Our time in and around Phnom Penh was eye opening and heartbreaking. My eyes were opened to the depth of destruction and depravity that plagued the country in the not so distant past. I had hardly known anything about the civil war and genocide in Cambodia. It brought me shame to know how little its atrocities filtered into the American psyche. After all, it is just around the corner from Vietnam which looms deeply in the American zeitgeist. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time there and the heaviness was relieved often. The Cambodian people who were nothing but kind and light hearted. But under the warm hospitality and easy smiles lurked a deep sadness, the final tremors of a long but deep mourning.
Upon leaving Siem Reap, we drove a few hours to the famed floating villages that feed into Lake Tonle Sap – Cambodia’s largest lake. The village we visited was literally on top of the water - the houses were built on forty-foot stilts. Families sleep in the humble shelter over the water while ladders carry fishermen to their boats floating below, moored to the legs of the houses. Besides the minor amount of tourism, these village economies rely heavily on fishing, the primary occupation of men in the village. The people here are very poor and brief glimpses into homes revealed spartan conditions. We boarded small motorboats and traveled along the river where dozens of houses balanced on stilts and house boats contained schools, stores, and even churches. People get from place to place on motorboats and most of life takes place on the water. After the brief tour, we boarded our bus and drove a few hours towards Phnom Penh where we spent the night in a small village a few hours drive from the city. Through an exchange program, our group spent the afternoon and evening in a small farming village. We took in a quiet stroll amongst the nearby rice paddies and watched the sunset – then retreated to the village for a home cooked meal and bed. Our host shared a little bit of his life with us and it was then that I first began piecing together the history of the devastating civil war that ravaged Cambodia.
The Cambodian Civil War ran from 1970-1975 pitting the communist forces known as the Khmer Rouge against the Kingdom of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge received direct military assistance from North Vietnam and the Vietcong while the Kingdom of Cambodia received direct support from the United States. The war was complicated due to the influences and actions of the allies of the two warring sides. North Vietnam maintained base areas and sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia in order to pursue its military effort in South Vietnam. In response, the United States initiated a coup which resulted in the installation of a pro-American government. The North Vietnamese subsequently moved forces deeper into Cambodia and provided a great deal of support to the communist Khmer forces in capturing almost a third of the country. After defeating government forces, the North Vietnamese turned control of the territory over to the Khmer regime. In 1975, after five years of savage fighting, the government was defeated and the Khmer regime took full control of the country. The war resulted in a refugee crisis which sent two million people – more than 25 percent of the population from the rural areas into the cities – especially Phnom Penh. Rural residents were afraid of the repeated aerial bombings committed in the countryside and thus sought refuge in the city, which was safer. Phnom Penh grew from about 600,000 in 1970 to 2mm over only five years. Over 300,000 people died as a result of the war. The end of the war brought the beginning of the Cambodian Genocide.
The genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime ravaged Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. It is estimated that up to 2 million people were killed – almost a quarter of the population. The Khmer Rouge wanted to turn the country into a socialist agrarian republic. Pol Pot’s (the Khmer Rouge leader) vision was to start his utopia off with a “clean slate” and endeavored to exterminate anyone with a formal education or any person carrying a semblance of loyalty to the US supported Cambodian government. Anyone with connections to the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals were targeted. Pol Pot took it so far as to target people who could read because it revealed an educated background which was not aligned with the utopia he was trying to create. A great irony as Pol Pot himself was highly educated. The end to the genocide came as a result of the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia ending ten years later in 1989. As of 2009, over 23,000 mass graves containing approximately 1.3 million execution victims have been discovered. The entire educated class was wiped out. An entire generation was lost – and precisely the kinds of people who would have been invaluable to rebuild a war- ravaged society. This is the backdrop that all Cambodians operate within.
Once in Phnom Penh we visited the infamous killing fields. The killing fields are several sites where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime and is considered a part of the state sponsored genocide that took place in Cambodia for five years. On these grounds people were chained in the unbearable heat unknowingly awaiting their executions. To not waste bullets, most victims were poisoned or killed with sharpened bamboo sticks and palm fronds. Infants and small children were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of trees then thrown into mass graves alongside parents. The rationale in killing children was in order to “stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parent’s deaths.” The killing fields as they stand today are a testament to those murdered there. The area that we saw was a serene clearing amongst the trees where you walk along wooden planked paths through the site. Various plaques describe the atrocities that took place. The calm of the scene stood in stark contrast to the horror of the past, and its horrors unfurled itself before me as the day progressed. I was noticing small bones or scraps of cloth poking up through the mud and I realized we were walking over mass graves. These graves were so rampant that even after massive efforts to recover and rebury bodies, one hundred percent recovery was not possible. I then realized why we were walking over the wooden planks – a chilling moment. I walked by a tree and thousands of wrist bands were tied to the tree and nearby handrails. I learned this was the tree where so many thousands of babies were gruesomely executed. The energy weighed heavily here, and the calm serenity was a final betrayal to the horrors committed. I was utterly heartbroken. I felt like I was punched in the gut as I tried processing all that had occurred on these grounds. Completely useless killings and a waste of precious life. An entire society was chewed up and spit on the ground like so much garbage. It was that moment I understood the sadness and loss that swirled just under the surface of the kind faces that greeted me everywhere. The loss was of an entire generation – a class of people and many more that were wiped off the face of the earth leaving many children orphaned and almost no family unscathed.
Once in Phnom Penh we visited the Tuol SLeng Genocide Museum which was a former high school later converted into a security prison by the Khmer Rouge. It is estimated that over 20,000 were imprisoned here over the five-year period it operated. The buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes and suicides. Most of the classrooms were divided into small prison cells with each classroom holding twenty prisoners in impossibly small individual rooms. The prison was estimated as holding up to 1,500 prisoners at any time. Prisoners were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates who were in turn arrested, tortured, and killed. The living conditions at the prison were deplorable. Prisoners were slowly starved with mere spoonfuls of food daily. Tortures occurred unceasingly until a confession was made. Once a prisoner confessed to subversive activities, they were promptly executed. In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army and promptly turned into a museum to memorialize the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime.
The rest of our time in Phnom Penh was spent exploring the city and enjoying a river cruise and final rooftop dinner. Although the city was impressive and full of life, I just couldn’t shake the sad recent history of its brutal genocide. The resilience of the Cambodian people was visible everywhere you looked in the society. What surprised me the most was how kind and gentle the people were in their interactions with us as well as with each other. I couldn’t fathom how much bitterness must have remained after the genocide ended. It is doubtful that any Cambodian wasn’t directly affected. But despite this nightmare, or perhaps because of it, forgiveness ultimately prevailed, and the healing process began. Imagine a society where every educated adult is executed. Sitting in the killing fields almost forty years later, I realized that I was visiting a country whose oldest college educated adult would likely not be older than forty. That fact drives home the strength of the Cambodian people. The country is on an upswing, Phnom Penh is a fast-growing metropolis full of bustle and grit. By no means is Cambodia perfect, it is still rife with challenges. But given the hand it has been dealt, I am blown away by how quickly the people have rebuilt a successful society atop the ashes of an unspeakable past. // Jeff