As a traveler, it can be hard to deal with a country’s political situation or history. Sometimes its as simple as jumping through hoops to get a visa, but other times its something much more morally complex. We’ve dealt with this a number of times along our journey, first and foremost being Sudan. Sudan, a country whose President is wanted in the International Criminal Court for three counts of genocide, whose government doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and who continues to perpetrate genocide on its lands.
From Sudan through the Middle East into Israel, and were confronted with our own Jewish history, as well as a rather surprising number of Sudanese refugees for that matter. From Israel we, rather ironically, flew to Berlin. We toured Germany for about one week and in that time visited one of Hitler’s first, and possibly most feared concentration camp, Dachau. Continuing east through Europe those images stayed with us as we saw traces of the war through several former Soviet states.
Next stop, Turkey. No mention there of the Turk’s work in the Armenian Genocide, that’s because all those Armenians are either dead or living in the West. Once we got to Armenia though, the floodgates opened on what was the first genocide, of far more than one, in the 20th century. We left Armenia for Kazakhstan, final resting place to many who were sent to, and never returned from, the fearsome Soviet Gulags.
And now, we find ourselves in Cambodia where the horrors of the 20th Century continue to follow us. In one morning we visited a school that was turned into a torturous prison and then moved to the fields where those prisoners were killed; appropriately named ‘The Killing Fields.’ These sites date from the 1970s.
When the US pulled out of Vietnam, it did the same in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh two weeks before Saigon fell. The North Vietnamese sent those who fought for the Southern Vietnamese government packing to the US and Australia. The Khmer Rouge, on the other hand, sought a more enduring solution.
The Khmer Rouge turned a Phnom Penh high school into the S-21 prison, where 17,000 men and women were held and subjected to Nazi-like levels of cataloging before being sent to ‘The Killing Fields’ for their final solution. At the prison, even without a guide, it was easy to understand what was happening as locals closely scanned through photos of the victims on the walls, stopped at one and cried as they took a photo.
Visiting the fields themselves was even worse, seeing the tree that babies were swung against, by their ankles, to kill them so they couldn’t grow up and enact revenge on those responsible for their parents; deaths. Walking through the fields pieces of clothes, teeth, and bone poke up through the dirt and grass. Many of the mass burial pits have not been cordoned off and walking along the dirt paths, no matter how hard you try not to, it is clear that you are walking over remains. In several places people had collected these bone fragments and teeth under small shelters in a makeshift memorial to those who had died. A newly built pagoda/stupa stands in the center of the area. Filled with the skeletal remains of 8000 bodies found in one of several mass graves on site, the bones are behind glass, but on more than one it is easy to see how the person was killed.
Although 17,000 may not sound like a large number in comparison to the 12 million killed by the Nazis, the total loss of human life at the hands of the Khmer Rouge however, inclusive of far more travesties than I’ve discussed here, are currently estimated at around 2 million; somewhere between one quarter and one third of Cambodia’s entire population at the time.
Travel is fun, enjoyable, and generally fills us with great memories and stories we will cherish for the rest of our lives. Just as importantly, it can show us the other side of human nature and world history, one that unfortunately is not so wonderful…