Living and Giving

36 Hours in Cambodia [Part 5 of 7]

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This is the fifth of a seven part series entitled 36 Hours in Cambodia. This is an unedited account of a personal journey and will be followed by stories from a few more of my international volunteer trips. Many of the experiences on these trips would become the impetus for founding UniversalGiving™.

June 16, 2002

The Tragedy


I met with Sophary from DigitalDivideData the next morning. They are an NGO providing jobs, mostly to disabled people, who are then trained to input data or perform digitization (transforming pictures into text or changing them in some way). He was so kind to show me around, as was the hotel driver, San.  It made Phnom Penh come alive, and I am amazed at all they shared with me….

In sum, I would like to come back to Cambodia.  The land is beautiful, radiant and untouched.  The people, are kind, quiet, humble, smiling and good.  Many people are working hard.  Many entrepreneurs, exist, selling fruit, food and the French bread which lasts from the French influence.  I loved, and was scared of, Cambodia….

First we went to Tuol Sleng, known as S-21.  It was Pol Pot\’s \”Security, Deuxieme Bureau (2), Brother Number One (1).  Brother Number One was Pol Pot.  Right after we went to Cheoung Ek, but 16 kilometres out of town, which is otherwise known as the \”Killing Fields.\”

S-21 was a school.  It was a school converted into a killing ground for anyone suspected of being a traitor –intellectuals, politicos, farmers, even foreigners (8 including an Australian) were also killed here.  As Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge grew more paranoid, the purging within the Khmer Rouge increased.  The goal was to strip any individuality, and take away the right to think, to act, to express, even to love.  People were to produce in the fields, do as they were told.  That was it.   Even then, security was not guaranteed….Numerous forced confessions were obtained.  As the Soviets at that time were helping some of the farmers resist (and even forcing some to resist or host them) the Khmer regime stepped up its accusations, forced confessions and killings.

People were then taken to Cheoung Ek.  As I walked into this field, one hundred, now grassy green pits dipped into the land.  They were former graves.  Graves were segregated — for women, for children, for the beheaded.  They were all separated for some reason.  Only about a third of the graves are uncovered at present.  Radiantly, too radiantly green fields extend further past the initial graves, covering many, many more.

There is also a stupa to commemorate all the people. You cannot enter, but each side, after you ascend the stairs, presents large shelves seen through glass windows.  The bottom shelf on each side stores a heap of discarded clothes… the next 14 or 15 shelves, are simply, piled on one another, skulls.

Sophary was in a village where he saw 2 carts of people being taken away.  They knew what happened one day later because they smelled it.

He himself had received permission to leave his village.  His sister was the head of washing clothes for the Khmer Rouge in the district, and she was able to get a letter, requesting Sophary\’s permission to leave, approved.

He traveled for days to Battembourg where his parents lived.  There were several other names of people permitted to travel in the letter. If you stopped, you presented the letter and were allowed to pass.  Three went ahead, too far ahead, and were stopped, without the letter and killed.

During this time, collectivization mobilized.  Everyone was sent to the farms to produce, sometimes as much work as from 4 a.m. until 7 p.m.  Food consisted of one-two day rations of watery soup with perhaps one cup of rice for 100 people.  Any of the rice and produce were given to the Khmer Rouge or sold to China.  Sometimes they simply lost the crop from the weather.

If you were caught stealing or eating food, you\’d be killed.  If you whispered, you\’d be killed. And if you showed affection, you\’d be killed.  The Khmer Rouge did everything they could to wipe out culture; history; religion; intellect and what they called \”familyism.\”  The new leadership of the Khmer Rouge, called \”Angka\” was your new family.  \”Familyism\” — love, warmth, loyalty with your own family was considered a crime.  Any other displays of affection were forbidden.

They separated families.  They killed all matters of thinkers: doctors, professors, artists, anyone or thing which creatively thought or produced.  And the Khmer Rouge then enjoyed, temporarily, the trappings of power, wealth, and control…

First, please let me state that what I have heard, seen, read, listened to from the people, is simply from my one, inexperienced perspective.  I can only write from what I process in my mind, experience, thought, and share that with others. It is one perspective.

What I have seen is a people so kind, and humble and caring. They welcomed me with warmth into their city, eager to share about their country.  Depending on the person, some could talk freely about their experiences, some not at all. And both views must be respected for what occurred.

Some people, the relative lucky few, were able to get to a refugee camp in Thailand, or hide in the forest for a time, or work brutally hard on an isolated field and escape much atrocity.  However, even with this possibility, most people\’s homes and families were devastated.

