Silence, Grief, and Gratitude.
After spending a day taking in both Tuol Sleng (S-21) and Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields) in Phnom Penh I am incredibly broken. Estimates of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot genocide vary but I believe the figures to be of the greater estimations. I believe 3 million innocent men, women, children, and even babies were ruthlessly murdered for reasons I simply cannot wrap my head around. 3 million people would represent one third of Cambodian population. Imagine if one in every three people you know was no longer with you?
These wounds are not healed, not even close. Khmer Rouge genocide took place between 1975–1979. If you know someone who served in Vietnam… it is fresher than that. There is still blood on the walls of S-21. Human remains still rise to the surface of the Killing Fields during rainy seasons. I couldn’t take them as museums. Museums are filled with artifacts of people and places lost to time and memory.
- 17.000 Cambodians were imprisoned at S-21.
- 12,000 were tortured and executed.
- 7 survived.
One of those survivors was on hand today. I wanted to speak to him. I wanted to hug him and give him all the love I could give to another human in a single gesture, but I couldn’t. On one hand I was an absolute wreck by the end of the tour, and on the other I didn’t feel a single gesture could begin to understand or comfort the incredible pain and sorrow this man had endured. He saw me, made eye contact, and held it for what felt like forever though I know it was only briefly. Perhaps it was the tears streaming down my cheeks, or maybe he understood something in my eyes that he held my gaze.As our eye contact broke I did the only thing I could think to do. I placed my palms flat against each other and bowed silently. He responded in kind, and I wish that in that moment I had made my piece known without having to say a word.
The Killing Fields held no less grief, and further enumeration of atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I spent a large portion of the tour gravitating between sickness and tears. Mass graves of men, women, children. Murdered, not with guns, but with hand tools. Machetes, hoes, cart axels, and anything else that could be used to kill. A specific tree used for killing babies. Angkar teachings of “to kill a weed you must also pull up the root” dictated the Killing of children of offenders to their world view. I cannot explain the stillness of the whole area, it’s almost as if time is suspended there.
This is the only photo I took in either location as I found it disrespectful to run a photo op on my the pain and suffering of the Khmer people. This is from the Killing Fields stupa memorial. There are 6 more vertical tiers just as the one pictured. Displaying the skulls of victims and cataloging how they were killed. You can’t imagine hundreds of hundreds skulls displaying exactly how they were murdered. I wish I could put this horror into words, but it is impossible to do so.
As I may days in Cambodia accumulate I have the pleasure of meeting and interacting with more and more Cambodians. I knew the history of this place before I came here, but today puts all of that knowledge to absolute shame. Today also fills me with wonderment about the whole of the Khmer people. While I haven’t had all pleasant interactions and meetings with the people, they have mostly been incredible. Courteous, friendly, warm, welcoming, and for who knows how, strong. In a country that is considered third world and has fresh memory of such history they persevere with smiles and kindness. I have been invited into homes and gatherings where I have been fed and watered. I have watched a local give a man the shoes off his feet after he broke his.
Today I am filled with silence and grief for the Khmer people, for my Khmer friends, for all of Cambodia. They have suffered in a way humanity should never suffer. I cannot begin to understand depth of that suffering, but for a moment I see their heritage. I can move forward with Cambodia in my mind and in my heart. I can find a way to help better the lives of my fellow man.
Because that’s what being human is all about.