Occasionally the horrific events that swept across Cambodia under the leadership of the Khmer Rouge have crossed my mind while I have been here, and then there are times that the hurt and atrocity that was rampant throughout Cambodia in the mid and late 1970’s smacks me in the face.
Ben, Molly, Srey Yim and I had just finished having dinner with the students in their house on our first night in Phnom Penh when Veasna began to translate for his mother, Srey Yim. I thought she would talk about cooking, maybe how she made the lok-lak or perhaps cooking in the orphanage, but instead she talked about Pol Pot. Veasna patiently listened to her speak every couple of sentences in Khmer and then would relay them to Molly and I in English. She told us how she had survived by cooking rice for Pol Pot. He had killed many people she knew and most members of her family had died during the few years he had been in power. However, on the day Srey Yim actually met Pol Pot he had not been satisfied with the rice he had been served and asked Srey Yim if she was a good cook. She told him yes. He then told her she would cook rice for him. But he would have her killed the day she cooked rice that did not taste good. She cooked rice for Pol Pot every day just to live until his next meal. It was through luck and her skill in the kitchen that she was able to survive. Srey Yim also told us about her family. After the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by the Vietnamese she got married. However, her husband died two months after Veasna her youngest child was born. Soon after that their home burned to the ground, and Srey Yim could not afford to build a new home for her family. Instead, she became a cook in an orphanage, and moved her family there as well. Her children, Veasna most of all, grew up knowing the orphanage as home. Her daughters and her daughters’ children still call the orphanage in Phnom Penh home. She had lost so many people, lost so much, during and after the war that I newly respected her strength. Her story is not singular though. Throughout Cambodia there are stories filled with more pain and loss during the time of the Khmer Rouge. It was a time when 20% of the Cambodian population was killed, almost everyone has a story of tragedy.
I recently read the most famous of these stories, First They Killed My Father, it is one woman’s memoir about her family’s experience under the Khmer Rouge. Her words and her story are haunting. She describes unbelievably long hours working under the hot Cambodian sun, too little food, too much death, and the loss of family members and friends. Each night as I picked up the book, I dreaded another catastrophe in her life, another event that I could not imagine experiencing. Bombs, murder, unfairness, torture, land mines, starvation, and rape it was all part of her world as a child; a world that I did not want to imagine for any child. Her entire story will stay with me for a very long time, and some of her words I have been repeating to myself for days, especially the way she described her will to survive. She wrote, “My hate empowers and scares me, for with hate in my heart I have no room for sadness. Sadness makes me want to die inside. Sadness makes me want to kill myself to escape the hopelessness of my life. Rage makes me want to survive and live so that I may kill.”
I see the faces of five, six, seven year-old children in Cambodia today, and I am compoundedly excited for their happiness, for their ability to have simple things such as flip-flops and be able to attend school. For it was less than 35 years ago, that children their age would have been taken from school, put to work in the fields, starved, and possibly separated from her or his family to live in a child workers’ camp. During the Democratic Kampuchea or Khmer Rouge’s time in power they eliminated private property, forced all citizens to evacuate the cities, established communal work sites in the villages, closed schools, executed intellectuals and monks, abolished Buddhism and all other religion, made singing, dancing and music illegal, destroyed televisions, radios, motorized vehicles, and eye glasses all in an attempt to create a self-sufficient agrarian society that was rid of any outside influence or ideal. You could be killed for espionage, suspected espionage, not working hard enough, having non-Khmer ancestry, stealing an ear of corn, by food poisoning, by starvation, refusing any request by a Khmer Rouge soldier, or for simply wearing glasses. neighbors couldn’t trust neighbors, friends would no longer confide in one another, and while a classless society was the “goal” of the government, it created a clear divide between those in the government, those who had spent their whole lives in a rural area, and at the bottom those who needed to be reprogrammed as model citizens because they had lived in a city. As I read Ung Luong’s account, I found the immense lack of trust that developed among the Cambodian people during that time especially affecting. As she said, ” Like, Keav, I am alone here, even though I eat the same food and sleep in the same hut with eighty girls. Besides our obligatory discussions about the power of Pol Pot and his army, we live together in silence. We keep to ourselves because we are all hiding secrets. My secret is our lives in Phnom Penh. For another girl, it may be that she has a handicapped brother, has stolen food, possesses a pair of red pants, is nearsighted and used to wear glasses, or has tasted chocolate. If she is found out, she can be punished.”
