Cambodian Genocide

Phnom Pen Wasn't Easy: The Cambodian Genocide

1975 - 1979. An Estimated 3 Million People Lost Their Lives

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Before Cambodia, I'd never had to mentally or emotionally prepare to visit any destination. I chose to visit Cambodia because of its history and knew what I would be getting myself into but despite my "preparation" for what Cambodia, specifically Phnom Pen, would prove to be, the knots still formed in the back of my throat, I still found myself wiping tears out of my eyes, my heart still broke, and hours later, the heaviness and memory of what I saw was still with me. 

Given that an estimated 3 million Cambodians lost their lives in recent memory (1975 - 1979) for various reasons including but not limited to wearing glasses and being able to speak a foreign language, I found myself wondering of anybody I passed with glasses or who knew English, "Would you have been targeted? Captured? Or killed? Would you have been in hiding? Could you hear music from the blaring of the loud speakers that were used to cover the blood-curdling screams of those being tortured and killed in the dead of night?"  Those anxious questions made it difficult to enjoy my encounters with Cambodians who interacted with me.

Of anyone I passed who looked to be above the age of 40 I couldn't help but wonder if they remembered what living under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was like, but knew better than to pry as many want to move on from those memories and revisiting them, or so I've read. Were their parents still alive? Where are their grandparents? So many questions. 

“Better to accidentally kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.” 
— Pol Pot on executing babies


I vaguely remember hearing of the Cambodian Genocide during high school and after researching it for the purposes of my trip I found myself disappointed that I hadn't learned more about it during my years in school.  If you're unfamiliar with the history and rise of the Khmer Rouge, I'll give you a brief synopsis. --> Khmer Rouge was a communist party whose policies were driven by the belief that its citizens had been tainted by Western ideas and "outside" influences, so, they decided they weren't having it--wimps are afraid of uprisings--and persecuted any and everyone who looked as though they had been influenced by the West. First, the educated were persecuted: doctors, lawyers, military, policemen, accountants, ANYONE who could advance society.  Then the K.R. moved onto people who wore glasses or spoke multiple languages such as English or French, babies, the elderly....any and everyone.  Those targeted by the Khmer Rouge were taken to communes, tortured, and killed in the most horrific ways. Of the execution of babies, Pol Pot is quoted as saying, "Better to accidentally kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake." 


I'll never forget my time at either place.  Tuol Sleng, S-21, is where prisoners were held captive and tortured until they rendered false testimonies in the hope that their torture would end, and it would but not in the way they had hoped.  More often that not there would be no reuniting with family, or going back to homes that had been obliterated....
Death in the killing fields was the reward for most confessions, true or false.  I was fortunate to spend time with Chum Mey, a survivor of S-21.  Through translation he told me of his story at S-21 and spoke in-depth about forgiveness.  That conversation with him forced me to look at some of my current nuances that I deemed transgressions and quickly get over them and myself for the paled in comparison to his.

The Killing Fields is a heart-breaking place, and perhaps the most savage irony is that unless you knew what it formerly was you'd probably think it was a park.  The HARDEST part about being at the Killing Fields was the Killing Tree.....where babies were taken to be smashed.  Pol Pot's henchmen would often take them by their ankles and swing them as hard as possible against the tree, afterwards non-chalantly tossing their bloodied quivering bodies into a mass grave that was near it.  I thought photographing that tree would be easy but it wasn't.  I didn't want to go near it.  I didn't want pictures of it in my phone. I didn't want to imagine babies as young as my now 2-month-old niece crying as they met their death and were then discarded like an old rag.  With a knotted throat that threatened to erupt into inconsolable weeping, I QUICKLY made my way to the exit.  On the tuk-tuk ride back, I let the tears fall from behind my shades.

“I didn’t want to go near it.  I didn’t want pictures of it in my phone. I didn’t want to imagine babies as young as my now 2-month-old niece crying as they were flung into the tree.”

The Killing Tree, Phnom Pen. Photo Courtesy of Jasmine Thurston


The people of Cambodia are so beautiful, so warm, so forgiving.  Pol Pot killed people who could advance their culture, and 40+ years later, the effects are still evident. They're still recovering, still healing, still trying to fully move on from a recent yester-year.  Albeit breif, I shall never forget my time in Cambodia.

-Joseph Mussomeli, former US Ambassador to Cambodia Former U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, was right to caution of Cambodia "first you'll fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart." 


Memorial to those executed at The Killing Fields. Photo Courtesy Jasmine Thurston

Memorial to those executed at The Killing Fields. Photo Courtesy Jasmine Thurston