Painting the Town Khmer Rouge

My journey started on a note about death.  I had chosen to leave in late October to catch Dia de los Muertos, or day of the dead in South American.  I wanted to see a culture where deaths were accepted not as a sorrowful occasion, but as a joyous remembrance of loved ones.  A natural process that we might as well celebrate.  As I travel to celebrate and learn about life it is unavoidable that I would meet death again.

On my way, I have encountered a more familiar view of death.  A grim and unexpected event that seems to catch us before we expect it.  In Vietnam, I saw at least one if not two deaths that I could spot due to the large, gathered crowds who had come to gawk.  In Saigon I saw a few separate funerals, a weird occasion where traditional Vietnamese music preceded the flower laden truck and a modern western style brass band followed.

It still did not prepare me for one of the reasons I ended up coming to Cambodia, to face the human tragedy that was the Killing Fields.  I ran into many a traveler who did not like Cambodia, and many more who did not want to see the Killing Fields.  It is not a happy place, not a happy history to learn about.  Yet it is our human history that we all share whether we like it or not.  The Cambodian view is that they must share it, so that it will not happen again.  Even if it already sadly has.

In high school I volunteered a weekend at an Amnesty International film festival for the movie The Killing Fields.  I managed to be so busy I never actually watched the film, thinking it was a morbid documentary.  I did not realize it was a tragic if in the end heartwarming tale.  It was not exactly the primer I expected into the subject.  No, somehow knowing what I was bicycling to go see did not lessen the impact.

I couldn’t figure out what the first thing I saw in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum complex meant. No smiling? No talking? Apparently it is only a problem for Cambodians and not for us non-Khmer reading folk.

The weird translations just made it seem more surreal how severe the rules were. The culture of saving face as priority one still rubs me the wrong way and I do not understand it. They may be torturing you to death, but no crying! That’s very important!

It felt like these pictures never ended. Their gazes varied from steely, to burning with sharp intellect or hate, to even just those who looked surprised or caught off guard. Their gazes are every degree of human and they bore straight into you. How must it feel for relatives to come here, searching both hoping and dreading that they find their loved ones in the endless stares?

The innocuous buildings used to house a school. The irony of going from an institution of instilling knowledge to one dedicated to eradicating it. Often temples were used for the same purpose.

The memorial stupa of the Killing Fields. I was surprised to realize I did not just feel sadness for the victims, but realized everyone in the country was a victim. The “soldiers” were often children who would be killed if they did not join the revolution or do as they were told. As survivors who sympathized later pointed out, everyone left with nightmares.

This is a peaceful lake now, it has hard to imagine tens of thousands were killed here. Three million of Cambodia’s eight million were killed. With one third of the population killed, how could anyone escape being affected?

In Laos and Vietnam crater like holes like this meant bombs, here it is exhumed graves. Oddly while Vietnam and Thailand are explicitly mentioned as closed borders, there is no mention of anyone running to Laos. Maybe they were also in such dire straights it wasn’t even worth considering.

In Saigon I received a handmade friendship bracelet from two sweet friends. I was awful at wearing it and it kept dragging into things. Then I arrived at the killing tree where babies were smashed. I hope this gift from two innocent girls can bring happier blessings to this sad tree.

This place needs more than a thousand cranes. A Khmer Rouge saying illustrates this best: “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.”

The nine tiers of skulls felt endless. Another Khmer Rouge saying said “To cut the grass you have to remove the roots”. This meant killing whole families because to them children served no purpose and might cause future danger when they grew up wanting revenge.

The guestbook at Tuol Sleng had a lot of foreigners exclaiming “how could this happen?” They seemed to not see the extreme rich-poor bipolar Phnom Penh that continues today that the Khmer Rough were promising to end. If only the Khmer Rouge could’ve seen what materialistic capitalism their country would embrace due to their extreme actions. Although they did not carry through their promises of a classless society, it is more scary how easy it could happen then or now.

Cambodia’s Year Zero forced agricultural work for everyone in the country killed many more who were not even accused of being traitors and thrown in prison.  The harsh country work and lack of food was deadly for even those who were farmers.  While Vietnam suffered greatly at the hands of Imperialism from others, Cambodia wrought this upon their own people years after the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China had caused much bloodshed. It makes me wonder what atrocities cannot be seen in museums in China.


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