A Day of Remembering

Cambodia, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Tours & Attractions — By on May 11, 2007 at 11:25 pm

We interrupt your usual broadcast of travel follies, restaurant picks and sporting adventures for a more serious topic we felt important to include in this here record of our around-the-world trip. Due to the graphic content, parental discretion is advised…

It took a journey around the world to show me just how much inaction itself is a choice. There have been many times when I’ve scanned a newspaper, read stories covering tough topics such as war crimes in Bosnia or genocide in Darfur, and then put them out of my mind. Why? Because the tales took place far away from my home. Because it was easier to go about my daily routine rather than to decipher the complicated motives behind the conflict. Because I didn’t want to believe that human beings could torture, rape and murder their fellow human beings on the basis of what class they belong to, religion they practice or ethnicity they were born into. Besides, what could I ever do to stop a bloodthirsty regime in a far-off country?

Then I traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia with the specific purpose of visiting the famous Killing Fields I’d heard so much about. Since the Killing Fields were about a 20-minute drive from the bustling city center, the girls and I hopped into a rickshaw as our driver expertly dodged the mayhem of pedestrians, cyclos and cars zigzagging through the crowded streets. He was even kind enough to hand us face masks to help block the clouds of pollution threatening to choke us.

Our driver waited outside patiently while we paid the $3 admission fee and entered the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Before the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, the area was an orchard and an old Chinese cemetery. Afterwards, it was converted into a mass execution center to exterminate “traitors” thought to be against the Khmer Rouge’s communist agenda (such as doctors, professors, diplomats and other educated types).

A stupa containing about 8,000 human skulls housed a memorial for the roughly three million victims who lost their lives during the regime. Staring at the skulls riddled with bullet-holes and fractures from Lord-knows-what kind of atrocities, it was impossible to keep my stomach from knotting up. Standing on the same ground where so many people were tortured and murdered made the crimes nauseatingly real.

The largest mass grave contained 450 corpses, while another held 166 headless bodies. Though I didn’t want to believe it, all I had to do was look down at the earth to see where tattered victims’ clothes had washed up to the surface after heavy rains.

Our guide told us how soldiers often knocked on citizens’ doors unexpectedly ordering them to follow the soldiers so they could fulfill some sort of “duty” to the government. After being taken away, they were never heard from again. Other times, soldiers escorted entire families to this burial ground, where they were murdered with bullets or clubs used to smash heads. The girls and I were told that some were even buried alive. We saw a killing tree where children’s skulls were supposedly bashed to preserve precious bullets before being thrown into mass graves. The perpetrators were said to have played music from loudspeakers during executions to mask victims’ screams.

After I lit incense at a shrine in front of the stupa and said a prayer of remembrance, our guide recommended we head straight to the genocide museum in the city. Formerly a high school, the Khmer Rogue converted the grounds into the S-21 prison. This is where Cambodians were interrogated and tortured before being shipped to The Killing Fields for execution.

The grounds were eerily silent as we wandered through classrooms that had been converted into prison cells where captives had been locked to single beds with shackles. Bullet holes and bloodstains speckled the walls forming ghoulish patterns, and many cells displayed a photo of the prisoner, exposing humans with sunken ribs and bodies swollen from starvation.

Nothing in my life has taken my breath away and turned my stomach like staring at the monstrous display of victims’ headshots that had been snapped upon their arrival. Victims’ clothes were then taken and biographies recorded so the Khmer Rouge could keep track of the “enemies” before they were thrown into their cells.

Just about every single one of the hundreds of black-and-white faces staring out from behind the glass looked like they surely knew they were about to die. Some had eyes swollen shut from beatings; others’ eyes appeared hollow and devoid of emotion; others’ eyes virtually shone with terror.

In an act of remembrance, I walked through and examined each and every face in those horrendous photographs. And every so often, I would come across a face where the captive stared boldly into the lens and smiled ever so slightly at the camera. Each time I saw one of these rare expressions, a shiver traveled from the base of my spine up to the back of my skull like an electric shock.

If these people had endured being separated from their families, stripped of their clothing and forced from their homes, why the heck were they smiling? If they suspected that they were going to be tortured, raped and murdered, why did they smile?

Staring into their rebellious eyes, I formed my own theory: These seemingly odd expressions were actually sending a powerful message. They seemed to be saying, “You can take my clothes, take my home, take my life. But there is nothing you can do to me physically that will ever break my spirit.” The small gesture was an act of defiance and a testament to human strength. It’s a reminder to those still living on that we all have a part of us no one can ever steal.

So the next time I read a news article about mass violence in a far-off land, I will think of my day at The Killing Fields and know that it is not so far away from home because the world is much smaller than it seems. And while I may not be able to change the past or intercept an army to prevent future deaths, I can help keep the victims’ stories alive by choosing to share what I’ve seen. Forgetting may be easier, but I think it’s better to remember.

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    1 Comment

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks Holly, that was well put. I know its not something most people would like to read about in a travel blog but your willingness to visit the sights and share your thoughts are appreciated.

    My family escaped Cambodia in 1979 and I was fortunate enough to be born in the US. I’ve yet to go there, but it will definitely be part of my 2008 RTW tour (see post in the travel budget section). Keep up the good work.