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Growing up, my parents had very little sympathy for my problems. It didn’t matter whether I was complaining about the measles, my nosebleeds, or stomach worms, their response was always an impassive: “Tough it out. You’ll be fine.”
Who could blame them? When you grow up under a Maoist regime that killed 70 million people, then survive a famine, only to be forced into gruelling hard labour in the countryside, “validating feelings” and babying your special snowflake kid isn’t going to make it to the top of your give-a-shit-list.
If you’ve never had to secretively bury a relative murdered by the government, been so hungry you’ve scarfed down rats, grass, and mud, or felt warm blood gushing down your back after endless hours of hauling boulders up a mountain, then you will never understand what it’s like to have real world problems.
So having heard endless stories from my parents about what it was like to survive Hell on earth, I thought I was prepared for what we would see in the Killing Fields and S2 Prison in Phnom Penh.
I was wrong.
Nothing could’ve prepared us for this. Not my parents. Not the Hunger Games. Not even seeing those gas masks in South Korea.
Because what we saw in Phnom Penh completely destroyed my faith in humanity.
In the S2 Prison of Phnom Penh, we found:
Prisoners were shackled and tortured for months until they died. Prison Guards sat in the desk in front of them, extracting forced confessions of anti-government thoughts. Once the prisoners sign the confession, they will be shipped off to the Killing Fields to be executed and tossed into a mass graves. On the wall of this cell is the life-size picture of the rotted corpse of a prisoner tied to this actual bed which was taken when investigators first arrived in this room, but out of courtesy I’m not going to post that here.
Some prisoners tried to kill themselves by stealing the interrogator’s pen and stabbing themselves in the neck. Others tried to jump off the prison roof. Guards put barriers in place to prevent this from happening, not out of compassion, but so that they could have complete control over how the prisoners lived or died. Prisoners were only allowed to die when THEY said so.
In the courtyard of the prison, guards used to hang or drown prisoners.
Next, we went to the Killing Fields, which is where they transported prisoners after they confessed to being so-called “anti-government spies”:
At first we thought this was an innocent, pretty-looking historical structure. But when we got closer we realized it was a monument to the millions of victims murdered by the regime. It contained multiple stories, each overflowing with human skulls.
I have to admit, I was a sobbing mess when I came out of this building. Because not only were the sheer number of people killed completely terrifying, the WAY they were killed was even worse.
The Khmer Rouge believed that shooting people wasted precious bullets. So instead they resorted to killing people with the most barbaric, primitive weapons available. Using sticks, hoes, metal rods, even the leaves of palm trees (sharp enough to slit a human throat), they maimed and killed their victims, watching them die a cruel and agonizingly slow death:
If you looked into the cases of human skulls, you can see the skulls labelled with the method in which they were killed.
And just when I thought it couldn’t possible get any worse, we saw this:
You could see the blood stains of so many innocent babies and children whose skulls were smashed open by the Khmer Rouge against the trunk. It is seriously the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.
Finishing up our tour, we walked back on the visitor-designated path (to avoid disturbing the resting places of the dead), we noticed a human jawbone jutting out of the ground right next to us. While I was freaking out, a worker there explained that there are still so many bodies still buried that this happens from time to time. Every time it rains, more human bones and clothing are unearthed, and even though they diligently collect them on regular basis, they can’t collect them all.
In just 4 years, from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge murdered 2 million people. This equated to about a quarter of Cambodia’s total population.
So why did this happen? Who were the Khmer Rouge and why did they ruthlessly murder their own people?
A guerrilla group driven by communist ideology, the Khmer Rouge were led by their Marxist leader Pol Pot, who, not shit, took one look at the communist massacres in China and Russia he perpetrated and thought “They were too soft.” Even Mao Ze Dong at one point sent a diplomatic cable to Pol Pot to “Chill the fuck out” (my paraphrasing), and when Mao thinks you’re a wee bit off the deep end that’s…not so good.
Crazy Pol Pot wanted to create an agrarian society where cash and social systems such as banks, religion, or technology would be abolished.
Everyone had to be farmers and spend all of their waking hours farming by hand. He then forced millions of people out of the cities and into the countryside to starve while farming 19 hours a day for the purpose of “re-education”. The year was reset to “Year Zero” and anyone thought to be an intellectual, foreigner, or Buddhist had to be killed.
Problem was, basically anyone and everyone could be considered an intellectual. Pol Pot and his guards started arresting anyone who:
• Wore glasses
• Spoke another language
• Was literate
• Wrote letters (correspondence was forbidden because it would alert the clueless population to what was really happening behind prison doors)
So basically all of you would’ve been executed just for being able to read this post.
It was especially ironic, given that Pol Pot himself was educated in France, spoke multiple languages, could read and write, and wore glasses.
But if you were to point out the sheer hypocrisy of it, you would be executed, along with every member of your family to avoid retaliation. After all a common saying in that regime was “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”
You would think that living through these unthinkable atrocities would’ve broken the Cambodian people. After all, pretty much every local we talked to had lost family members. But we were wrong. Despite all this, Cambodians are surprisingly resilient. They seem to have the outlook that the “past is in the past” and are Hell bent on moving forward and living a life to the fullest, a life that the Khmer Rouge were NOT successful in extinguishing.
So while Phnom Penh destroyed my faith in humanity, meeting and getting to know the Cambodian people restored it. Because even when the worst, most unimaginable atrocities happen, human beings still find a way to keep going.
Sometimes in our comfortable Western First-World lives it’s easy to let our problems get to us. Mortgages, student loans, and spiralling health care costs regularly keep us up at night. And don’t get me wrong, these are all real problems and we have to deal with them, but sometimes it helps to remember that the fact that we don’t know what it’s like for tanks to roll into our homes and force us to flee into the countryside means we’re already winning by default. The only difference between us and them is the country we happened to be born in.
So what I learned in Cambodia is how resilient humanity can be when it needs to. After all, the Cambodians went through Hell I can only imagine in my darkest nightmares and still emerged optimistic about the future.
So now every time I stress out about something, I think back to my time in Cambodia and realize: You know what, everything’s probably going to work out just fine.