country isn’t taught in school. Children won’t learn what Pol Pot and others did to their country. It will be only what their parents choose to tell them…if they can.
It was this visit that allowed me the opportunity to meet two of the few survivors known today. I was honored to have met them and to walk away with their story about what they endured during this time period.
“I consider them victims just like me, because they had to follow other people’s orders.” “How can I say I would have behaved differently? Would I have had the strength to refuse to kill, if the penalty was my own death?” Chum Mey
They were both so adorable and such bright spots after touring room after room of the high school turned prison in the heart of Phnom Penh.
The graveyard above houses 14 gravestones, the remains of the last 14 prisoners who died when the Vietnamese invaded the prison in 1979. The wooden frame with the pots underneath? Originally used by the high school students to exercise…but the Khmer Rouge used it as an interrogation area by hanging the prisoners upside down until they lost consciousness. Then they would dip the prisoners heads into pots of filthy, smelly water until they would gain consciousness in order to continue their interrogation.
Why all the photographs? To prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been carried out…
I asked our guide why on earth would some of the prisoners have smiles on their faces. “They didn’t know what was about to happen to them. To them it was a photograph at that moment. Nothing more.” Little did they know…
Their smiles and determination truly touched the very core of my soul…and will never be forgotten. The spirit of the people…this is why I fell in love with Cambodia.
When I read Ms. Shire’s poem, it reminded me of all the places in the world that have (and continue) to endure pain and suffering, but most definitely the people of Cambodia.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?