lost souls of cambodia.

The weight on our heavy hearts was not lifted in the next town, next country. We traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, leaving the horrors of the haunting Vietnam War behind and entering the demon Pol Pot's world. 

On our painfully long bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh I came down with a fever. My rib cage felt as though it was crushing my lungs, my bones felt bruised, and my body alternated between cold sweats and burning up. This freak flu was quite symbolic of how lousy I would feel learning about the history of this country in the days to come. 

In history class growing up we learned about the Holocaust with great detail. Other than that, we did not formally learn about any other genocides. I learned about the atrocities during the Bosnian War from the people I worked with. I learned about Rwanda from a refuge that found his way to our school in Farmington. I learned about Sudan from news clippings. Now it seems like Genocide is plastered across every world newspaper and news channel. What is happening to the world we live in?  

We woke early and bartered a deal to rent a tuk tuk for the day. Our first stop was the Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. We left the capital and headed to the outskirts of the city. The pavement ended quickly and we bounced along the dirt roads dodging massive ditches and puddles. Newly reconstructed buildings devolved into shanty towns. Homes were simply tin roofs that were held up by wooden boards and resting on stilts. Heaps of trash and decaying food sat as a swamp beneath the homes. Skinny chickens picked through the garbage, scurrying from house to house. It felt like a Western town movie set; the facade of shops and houses lined the street but behind the front door there was nothing.

Our tuk tuk driver dropped us off and told us he would wait around the corner until we were finished. Mikaela and I solemnly walked through the gates to a place where thousands of Cambodians were brutally and barbarically executed. 

Each visitor was given a head set and audio device, allowing each guest to go at their own pace and have some privacy with their own thoughts. I could not imagine having tour guides shout out the unfathomable and herding groups along. This was a place where the sadness of it's past leaves the present speechless. 

Throughout the tour a man with a warm voice exposed the tortured history of Cambodia through a pair of headphones. He introduced Pol Pot, a despot and leader of the Khmer Rouge who orchestrated these mass killings. He shared first hand accounts of both survivors and military officials. He sadly described the methods of abuse and execution, leaving the listener struggling to swallow or stand. 

Lon Nol overthrew Prince Sihanouk in a civil war and established the Khmer Republic. However, on April 17th, 1975, communist Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and overthrew the republic, establishing Democratic Kampuchea. Within days the Khmer Rouge ordered all people living in cities to evacuate to the countryside. Pol Pot wanted to bring Cambodia back to Year Zero. He wanted to create a country based on agrarian socialism. The people had to work 12 hour days on collective farms in attempt to reach the three ton rice per hectacre output that the Khmer Rouge demanded. In order to create his classless society, he targeted the educated population. Intellectuals - doctors, lawyers, teachers - artists, religious believers, and minorities were sought out. He utilized the naive youth and peasants of the countryside to build up his army.  Allegiance was to the state, Angkor, not to a family. With the cities vacant, the population of Cambodia was sent to work on the fields doing hard labor. 

Four months after the capture of Phnom Penh an old high school was transformed to Tuol Sleng Prison, also know as S-21. Anyone suspected of being against the State or found as a traitor was sent to S-21. This is a place where prisoners sat shackled together at their ankles. Where cells were made of wood or brick and too small to lay down in. Where barbed wire over windows prevented suicide jumps. Where torture came in the most inhumane forms. Where there was no mercy. 

Eventually Pol Pot found the need to execute these intellectuals or 'threats to the state.' In the night people from the communes or prisons would disappear. They would be sent in cargo vans to killing fields that were spread out throughout the country. Nationalistic anthems would play out over the loud speakers to suppress the cries of the victims. The captives would be forced to kneel infront of shallow graves and then beaten to their death. A bullet did not end their lives, rather the hand of the oppressor. 

Once the site of Chinese burial grounds, Choeung Ek became the largest killing field during the Cambodian Genocide. The areas are marked off where prisoners were dropped off, blindfolded, and brought to their death. Bone fragments and teeth have been unearthed with time and erosion. Clothing scraps are found in the patches of grass. Small valleys of hollow earth are left where the mass graves were recovered. Women were stripped of their clothes and abused to death with farming tools. Children were held by their ankles and beaten against the 'Killing Tree'.  The Khmer Rouge did more than execute, they stripped the people of their faith, their dignity, their soul. 

Instilling fear is a coward's job for you must destroy the psyche of the masses to have any control or power. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, along with many other world-wide tyrants, used fear as their strength. They preyed upon the poor and the weak and brainwashed a nation against itself. There were no exceptions - if you did not follow along you were killed.

Eventually the Vietnamese invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1979 Pol Pot and his followers systematically exterminated one quarter of the Cambodian population. An estimated 3 million Cambodians died under his rule due to execution, torture, hard labor, or poor living conditions. 

Walking through the killing fields, visiting S-21 Prison, and reading the heartbreaking memoirs of survivors make you question everything you believe in. How can this happen in recent history? How can this still be happening today? How can one despot hold power over a nation and commit a cardinal sin, over and over again. How can someone not value life? 

Hearing the cries of all the lost souls of Cambodia can easily make you lose faith in humanity. However, watching these people rebuild and recover re-instills it. They have survived Hell. They must carry the heavy cross of their past on their backs every day, yet they have the strength to continue forward. This country has suffered such heartbreak and such barbaric misfortune. They continue to mourn the fallen, yet push on to fulfill the lives of those who cannot. They are resilient people whose faith for a better future has restored the broken country. Their wounds are healing and their smiles returning. 

It shames me that this period of brutality is not taught in school. I cannot understand how Pol Pot was given asylum in foreign countries and held a seat in the U.N. - even after his party fell and the truth revealed. 

Humans are given the power of free will. We choose good or evil. We make choices every day that lead us down one of those paths. Sorrowful acts such as genocide are not God's will. They are the result of man's corruption and loss of self. Once you abandon your soul, you lose your judgement and morality. People that exploit human nature, using fear as a means of control, do not last long as they forget the one thing that holds humanity together: compassion. We are all one, and eventually people come together to help one another as we are meant to. 

Phnom Penh was our first stop in Cambodia and I was already mesmerized by the country. The resilience of the Cambodians is inspiring. Those that lived through the terror and those that were born into it still have light shining in their eyes for they see the bright hope of the future.  


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