The Worst of Times

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Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia. All the sidewalks are beautifully patterned and the buildings are even more vibrant and much cleaner than other parts of Cambodia. Clearly there is much more cash flow here. Probably the most traffic we have come across in Cambodia so far. By far, the least amount of poverty yet. Along with all the beautiful buildings and huge lit up structures of the King, and the gorgeous temples, Phnom Penh owns one of the most horrific encounters with its people. The beginnings of the genocide just 40 years ago.

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In 1975 the Khmer Rouge army took control over Phnom Penh and forced the population out. Convincing them the civil war was finally over and the United States were planning to bomb Phnom Penh. Their motive was to create a classless society, moving the population to rural areas to work in the fields. Abolishing schools, currency, government buildings, religion, markets, health care, and private property. Approximately two million people were forced out of their city and about two million people died in the rural areas from lack of resources. After evacuation, two schools were turned into prisons. Many prisoners were foreigners. Interrogating and torturing between 12,000 and 20,000 people. After extracting information (if any) they were sent to the Killing Fields, about fifteen minutes from the prison, to die. Out of the 20,000 detained, there are only eleven known survivors. Those who had specialized skills whether it be technology use, translation, mechanics, art forms, etc.; I had the honor to meet two.

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The first prisoner to survive (thanks to his technological skills)

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Another survivor (thanks to his talents in painting)

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Walking around the prison system, I just kept thinking to myself . . . how can there be such hatred and merciless acts to another human being that is innocent? This is horrible, so hard to imagine this happened. Only thirty some years ago?! Greed can be so evil. Separation of families. Torture. Having the arrogance to document every person possible and event that took place. Taking pride in cruel inhuman behaviours. I feel for the Cambodian people. Some of the torture involved included whipping with electricity, the gallows, submerging in water to regain consciousness, slicing of the throat with knives or palm stalk, nailing of the hands, iron beatings, skinning of the face, selling lungs and gallbladders to the Chinese (sought for medicianl purposes), and rubbing chilli pepper into wounds to name a few. If the prisoners spilt their bucket given to them for relieving themselves, they were forced to lick the urine and feces off the floor until dry. My God! Can you imagine all of that? Day after day being pinned to an iron bed or concrete floor? Women on the second floor of the prison, would attempt to commit suicide. After multiple attempts they attached barbed wire to the building to prevent the act. Barbed wire was placed around the perimeter to prevent men from escaping.

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After torture and interrogation was completed, whether or not they collected the information they wanted within the average of six months . . . they were brought to the Killing Fields for execution.

Once we arrived at the Killing Fields, it was so hard to believe such beautiful land can hold such a heartbreaking story. As we toured around the land we came across covered bamboo fenced pits. These helds the bodies of men, women, children and babies. Some that collected headless bodies. Others collecting women and their kids. A tree stood tall and wide next to one of the pits. A tree that held the sole purpose of smashing babies against it. I didn’t know how much more horrific it could possibly become. I felt my eyes swelling seeing all the bracelets devoted to the Killing Tree. Bracelets staked on the pit stakes. Devoting memory, blessings, condolences, prayer. Paying respects. Cambodian Reil thrown into the pits. Dirty from the time it collects.

Where was one of those little girls and boys selling bracelets when you needed them?

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Furthering our walk, coming across another large tree. Can you guess what this tree was for? Probably not. The regime would hoist a speaker on the limbs, playing music to drown out the sounds of pain and sorrow and screaming. Eveything about this place was eerie . . . Seeing the worst of humankind. Walking along pathways where human bones surface beneath your feet if you aren’t careful enough to avoid stepping on those injustice souls. I clearly saw teeth at one point. Clothing still rustling in the breeze, caught up on tree roots or imbedded into the dirt, tattered and ragged. Was this really the best way for the Vietnamese to reclaim land? The King standing by doing nothing. The Prime Minister married to the King’s sister. Relations with China claiming patches of land as well, replacing lakes that once existed with sand. Many various roles taking place. Our tour guide wasn’t allowed to talk politics during our tours. We had to wait untill we got back to the bus to ask political questions. If the authorities were to overhear her, she would have her license taken away and put in prison for two years. You see, even now, they try to avoid the history of what happened only a short time ago. The event is not allowed to be taught in school or talked about in public. Almost as if they are trying to erase their history. Fifty-five percent of the population now is under eighteen years of age. The best way to learn about history is from your elder kin. Yet, so many of them are dead. The people know the next of kin to the Prime Minister (of 35 years) is his son. The chance for difference is not great.  However, the don’t really fear what will come in the future, they just worry. Hoping for a change.

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Unknowingly when we first arrived at the Killing Fields I took a photo of a beautiful tall structure. Little did I know what it held inside . . .

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Skulls. Skulls staked on skulls staked on skulls staked on skulls. Reaching from the ground in layers to the top. Piled bones. Piled clothes. Leftover tools used for killing. I was in awe. I have never in person seen a human skull. Not to mention hundreds of them! As the rain washes the land slowly away, remnants of human structure appear and slowly become exposed and eventually collected to place in casing.

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I stepped out of the towered skulls and poor souls and Rob and I reconnected. Talking about how tremendously horrible this place was. I began to cry. Seeing the innocence of people stripped away in attempts to reclaim land. Freshly still imprinted in the minds of Cambodians. I couldn’t believe I was looking at what once were humans. My blessings went out to them. I never truly pray, and I was immediately compelled to pray to whomever the victim’s Gods were. Whatever higher power they believed in I spoke a silent blessing, to all for all.

Thank you Rob for your support.

Although the Cambodians had to go through the traumatic genocide. You really become to understand the worst of humankind. Yet, in a way, the strength of humankind. With the detrimental impact to their culture, they have found a way to build themselves back up again. With more hope than ever before. Staying strong and unforgetting. Happiness leaks through all Cambodia, the friendly faces, the unfamiliar smiles, the laughter and simplicity of their kind. Just trying to make a buck. They may always have a phone in hand or in helmet while driving their motorbike (trust me, phone usage is worse than the U.S.!), but they have a friendly heart and appreciation for the very little that brings a humble aura to their culture.

I love Cambodia.

The world is a book. Those who do not travel only read one page.

Love Kelsey

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