My first day in Phnom Penh I walked in front of the Royal Palace, and as I strolled down the wide boulevard and watched children chase birds in the park across the street, tuk-tuk drivers continuously slowed down to ask me, “Where you go lady, S-21? Killing fields?’ I had read the basic background of Cambodia, but these “tourist” sites were unknown to me, and in my jet legged state I didn’t feel ready to see anything called a Killing Field. I declined all of their offers. Three weeks ago, when my Dad came to visit we did go to see S-21, also called Tuol Sleng. S-21 stands for Security Prison 21. It is a collection of white, barbed wire buildings in the middle of Phnom Penh, and sits rather unnoticed along a quite street in the capital. Before it was Security Prison 21 during the Khmer Rouge, it was a high school, now it is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a memorial to the almost 20,000 people who were tortured, beaten, hung, and killed there. If they were not killed during interrogation torture sessions within the concrete walls of those buildings, then they were taken to a field outside Phnom Penh, now the Killing Field, and there they were beaten with pick axes, iron bars, hammers, or other weapon until they died – bullets were too expensive to be used on practically dead, traitors to the Khmer Rouge. When the Vietnamese arrived at S-21 in 1979, they found few survivors, today there are only seven who were known to walk out of S-21 alive.
As I walked into the first of the buildings and saw nothing in the room but an iron bed with chains and shackles attached to its legs, I didn’t know which urge was strongest the one to cry, run away, or stare in complete disbelief. I chose for that moment just to stare. As we silently walked through many rooms with the same sparse, rusted furniture and then an entire building full of tiny cells hardly big enough to fit a human body in and made of wood, brick, and wire it was an experience similar to visiting Dachau four years ago in Germany. The same haunting reminders of torture, death, and human cruelty. I did cry as we looked at the hundreds and hundreds of photographs displayed behind thin glass of the victims of Tuol Sleng. Their eyes were scared, their faces haunting, and knowing their fate I felt anger and deep sadness well up inside. These were once old men, young women, and children; they were once someone’s mother, father, sister, friend, cousin, neighbor, and lover. I couldn’t help but think that these people still had relatives living, friends who survived, family who missed them – all of this hatred and suffering wasn’t that long ago.
These people lived and died within my father’s lifetime. The men in Cambodia who were his age, had lived their teenage years through the Khmer Rouge’s social engineering. Instead of playing Pacman and learning how to drive a car, he would have been doing backbreaking labor and fighting for extra scraps of food. If someone told you the situation in Cambodia in the late 1970’s, it sounds like something that happened in the 1800’s, but it wasn’t. For many people here, I am sure in their memories and nightmares it seems like yesterday. I wonder what may linger in their hearts and minds as they have worked to repair their broken country, tried to trust one another again, and have the courage to tell their children that things would only get better and better here. It is also why sometimes I look at the small things in Cambodia such as a filled school room, a monk meditating at Wat Damnak, the doctor who stitched up my foot, or the artist who sells me a new painting – and I appreciate how much Cambodia has recovered. Now, education is greatly valued, their religion is once again part of their lives, and many homes in the city have a television flickering in the evening. There is still great poverty, there is still hardship, there are still people who starve – but with 50% of the population under 21 (a fact no doubt due to the great loss of life during the Khmer Rouge) there is so much hope for the future. That is what lingers with me, that after so much pain people have the ability to hope that their children’s lives will be better, their country is improving, and that ever day could be better than the last.