This photograph may appear elegant until you understand the haunting history which took place here. At the “S-21” Tuol Sleng Prison over 12,000 innocent Cambodian intellectuals were tortured to death or hauled to the killing fields during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. The photo on the wall shows a prisoner drowned in a bath of his own blood, his ankles swollen from the metal chains and severe dehydration. His body was left decomposing to be gutted by pigs. This was the nicest cell. Most were 1/16th this size with no beds- Only cement floors, chains, and the tin toilet box pictured.
Our tour guides name was Sokah. She was ten years old when she was separated from her family and forced to work digging irrigation ditches under Khmer Rouges’ rouse for an agrarian peasent society. Reading a bit of history, I predicted the visit at S-21 would be tough, but reality pierced me within seconds of speaking with this Cambodian lady. Not my wildest nightmares could prepare me for the personal horrors she experienced as a child. I did not expect to be speaking, holding hands, and fighting tears with a woman who lived through the Cambodian genocide. She spoke of terror I cannot even imagine. “So hungry. So sad. Lice not just in hair but eating body.” She says she still cannot understand why this happened. “No reason. Why!? So sad.” She swears the census underestimates the Khmer Rouge devastation. Her guess from what she witnessed is the population of Cambodia decreased from 7 million in 1974 to 3 million in 1981, including babies born.
I feel disgusted and so ignorant I was never taught this in school. This morning I took a picture with Chum Mey, one of the seven survivors of this dungeon. I held his hands, I peered into his cataract covered irises. And he smiled at me despite living through hell. Everything was so momentary but makes torture real to me in a way I’ve never understood and cannot explain. These survivors, this population, are resilient beyond words to live through what they have, and continually share their story. Both Chum Mey and Sokah are ordinary tour guides at this museum, but extraordinary humans.
Tonight I sit solemnly reading Chum Mey’s story from his life as a boy running naked through his village to his arrest for being “too good of a mechanic” in 1974. All I muster is sobs. Like Sokah, you do question why, and you do have to accept, “no reason” as an answer. To me, nothing can justify this genocide, any genocide for that matter.
But I’m sickened I barely knew this story until today and I’m sickened knowing there are so many more.
Cambodia is still a very fragile place and so many countryside citizens are taken advantage of everyday. The NGO workers, the teachers, the lady at the market I’ve met, have little voice despite how hard they work. Just yesterday, an entire village of five families showed up starving at the NGOs door. The government sold their lands and forced them to evacuate with no solutions, or rice. Innocent people are worked to death of deforestation by the hundreds every week. What does one do? My compassion hurts.
Despite this horrific reality, I’m so grateful I’m here to meet these beautiful people and share their dreams. Cambodia I wish to give you a stronger voice and wrap my soul around yours. Come here, all people, and experience this haven of hope, this land of resilient spirits and lend a helping hand and listen and share.
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