Traveling in Cambodia so far has confronted me with such different layers of pasts that it's been a lot to try to digest. Our first few days spent in the country were at Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century, around the same time as Westminster and Chartres. Then there was the French Colonialism that I'm more used to experiencing, most countries we have been in were under European Colonialism at some point. It's the more recent past in Cambodia that has been harder to confront.
On April 17th, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered Phenom Penh and started "one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society every attempted" (Lonely Planet 2012). Eric and I have been trying to learn as much as we can by reading books, The Killing Fields and When Broken Glass Floats, and we also saw the movie The Killing Fields when we were in Battambang. After the 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days of Khmer Rouge rule it is estimated that 3 million people died, many of them the educated, men, and monks. More people died from starvation in the years that followed when the people tired to find what was left of their family and move back to their hometowns. During this time, the rice fields they had been forced to work on 12-15 hours a day were abandoned.
Seeing how far the country has rebuilt sometimes makes me forget how recently the people went through hell. But other times, such as when we are eating on the street, people come from every direction begging for food or money. Walking down the street in Phnom Penh with a takeaway bag I had people following me asking for my food. This literally breaks my heart. Everyone here has been effected by the Khmer Rouge.
Seeing Phnom Penh was really shocking as this city was evacuated during their rule, leaving S21, a prison camp, and outside the city, the killing fields. There are ghosts all over this city.
We toured S-21 one day, a heavy silence around each one of us as we looked at all the photos of those that were killed there - some 100 people a day, totaling more than 20,000. The Japanese have leased the Killing Fields and we read bad reviews of the experiences there so we decided to skip that part of learning about the history.
Here are some photos from S-21.
The Khmer Rouge still exist and are even still apart of the government. The current Prime Minister was in the Khmer Rouge. Trials are ongoing in bringing those to justice that were responsible for the deaths but politics are a mess and justice seems hard to come by.
By educating ourselves and following the ongoing court cases we can help try to honor those that were killed during this gruesome time.