Friday, March 22, 2013

Phnom Penh | Cambodia

Phnom Penh.  Horns blaring in the afternoon traffic. Light haze extending as far as you can see. Smiling faces beckoning you to enter an establishment. At a glance, it looks no different than any number of Southeast Asian cities. But this is a facade, a mask for the wounds that run deep within the roots of the country.

In 1975, a communist leader by the name of Pol Pot took control of the country of Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge. In short, anyone considered remotely intelligent, foreign, a risk to the rule of the Khmer Rouge or any number of other "crimes" was killed during that time. Millions of people were murdered in what became known as the Killing Fields. It is here that we began our tour of Phnom Penh, at the memorial site honoring the many victims who fell during this time.

Each dip that you see above marks the site of a mass grave where victims were recovered. Below, you can see the memorials that litter the sight to pay homage to the victims who were both young and old, men, women and children.

A comprehensive audio tour, which every visitor was required to wear, brought the terrors to life. Many of the buildings at this particular site were dismantled as soon as they were discovered in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime but sinage indicated the placement of various components of torture spread over the campus.

A memorial had been constructed in the middle of the fields. Inside, skulls of the victims were arranged in levels based on the way in which they were killed. The tour explained how to determine a machete blow to the head, a disarticulated jaw, an impact wound from being smashed into a tree trunk. To me, this site was more gruesome than the concentration camp which I visited in Germany. What made these killings more unimaginable was that the victims were broken, battered, and taken apart, many times while the individuals were still living. 

From the Killing Fields, we scurried across town to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This museum is set in the one-time elementary school which later served as a detention center where the Khmer Rouge would hold hostages and collect false confessions which were used to justify torture.

To end on a lighter note, this is the past of Cambodia. As I have already said, we were overwhelmed by the Cambodian people. Their kindness and work-ethic were prominent as they appear to be a culture in which everyone is working to better their home land. Below, you can see one of the friends that we made on our trip.

We were sitting on a typical backpacker street on our last morning, consuming our breakfast of real bacon, when a man stopped by our table to offer us a variety of watches and handbags among other things. We politely told him that we had already bought several items to commemorate our trip and did not need anything else. He responded with a plea. He only needed to sell a small number more to be able to return home to his family in the countryside with enough money for them to eat. Being the suckers that we are, Lauren and I both conceeded and bought a knit headband. 

Just before he walked away, we said "God bless you" to which he stoppped and paused. He slowly turned around, asking if we were Christians. We told him that we were indeed to which he responded with a toothless smile, "me too". He then proceeded to tell us his story.

He was a young man when the Khmer Rouge took over the city of Phnom Penh. Christianity was outlawed under the new regime like just about everything else that could distinguish an individual. Despite his beliefs, he had befriended a few officers. One night, an officer showed up at his door with a bag of rice, urging him to leave the city immediately as it was about to be purged. The officer instructed him to find a safe house in the countryside, which he would need a password to enter. Because of this officer's warning, he escaped with his life. During that time, he had no access to a Bible and relied on the passages of scripture that he had learned in his youth.

He has since established himself in the countryside. He has a wife and children and grandchildren, which at one point in his life, seemed like quite an impossible task. It is because of people like him, so open to sharing their story and bestowing the kindness which others have already shown them, so determined to move forward, that makes the country of Cambodia such an inviting place. 

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