I viewed firsthand the reminders of Cambodia’s dark past with a visit to the Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields” and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.
How could something as horrific as the Holocaust happen more than once?
I don’t understand.
It was 1975. That was not very long ago. I just don’t understand how the worst part of history can repeat itself as much as it has.
The Communist Party known as the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia on April 17, 1975. Their existence was kept secret until 1977. While they were in power, they set up rules that disregarded human life. They turned the country into a graveyard for nearly two million people.
The Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no wealthy people, nor poor people. As a result they abolished money, schools, and religious practices, making those that came from a high education or social status the first to be executed.
Public schools, churches, and universities were turned into prisons. Everyone was deprived of their rights. No one was allowed to talk to one another in public. No one was allowed to show even the slightest affection or humour.
As I listened to our guide explain the horrific events of the Khmer Rouge while we were at the Killing Fields, I felt sick. His parents, grandparents, and countless other family members were killed. He described the horrific details of how the victims were treated.
I walked into the memorial where hundreds of skulls of the victims are neatly stacked. Those skulls, once belonging to unique souls like mine, are now nothing but a piece of empty shell of what used to be. I imagine a life where I am forbidden to smile, to laugh, to speak, to express myself. A life consisting of such would be so dark already, but add in the violence, the cruelty, the suffering. That’s how life on Earth becomes Hell, and I am just so fortunate and grateful to have the life that I do.
Before the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, two million Cambodians died from diseases due to lack of medicines and medical services, starvation, execution, or exhaustion from overwork. Mental health problems are severe among Cambodian people as some would witness their entire families tortured and killed. Cambodia is still and will always be damaged spiritually and mentally because of these horrific and traumatic events that can never be erased.
The most significant prison in Cambodia, known as the Tuol Sleng or S-21, held about 14,000 prisoners. There were only 7 survivors . . . and I was fortunate enough to meet one of them: Chum Mey.
Chum Mey is in his 80’s now. He was a mechanic before and during the regime. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Chum outlasted for so long – he was called upon numerous times by the Khmer Rouge to fix things, such as sewing machines and labour tools. Chum’s wife and children were tortured and killed in front of him. Prisoners like Chum were locked in a tiny cell with what looked like a small toolbox. It was where they were instructed to go to the bathroom, and if they missed the box accidentally they were forced to lick it up with their tongue.
Today monks are present at the Tuol Sleng prison, now turned museum. We watched the monks give blessings to the victims, which consisted of chanting, playing instruments, and throwing alms into the air. Chum is present at the museum almost every day. He meets tourists that come to visit and he will share his story. He also sells his book, Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man, which I was more than happy to purchase as a way to support him and learn more about his incredible story.
“I survived, but I can’t say I was lucky. My wife and children are dead and the torture I endured was horrible. At that time, it would have been better to die than to survive. But I did survive, and I believe it is my duty to tell my story.”