First, historically, it is so incredibly saddening as to how Cambodia became drawn into the war.  I am still entirely unclear as to the situation, but apparently it was a combination between the Vietnamese extending the Ho Chi Minh trail down into Cambodia to strengthen their efforts versus South Vietnam. Then American forces bombed these areas.  Both components drew Cambodia, a newly independent state, into another country\’s war.  This in and of itself made me extremely sick to see a country; people; lives and culture devastated by another country\’s decision to war.

(Vietnam, ironically, ended up training the the Khmer Rouge, which took over the north part of Cambodia and increasingly circled and took over major towns by night.  Vietnam also ended up coming in the late 70s to defeat the Khmer Rouge which they created, and to in part, liberate Cambodia.  What a sad event — creation and destruction of a horrific error.   What a testament to the lack of strong foundation of the Khmer Rouge, on right principles of trust, and goodness and rightness — therefore leading to its lack of longevity.  There was no trust.  What is not true cannot sustain itself, but is eaten up and self-destroyed in fear, eventually…)

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge stormed into Phnom Penh in victory.  Many people were happy to have any peace, by any ruler. They were tired of fighting.

They were told to leave their homes for 3 days and then to return. They never did, or if they did return 3-5 years later, their home was obliterated.

What occurred next was one of the worst human horrors, and I will state very briefly some occurrences, but I do not want to go in depth into this area because 1) many books have been written about it and 2) I do not think it will help to emphasize this area of history.  Instead, as you will see in the next section, I look at the steps of progress and savvy that this country and its people are developing which is moving it forward.

Then briefly: While I have seen horrifying wars, devastation and poverty in Guatemala, El Salvador, India, there was a horrifying distinction as you will see.  First, the Khmer Rouge trained the least educated to crave and vie for power, wealth and control.  So they became the majority ranks with the KR., their main people power base of execution.

Children were separated from their parents and both were “reeducated.”  Those who were intellectuals were usually reeducated by dying.  Children were sometimes 2, 3, 4, 5, who were reeducated, and taught to accuse and scream at their fellow children even if that child did nothing wrong.  You were told your parents did something wrong, to accuse your new family, and that Angka was your new family.  Babies were thrown against trees until they died.  People were tortured –not to be believed — such as cut open and their body parts eaten.

Most accounts of those who survive say at the time, they were so starving from working 15 hours a day and eating once a day, and so tired from having a family member taken outside and then a shot heard, that they didn\’t care about dying.  The fear was more the suffering of what would happen before.

That is what is so unfathomable — is that Cambodians were willing to be trained to kill their own history, culture, religion — and then their own people and often family members.  At times, however, it may have been the only choice.  You were told that if you didn\’t kill, you might not be killed, but your family…

And what distinguishes it so much from other wars is the lack of communication.  There were not major organizations of revolutionaries, because you were so starving you had no energy to organize.  And you could be killed for whispering or talking.  So there was this mass submission physically, intellectually, organizationally, individually, spiritually.

I asked what happened to most of the Khmer Rouge today. They are either employed by the government, in the military, given a stipend by the government, or most of them, are back on the farms…

Today, reminders and remainders still exist.  There are more roads open than before, but one must be extremely careful about the landmines.   The Khmer Rouge would plant the landmines for a reason I had not surmised: so that they didn\’t have to stand duty.  I only assumed one would plant landmines to fend off the enemy.  It simply made life easier for them.  They didn’t have to defend themselves or stand watch, as the mines performed that for them.  Except when the younger soldiers were affected with malaria and came back into town to be treated.  Only the older soldiers knew where the landmines were, and they effectively destroyed themselves upon entering the roads and cities.

The most dangerous years of the landmines were from 1983-1997.  Before that, it was easier.  If someone was starving, he or she would go into the forest and figure out the fruit to eat.  Many other people would also live off of the roots of trees.  However, there were dangerous tigers, monkeys, poisonous snakes and poisonous roots as well in the forest.

To this day there is no plan or systemized way to find out about the landmines.  They are still clearing them.  One organization either takes a metal detector to discover them, or…. the villagers call them to report, that, one of their family members has just lost a hand, a foot, a leg… a life…. from a landmine in the field…. Enough. I need not, and cannot go into more of the details.


You can take action.

Give $20 to provide gardening tools to a Cambodian family.

Give $25 to clear landmines.

Give $100 to support economic development in Cambodia.

Volunteer with an arts center in Cambodia.