WARNING:This excerpt contains disturbing information about the Khmer Rouge.
IN 2009, I DECIDED I wanted to go on a holiday. As I was flipping the pages of holiday packages in a brochure I had picked up, a striking image caught my eye. ‘Cambodia, the Kingdom of Wonder’, the text read, above an image of a centuries-old temple.
That’s where I want to go, I decided.
It didn’t take any effort at all to convince my relatives to join me on a trip to Cambodia.
A few weeks before our departure, I decided to research into the history of Cambodia. Sitting down at my computer, I came across something I wasn’t expecting.
‘Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – Visit a former Khmer Rouge prison’,the website snippet read.
Genocide? In Cambodia, the country I was about to visit? That couldn’t be right. I thought I was visiting a country with astonishing temples, not a country that had a history of genocide.
I clicked on the website link and was overcome with emotion seeing photos of shattered skulls, torture weapons covered in dried blood, and barbed wire fences. I was shocked, but I couldn’t look away. I spent hours that evening researching the history of Cambodia and was disturbed by what I read.
NOVEMBER CAME AROUND SOON enough, and it was time to head off on our adventure. I hadn’t forgotten what I had discovered about Cambodia, but as life went on, I put it to the back of my mind.
We arrived in Siem Reap on a hot and sticky day and checked into a small guesthouse. Located on a semi-quiet main road, it was walking distance to the local markets and not too far from the temples. We met up with our tour group and spent the next couple of weeks exploring Siem Reap, Kampong Cham, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. We ate spiders (crunchy on the outside, warm and liquidy on the inside), shopped up a storm at local markets, and tanned on the beach.
When we visited Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, we took a tour of the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, the former prison I had come across on Google many months ago. As we exited the bus and joined the lines of tourists waiting to get into the compound, I stared in disbelief at the circles of barbed wire that ran along the perimeter of the compound. The beauty of the palm trees was in stark contrast with the unimaginable horror that I knew lurked beyond those walls. As we walked through the building, our tour guide, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime that controlled over Cambodia for four years, told us harrowing stories of people who entered the building and were never seen again. There were rusted, iron beds, with shackles still attached. I imagined innocent Cambodians taking their last breath. We stared in disbelief at blood splattered on the ceilings from head wounds, still evident thirty years later. We listened intently as our tour guide described the torture methods used on up to 20,000 innocent citizens. We browsed rooms full of photos of men, women and children who were held captive in Tuol Sleng and met an untimely death. All but seven captives perished under the ruthless soldiers. Their crime was being educated. Being advocates for freedoms we take for granted. They were government officials, teachers, students, monks, academics, doctors and engineers. As time went on, the soldiers and leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime began turning on each other, and thousands of their own were tortured and executed.
As I walked through the grimy white building, I was overcome with a sense of fear I had never experienced before. I couldn’t comprehend how humans could do these unimaginable acts to one another. What did this say about humanity? They had held their captives for months at a time, utilising a torture system that was designed to make their prisoners ‘confess’ to crimes that they most likely hadn’t committed. They did this because they believed that Cambodia needed to start from ‘year zero’ and have a clean slate.
The aftermath was devastating. A country left with 25% less population, traumatised and numb. Still in shock, I began to wonder how this was part of our recent history. It only ended in 1979, seven years shy of when I was born. My thoughts then turned to wondering how a country could possibly overcome a genocide like this. How could they rebuild themselves and overcome the devastation and loss of such a mammoth proportion? As we went to our next destination, Choeung Ek, known widely as ‘The Killing Fields’, I continued to reflect on the resilience of the country. Here, we witnessed shallow mass graves of captives who had been tortured at Tuol Sleng prison. Bone fragments and teeth protruded from the ground, with remains of clothing draped over the makeshift enclosures. We learnt that babies had been executed by being swung against the ‘killing tree’. A large speaker hung from a tree and blasted music to drown out the cries and fears of those who were being executed. On some occasions, there were too many prisoners to execute in one evening, so they would wait in misery for the next night to come and their nightmare to be put to an end.
Witnessing the horrific history of Cambodia, I felt I had to do something to help the country with their recovery. I had learnt that poverty rates were high, tertiary enrolment rates were low, and crime out of desperation was common. Another Australian on our tour told me that she was interested in visiting an orphanage, so assuming this was an effective way to help vulnerable children, we decided to visit one in Siem Reap. Without booking an appointment, we tried our luck by having a tuk-tuk transport us a few kilometres out of town to visit an orphanage that he had suggested. We were welcomed by a Cambodian staff member where he showed us around the orphanage. Walking around, I quickly noticed that the rooms were bare, and our voices echoed among the walls. The staff member told us that the children were all studying either in classes at the orphanage, or at a public school. We came across a twenty-something-year-old Australian volunteer who told us he had been at the orphanage a couple of times over the past two years, and who was training the local social workers. I looked at him with envy, wishing that I could make a positive impact like he was. At the end of the tour, the tour guide sat us down and presented us with a donation form, asking us to make a gift to continue their work. I made a donation, hoping that this small gift could make a difference to local children. After, we headed back into town, where I couldn’t stop reflecting on what I had just seen and questioned myself on how I could help Cambodia recover from their war. I couldn’t help but feel that there were countless children in Cambodia who weren’t living with much hope for the future. Despite not having a motherly urge in my body, I knew that I had to do something to help these children get an education and have a bright future to look towards. They (nor their parents), couldn’t help the card they had been dealt, and that’s what made me feel so passionate about helping. With Cambodia slowly healing, it was the perfect opportunity to help them move forward.