A Reflection on Cambodia’s Past

Note: While I was visiting Cambodia, I made sure to visit the historical and national museums on my first day. I felt it was extremely important to understand the Cambodian history and the major causes that have turned this country into one of the poorest in the world. To help things sink in, I gathered up enough courage to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. Since many of the facts are still unknown to this day, my words expressed in the following blog are descriptions of my feelings and emotions while walking through these areas, instead of giving cold hard facts. Visiting these sites was extremely emotional and I had to take a lot of time to reflect on the images I saw and the stories of the victims I read about. These are my reflections of walking through the hallways of Tuol Sleng and along the dirt paths at the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.

There are still pictures of one Christmas Eve at my grandparent’s house that are kept on my dresser next to my jewelry and perfume. One of the pictures is of me as platinum blonde little rug-rat whose stockings are bunched up at the toes and I am sitting on the floor next to my Granny. I remember how we played my new Little Mermaid board game for hours that night. My new Christmas sweater had a large zebra head on the front, with a blue jeweled eye, and a stringy black and white yarn mane that ran down my left sleeve. Highlights of my childhood thankfully involve my grandparents.

Here in Cambodia, the children of the current generation are not able to relive memories that would include their grandparents. I couldn’t ask them whether or not their grandmothers taught them how to knit when they were young or if their grandfathers taught them how to fish. It was an eerie feeling when walking down the streets of Siem Reap and realizing that the wrinkles on the oldest man’s face that passed by me wasn’t from old age, but from hard work. He was probably in his early 40s and one of the oldest locals I saw in the area. The shadow of the Khmer Rouge still is present throughout Cambodia, even on the sunniest days.

My driver, Terry, picked me up at 10am sharp on a sunny morning to take me to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. He was quite pleasant to talk to on our 15 minute drive to the museum. He also agreed that it was important for foreigners to understand the recent history of Cambodia and visit these sites, even though it is something that no one ever wants to relive. “You should go to the genocide museum first, and then I will take you to the killing fields,” Terry said to me in a matter-of-fact way as I buckled up in his early 90’s Toyota Camry. My heart sank immediately and our friendly conversation turned somber as we drove up to Tuol Sleng Security Prison, a former school, which is still wrapped in rusted barbed wire fencing.

Three large white cement buildings stood before me, haunted by a past that only occurred forty years ago. I took my time walking the grounds, felt the heavy wooden doors of the prison cells, and held the chains in my hand. Algebraic equations that were written on the walls are now paired with prayers written by visitors from all over the world. When I stepped outside of the classroom, the world was silent. I had stepped away from the beds that were used for the torture and my mind was spinning. The only thing that could ease my pain was the sight of the white and tan checkerboard tile floors that were once set in place for the school. It brought me back to my days when I worked in the village of Fatick, in Senegal. The tile floors were encrusted in sand, which made you slide if your flip flops had little traction. How ironic it was to be able to think of one of my happiest moments in my life as a teacher in Senegal while visiting one of the world’s most gruesome prisons. I think that is how I was able to stop the tears while walking through the vacant hallways of Tuol Sleng.

It wasn’t until I reached the end of my tour when the nightmares finally hit me. I stepped up to a little snack stand to buy two bottles of chilled water, and around the corner, I noticed a man sitting peacefully and selling books. Throughout Cambodia, many children will come up to you and try to persuade you to buy their $1 books that are slung around their shoulders by a torn Karma scarf and a small plastic bin. There was something different about this man that told me that he wasn’t trying to sell these books for a profit, but to actually tell his story. After I paid for my waters, I stepped over to his booth to look at the books that he was showing to the other visitors. A sign of his life was plastered on the front of the rickety table, explaining that he was one out of the seven survivors who lived in Tuol Sleng Security Prison. He showed me a black and white picture of his wife, who unfortunately did not survive the brutal years of the Khmer Rouge. It was the look in his eyes that made me break down and cry. My throat closed up, my muscles tightened, and tears were rolling down my face. In his eyes, I could see two universes; one still praying for hope and the other was filled with a lifetime of sadness.

My tears were wiped away before I met Terry. His taupe Toyota Camry felt like an air-conditioned safe haven after spending two hours walking the silent hallways. Thankfully, I had no need to explain my sudden subdued state of being and Terry was able to bring up other subjects like his family and new baby son. Our banter and story-swapping came back to life as we drove 15 km out of town to Choeung Ek, one of the most well known killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. The pavement turned to crunching gravel and finally to a red dirt road. Terry said that he would be waiting for me when I returned and that I should take my time while walking through this area.

Endless paths criss-crossed and circled around each other, pulling me in different directions to teach me another piece of Cambodia’s history. It was here where thousands of Cambodians were buried in mass graves during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. It was an extremely surreal experience to try and grasp the reality that atrocious acts of violence occurred in such a beautiful place. While walking along the dirt paths, I could hear children giggling during recess at the nearby school, butter cream yellow butterflies floated above the long grass, and dragonflies zoomed across my vision. How could a place of such beauty harbor such a painful and unjust history? I quickly wrote these words as I was standing on a twisted path that circled the area:

Beauty in nature

It must be their souls singing

Leaving, reaching peace

Our world has enough genocide museums on display that we should learn from the past. Viewing the 6,000 or more pictures of the victims that spent time at Tuol Sleng was a humbling experience. Even though Cambodia is stronger now than it once was, the citizens are still missing a piece of their history that could only retold by their grandparents. Never take your grandparents advice, stories, knowledge, criticism, and talents for granted. They are the key tools that help us bridge the past to the future.