[Warning: This post is not light reading, and can be triggering for people who have experienced trauma. However I feel it's important to know the history of this country to fully understand the stories of the people who live here. This is my personal reflection of the things I've learned in Cambodia.]
If you really know me, you know that my hidden talent is the plastic guitar. I've been playing expert level on Guitar Hero since 2005, and one of the songs I've mastered is Holiday in Cambodia by the Dead Kennedys. I've played it over and over, and I've even sung along with the lyrics. But it wasn't until I came to Phnom Penh and visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum that I really put these words into context.
"Well, you'll work harder
With a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers
Till you starve
Then your head is skewered on a stake
Now you can go where the people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
What you need, my son...
What you need, my son...
Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people are dressed in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you'll kiss ass or crack
Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot"
The song came out in 1980 as a commentary on privileged college students from America, in contrast to the life the Khmer people were living, and the brutal treatment they experienced because of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge army forced the people of Phnom Penh to evacuate out of the city, claiming they could return in 3 days. But many of them never made it back. Thousands of people were arrested, and taken to Security Prison (S-21). The "prison" was formerly a high school, where children learned and laughed, but then became a building of torture. The leaders of the regime would interrogate prisoners and torture them with waterboarding and other terrorizing techniques until they made false confessions of being a "traitor." Then they'd take these men, women, and children out to the killing fields to be executed. This was by far, the most horrible place I've ever been. We've all read about the Holocaust and other genocide, but it feels much more real and raw to be physically present.
I would say this is the same view that some of the prisoners had as they looked out the window of their cell, but it's not the same view at all.
To look at the photos of dead prisoners on the yellow and white checkered tile floor, and then to look down at my feet and see the same floor was surreal. To look in the eyes of hundreds of prisoners mugshots, knowing they did nothing wrong, was painful. They were victims of mass genocide and their fate was inevitable death. There are only 12 known survivors to have ever come through the prison, and walk out alive, 2 of which were there at the museum that day, selling their memoirs of their experiences. One of them was a painter that the leaders asked to paint their portraits. The other was a mechanic who could fix broken machines like typewriters. I met them face to face, and I was speechless. I could not find the words to say, knowing what they had been through. I just wonder how they can come back to this place of horror every day. But it must be to tell their story of courage and survival.
Cambodia is the way it is because of the recent actions by the Khmer Rouge. Because Phnom Penh was evacuated just a few decades ago, the city and it's people had to completely start over. There is a serious lack of infrastructure and order, with trash on the streets and hardly any real law enforcement. There are NGOs that try to give aide to those that need it in different areas, but healthcare, environmental protection, and safety standards are decades behind. This is what the power lines look like on the street:
Thank you for taking the time to reflect with me. These experiences are very real for the people of Cambodia, as hard as some of it is to acknowledge, I can't even fathom how it has affected these families in every day life. This country and it's people are still recovering, but there are those working to make change happen in the communities. There are people trying to change the culture of inequality between genders, people helping women recover from exploitative positions like trafficking, abuse, and unfair labor. People trying to teach life and professional skills, and organizations helping the children and trying to improve the education system. And that's who I'm trying to showcase while I'm here. Stories of hope and change coming soon.