Photo credit here
There are ghosts in Cambodia.
Tangible shadows that hang over the land, a secret story interwoven in the buildings, the scenery, the people. Part of this story is wrapped around a beautiful tree just outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. The tree is big, with gnarled roots and long branches that give sprawling green shade. It was against the trunk of this tree that soldiers of the Khmer Rouge smashed the heads of children and infants, over and over again, before dumping their bodies into a mass grave nearby.
The tree is beautiful, but it is called the Killing Tree and grows on the Killing Fields, Choeung Ek, one of many sites of huge massacres led by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979. Over 1 million people were murdered at the Killing Fields and around 3 million in total were killed throughout the country during this genocide, in a nation with a total population of 8 million.
The Khmer Rouge was a manifestation of the Communist Party in Cambodia, led in large part by a man named Pol Pot. In 1975, the group became victorious in the Cambodian civil war that had plagued the country for the last five years and its army spread throughout major cities, arriving as bringers of peace.
An important factor in this that all Americans should be aware of (and yet I know I was never taught this in school) is that during this time, President Nixon had ordered a secret bombing campaign in Cambodian (and to even worse extent, Laos) to maim the forces and stations of the Viet Cong. Hidden from Congress and the American public, the countries were repeatedly peppered with millions and millions of cluster bombs, many of which still lay in the soil today, posing a constant threat to locals. It’s impossible to travel through the two countries without seeing amputees and other people whose lives have been affected by the legacy of Nixon’s decision. This deplorable tactic by the US certainly played no small role in pushing the traumatized Cambodian people towards the seemingly protective arms of the Khmer Rouge.
Yet the Khmer Rouge was anything but good for the people. Once they gripped Phnom Penh and other cities across the nation, they evacuated all of its occupants into camps in the surrounding area. The underlying motive of the party was to revert back to a complete agrarian society, free from social institutions, religion, technology, education, and money. Cambodia’s name was changed to The Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. Pol Pot’s goal was to immediately triple agricultural production and use the now-displaced city-dwellers as farm labour. No consideration was given to what would actually be necessary to make this happen, in terms of time, equipment, or any other logistics. Many, many people simply died in the fields from being overworked and underfed.
However, people dying right and left in the fields wasn’t quite enough, as Pol Pot decided that anyone who didn’t fit in his ideal uneducated farmer model should be eliminated from society. This led to tens of thousands of people being detained at huge prisons like Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. This prison is open to the public today as a museum, with rooms left how they were found when Vietnamese relief forces broke through in 1979. You can stand next the broken metal cot that held a tortured man, blood pooling under him when help came too late; a large picture of how he was found is mounted on the wall above the cot. The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, were fastidious in keeping records of all their prisoners, and so the museum has displayed rows and rows of black and white mug shots of those who came through its doors…intellectuals, businesspeople, foreigners, monks, those from the upper class, ethnic minorities, children (you can see some of these pictures in the Tuol Sleng link above).
Prisoners were tortured for days on end to extract confessions that they or their family members were conspiring against the Khmer Rouge with Vietnamese or American intelligence. Almost all of these confessions were false, but it made no matter to the paranoid and relentless party leaders. Part of these confessions included writing out a personal history, leaving behind fascinating transcribed glimpses into the lives of those who died at Tuol Sleng. After the first year of the prison’s operation, however, burial space was completely filled, so those marked for execution started to be shipped off to the Killing Fields, 15 km away.
To save ammunition, thousands upon thousands of people were killed with blunt objects and farming tools, while florescent lights lit the grounds up at night and propaganda music blared over loudspeakers to cover up the screams. Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial to those that died there, with their bone fragments and pieces of their clothing still surfacing above the mass graves after rainstorms.
Asia and I were in the small Cambodian city of Battambang, and this day exploring a mountain temple that our tuk-tuk driver had brought us to. We had gone up the mountain to find monkeys stealing laundry, monks meditating, and a huge cave that stretched up through the core of the mountain. You could climb down into it by way of a steep staircase and tucked into a small crevice at the bottom of it was a monk, sitting quietly, with incense smoke reaching up into the abyss. After exploring the top of the mountain, the next sight was supposed to be at dusk, when millions upon millions of bats would pour out of a hole in the side and fly across the sky.
We were sitting around a table, drinking some sodas and waters, waiting for the bats to come out of their cave when our tuk-tuk driver asked us about what we had seen up on the mountain. He asked us about the cave we had seen and told us how the Khmer Rouge would throw people in from the opening at the top. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, intellectuals and eventually even farmers and workers too were massacred at the site. Then he surprised us by opening up about himself and telling us that he was four when the Khmer Rouge took over.
“I remember being hungry. We were so hungry.” His family suffered during the famines that swept the country during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. But his most vivid memory came from seeing a young boy solider (13 or 14 years old) ordered to shoot a woman in his village, or else be killed himself. The boy shot the woman in front of our then four year old driver.
“It was scary. Sad.” Our driver flinched and buried his face in his hands. He described the whole experience in his childhood as “bitter,” but fortunately, his family lived through it. He told us also about the death of his father three years ago, from a blood clot.
The atrocities of history are often so terrible that it’s almost hard to relate to many of them. How could we possibly understand the fear, the anguish, and the horror that the victims endure? But learning about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia itself, by the people who lived it…..wandering through destroyed temples, avoiding stepping on the bone fragments of people murdered on the ground you walk on now, seeing an elderly person and wondering how they were affected by it, because you know they were…. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be an elderly person. Our driver wasn’t old. This all happened only half a lifetime ago and knowing that so many of the people you interact with in some way suffered through it is humbling.
But even more humbling is the staggering sincerity and humanity that permeates through the shadows of people’s past. It seems to be a cliché, but without a doubt, visitors to Cambodia site its people as the best thing about the country. And it’s true. There is a warmth and openness to them that is so striking and incredible when you think of the ordeals of their nation.
In the small town of Pakse, we found ourselves overwhelmed by the curious and welcoming nature of the people there. But even in Phnom Penh, it was hard to walk down some of the street without a genuine ‘hello!’ being shouted at us from doorways and sidewalks. Even the tuk-tuk drivers, often considered annoying by foreigners with their relentless offers of rides, could put aside business for friendliness and humour, when treated right. So many tourists simply ignore them or brush past with a gruff no. Asia and I found that if we actually took the time look them in eyes and smile, even as we were turning them down, they would be delighted. One man actually stopped and thanked us for smiling at him. Others abandoned their tuk-tuks to give us directions when we were lost. And with particularly insistent drivers, we would exclaim to them that we had to walk or else we would get fat, and to prove our point, we would mime working out or speed walking. The concept of foreigners who would rather walk than be driven around everywhere tickled them so much, that a couple even joined in our mimed work out, laughing.
One night, as we were walking along the main road, a few younger boys rode by us on bikes. They shouted out ‘hello!’ followed after a pause by, ‘I love you!’ This sent Asia and me giggling with the adorableness of it all. The boys even passed us a couple more times, proclaiming their declarations of devotion each time. We just shyly waved and laughed until one of them stopped his bike near us.
“Wait!” He cried out. “Stop!”
We humoured him and turned around to see what he had to say. His eyes were wide with sincerity and eagerness.
“I love you. Do you love me?”
Not sure how to react, we smiled at him.
“Hello, you love me?”
We smiled and giggled and waved and eventually after more exchanges of hellos and laughter, the boys rode off. But looking back, it’s not easy to shake the feelings of awe and warmth that I was left with. It wasn’t always simple and sometimes this country tested everything I had. In the end though, I can’t stop thinking about it and everything it has been through and everything it will be. So, yes, Cambodia, I love you.