Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Cambodia!!!!!! (part 2)

I don't know whose reading this...but adults should probably read it before they let kids look at it. We took a bus down to Phnom Phen the next day. The country is poverty-stricken. Although it is doing much better today, the wounds beset by the horrific Pol Pot Regime run deep within the people and the countryside. We bought so much stuff that we didn’t really need or want, but we couldn’t help it because we knew that the vendor selling us the fried spiders, or the Thai silk, or the overpriced postcards lived on the edge of desperation.

The first stop we made that day was an old high school used as a torture prison during the Khmer Rouge occupation. We walked through “classrooms” that were empty except for a metal bed frame and huge blown up picture of the dead body found in the room when Vietnam invaded the city over 30 years ago. Outside the school was a large wooden frame where prisoners were hung upside down and lowered into buckets of water. Another building of the school was dedicated to explaining other torture techniques used during the KR occupation. The most profound room had pictures of the faces of all the men, women, and children (some as young as three-years-old) who belonged to the Khmer Rouge and were brought to the prison as suspected spies. The Khmer Rouge was paranoid of mutiny so they became fanatical about finding traitors within their own organization. “Give us names! Give us names!” the torturers demanded so the prisoners gave them random names to stop the pain. Taking the names, the tortures brought in new group of innocent victims who were met with the same fate as those before them. It was a vicious, bloody cycle of paranoia. Out of the hundreds of prisoners who entered, only seven made it out alive.

After spending some time there we drove over to see the killing fields monument. I was expecting to walk through actual rice fields maintained specifically in remembrance of those who died during the KR occupation. Instead we drove up to a small forest. In front of the forest stood a huge monument filled with the skulls of people who had died at that spot. But where were we? The KR had people working in fields all over the country. What made this spot special? The tour guide motioned us towards a small pavilion, and to our horror we realized that it covered a large sunken cavity in the ground, a mass grave. Men, women, and children who labored in the work camps throughout the region came to this forest for execution. Together they dug a large grave, and then they would kneel at the side of it. A KR officer would knock them unconscious into the graves with the butt of their guns, and then the KR would bury the victims alive. It was awful. We were sick. We had all studied about what had happened in Cambodia, we had read books about it, but it was an entirely different experience to stand face to face with the evidence of its reality. I started walking further down the path to get away from the grave, but right in front of me a few meters away was another one. I walked further down hoping to find some kind of respite, but the path turned and my blood ran cold. Stretched before me was a grassy field covered with dozens of large sunken cavities. A group of students gathered around pieces of clothing that had surfaced during the rain that morning. Teeth, skulls, and bones stuck up through the graves and the heavily beaten path. Silence reigned supreme during those twenty minutes. Some students ducked in a corner to cry, others left the group to sit by themselves and reconcile questions like, “Why?” and “How?” The day before we had witnessed the glorious pinnacle of human creation only to witness the next day the shameful pinnacle of human obliteration.

It’s hard not to lose faith in humanity after seeing something like that. It’s hard not to let fear strangle my expectation, or at least hope, of some kind of mortal peace. I took awhile to write this post because I’m not sure what anyone would get from reading it. But I guess I can tell you how my trip to Cambodia affected me. First I forgot about the whole thing because I didn’t want to deal with it. But after a few days I got jumpy, I found that my thoughts were randomly plagued with scary images, and I became paranoid that something bad might happen. I felt like I was protecting myself by “not letting my guard down”—by facing the fact that bad things happen and they would probably happen to me. But what took me a while to realize was that paranoia and fear were the very elements that caused thing like the Cambodian Killing Fields, and the Jewish Holocaust, and the Rawandan Genocide. Bad things do happen, but I let the possibility of something bad happening cloud the reality of how good still far outweighs the bad. It’s important to learn about the evil of which humans are capable, but we learn it not to let fear overcome our thoughts and actions, but for our thoughts and actions to overcome our fears.