Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A trip to Cambodia is not complete without acknowledging its past–its recent, bloody past. Just three decades ago, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over, evacuated Phnom Penh and began a mass extermination of the upper social classes in an attempt to create a classless agrarian society. Those who wore glasses, spoke another language or were thought to have some sort of higher education were taken from their families and murdered, their bodies dumped in mass graves in the countryside. Of the 600 doctors practicing medicine in Cambodia before 1975, only 60 lived to see the end of the Khmer Rouge’s regime. In an effort to better understand Cambodian history, I visited two of Phnom Penh’s most infamous attractions, Pol Pot’s torture prison and the Choeung Ek killing fields.

On their way to the killing fields, thousands of people passed through a converted high school known under the Khmer regime as S-21. In the thirty years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the complex, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, has not been changed. The metal beds in the torture chambers of Building A remain, displaying shovels, iron chains and other rudimentary objects used during the brutal interrogation of prisoners. In the other buildings, visitors can walk into the hastily built brick and wood cells, scarcely large enough for a person to turn around in. Some of the floors had been converted into exhibition rooms, with hundreds of photos of the men, women and children who passed through before being sent to the killing fields. Most chilling were the written and oral accounts of former Khmer Rouge soldiers, many of them now living among their former victims. For the most part, these former soldiers defended their actions as simply following orders. How many times in the course of history have we heard this defense?

After leaving Tuol Sleng, we paid a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the Choeung Ek killing fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. I remember a photograph I saw as a child: skulls piled on top of each other, some with bullet holes, but many with entire pieces missing because the Khmer Rouge soldiers bludgeoned their victims in an effort to save bullets. The rickety wooden planks the skulls once rested on have been replaced with a giant white monument, which holds thousands of skulls, bones and pieces of clothing pulled from the pits after the fall of the regime. The fields themselves were nothing more than shallow pits dug in the ground, some filled with murky water, signs posted above the holes to inform visitors how many bodies were found in a particular pit. Bone fragments littered the paths around the pits, a silent testament to the horrors that befell those transported to the fields.

Cambodia has one of the most colored histories of any country in the world–it is a place that has seen civil war in my lifetime, that experienced genocide in my parents’ lifetime and that is notoriously corrupt on every level. It is a land of cultures and contradictions, of poor Khmers living among wealthy expats, of old ideas and fears of government and education combined with the hope for a new generation, of rickety tuk-tuks whizzing past some of the most extravagant hotels in this part of the world. The Cambodia that I experienced will not be the Cambodia my children will know, nor is it the Cambodia that we watched on the news in the early 90s.

The way my trip worked out, I spent Halloween at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. Growing up, my family decorated our house with kitschy cutouts and streamers. But this year, the skeletons, bats and ghosts were all real. Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek are reminders of the horrors experienced here, places that anyone traveling this part of the world needs to see. High school history classes have entire units devoted to the Holocaust, and virtually every university has classes on the subject. Why can’t the same be said of the genocide in Cambodia? Or the racial cleansing in Rwanda? Will our children be taught about the crisis in Sudan? We grew up saying, “Never again,” but how many genocides have taken place since the Holocaust? How can we say, “Never again” and mean it unless we actually are willing to do something? “Never again” has become an empty promise, and millions have died because it remains unfulfilled.

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