Friday, July 8, 2011

Phnom Penh


So we have spent the last few days in a city called Phnom Penh, which is actually pronounced Pnom Pen. It is a beautiful city with a very unique history.

For those who don't know...
In 1975, an organization called the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government of Cambo0dia. They were a communist organization who aimed to turn Cambodia into a classless, agrarian society. As soon as they took over, they evacuated all the large cities and forced people to move out into the country. The next three years were full of destruction, terror and heartbreak. To achieve their goals, they "eliminated" anyone who was a threat to their organization. This included anyone who had worked for the previous government or had received an education in the city. This even included people who wore glasses, something they considered a sign of intelligence. Soldiers controlled areas in the countryside where people were forced to work 12-14 hour days in the rice fields, with extremely limited food rations. Many died of starvation. Families were ripped apart, as some were sent to labor camps and many children were sent to train as child soldiers because of the innocence they possessed. Often, soldiers would arrive at people's homes with odd excuses about them needing assistance from a specific family member. When this happened, families knew it would be the last time they would see that person again. When this happened, it meant the family member was being sent to Tuol Sleng or the Killing Fields. Tuol Sleng was a primary school that had been converted to a prison. There, people suspected of being traitors were kept and tortured until finally being executed. Around 20,000 prisoners are estimated to have been taken there. While Tuol Sleng was the main prison, it was only one of many used for this purpose. The Killing Fields are giant fields that the government controlled that were used to dispose of those who were no longer needed. Soldiers, who were recruits from local communities, many times teenagers, would bring hundreds of people there a day, make them dig their own graves and then brutally murder them. To save money, they used tools and other handy items so they did not have to spend money on ammunition. After three years, the country was taken over by the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge was taken out of power. Refugees fled to many countries to try and rebuild their lives. Before all of this occurred, the population was at 7 million people. In three short years, the Khmer Rouge committed a genocide that killed at least 2 million people, but affected everyone in the entire country. This horrible tragedy continues, as those responsible have yet to be brought to justice for their crimes. It wasn't until 2009 that the trial really took off. In fact, those in charge of the Khmer Rouge were able to hold a seat in the United Nations for quite some time after the Vietnamese came in. Also, Pol Pot, the man named as the head of the party, passed away before ever being charged in court.

So, Phnom Penh is the center of all this conflict and houses the two sites I spoke of earlier. I was especially excited to see it, as I just finished reading a book called First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. It was the first hand account of a woman who was 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over. I cried through the entire book and definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a new book to read. Jason just started it, so I'll let you know if he cries at all.

Anyway, after we arrived in Phnom Penh, we decided to take a day trip to see the two locations. We woke up in the morning and headed out with our two British girls and another person we picked up on the way. Our first stop was Toul Sleng. I thought I was prepared, but I was not even close. The prison had three buildings in it. The first building was full of large classrooms that were converted into torture chambers. When the prison was discovered after the fighting ended, 14 bodies were found in the rooms. Now, when you walk through them, the original beds are in them with a picture of the body they discovered and oftentimes, the original tool used on them. It was sickening and disturbing and really showed the depravity of the people who ran the Khmer Rouge. The second building was broken down into small brick and wood prison cells. They were numbered and had small windows so the guards could view the prisoners. Standing inside the cells, I realized that I have had closets larger than most of them. I can't even imagine what it must have been like to have been there and know that you are going to die for no reason whatsoever. The third building showed a movie on the top floor that I was able to catch the last ten minutes of. They interviewed people living in Cambodia who were forced to become soldiers in the prison. One man described how he had to murder people or else he would be killed for being a traitor. The third building also had room upon room full of pictures that the Khmer Rouge had taken of prisoners that had come through. Many of the pictures were of young children and their mothers. There were also original torture devices they had used on prisoners and interviews of different people who came through Tuol Sleng. Only 7 people ever made it through alive.

After Tuol Sleng, we were taken to the Killing Fields, where many of the bodies were disposed of. Walking around, we saw beautiful, lush foliage, a stark contrast from the death that surrounded the whole place. Previously an orchard, the fields are now a memorial to those killed during the Khmer Rouge Regime. A large stupa holds the skulls they have found in the fields. As we walked around, there were signs telling us about different areas. There was a mass grave that held over 450 bodies. Another mass grave was reserved for women and their children. Next to this grave was the most horrific thing I have ever seen. It was called the Killing Tree, named because it was the place that they smashed children's heads to dispose of them. Their logic in killing the children was to prevent them from ever taking revenge. When I saw the tree, I immediately broke into tears. Jason was ahead of me, but knowing how it would make me feel, waited until I got there before moving on. Even now, I cannot stop picturing it and the evil of those who stood next to it.
There was a glass box we passed by that was full of the bone fragments that had been collected. We found out that they are still being collected because the heavy rain causes them to be washed out of the ground. When we looked down at our feet, we could see bits of clothing and bone slightly peeking out of the ground. At that point, it hit me how recently this had occurred. This ended only 33 years ago, which means that anyone we meet in Cambodia who is that age or older has been through this horrible time. This created such a contrast from the loving, kind people and the beautiful temples and scenery that we have been surrounded by.

The incredible resilience of this country has completely blown me away. The ability to go through such tragedy and to emerge so positive has gotten me completely enamored with this place.

After we returned from our day trip, we went to a few markets, ate some delicious, ridiculously cheap food, and said goodbye to our British friends as they boarded an overnight bus to Thailand. We caught up on some much needed sleep and spent today running errands and preparing for tomorrow's journey. We ate at a delicious pho restaurant (a type of soup) and spoke to a young man who was graduating high school to attend university. We learned all about the differences in our education and a little bit about each others' lives. After that, we went to the local flower market, where Jason bought a coconut to drink and I of course held someone's naked baby. Tomorrow we leave for the Mondulkiri Province, an area in Eastern Cambodia known as the Wild East. We have no plans as of yet, but we are excited to be somewhere that is not touristy. We want to meet the locals there, the Pnong people, and possibly do a homestay. They also have treks into the local areas, led by the guesthouses.

Sorry we have been so slow to update but we hope this helps! We promise to be better and we love and miss you all so much. Please make sure all our family members get to read this,as some of the more "mature" ones may not use facebook.


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