Normally, Cole and I have been writing about our adventures a day or two after they happen. We take some time to go through the pictures and video and it is a really enjoyable exercise. Today is different. Today we had planned that Cole would write about our bucket list day at the gun range yesterday, and I was going to sift through the hundreds of pictures that I took while I was living out a dream at the elephant rescue project. But I am just not feeling very joyful. Today, November 11th, Remembrance Day for the Commonwealth will forever have a new meaning for me. Today I learned of the atrocities of Pol Pot and the terror that gripped the country of Cambodia for 4 years. And it was an atrocity that is so recent that there are signs at the memorial that tell you not to step on bones on the path that are still rising to the surface of the mass graves beside it. It is one thing to read about an atrocity like this, it is completely another to see pieces of it and meet the people who lived through it and I am deeply affected.
On average I have been taking about 300 photos a day because everything in Southeast Asia is so colourful and eye catching and exciting. Today I took 20. The memorials and museum are so silent and deserve too much reverence, I had a very hard time even holding my camera. We had a local guide take us through the Tuol Sleng genocide museum (the former S-21 detention and torture centre of the Khmer Rouge), her name was Jah vee and she was in her 50s. She was a survivor of the massacre and like too many Cambodians we have met her story for us started with “first they killed my father”. She was 9 in 1975 and after a year of living on a forced labour camp with her mother and 2 siblings they managed to escape to a refugee camp in Vietnam. Her father and older brother and sister died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Everyone here has a story just like this. 1 in 4 Cambodians were killed in those 4 years. The population went from over 7 million to 4 million… in 4 years! I am having trouble with these numbers and how it is possible for Phnom Penh to be functioning as well as it is today.
We saw prison cells in Tuol Sleng that still have blood stains on the floor, we saw paintings of the atrocities created by one of the 7 survivors of the detention centre, we met one of the survivors, and we saw the skulls and clothes of the murdered children. It was less a museum than it was a crime scene left untouched to be witnessed and imprinted.
The killing field at Choeung Ek was no different. There are still bones and mass graves that have been left untouched and the very well crafted audio tour takes you through the site with a lot of information, but also music and encouragement to sit and think, to take a walk around the lake at the back of the site and listen to survivors stories. It is haunting and sad and deeply reverent.
There was one very beautiful and positively affecting aspect to this site for me though… and I am still so struck by it. The butterflies. As you walk on wooden paths through dozens of mounds of mass grave sites it is hard not to notice that there are hundreds of butterflies bouncing in and out of the grasses that cover these mounds. More butterflies than I have ever seen in one place. Like the souls of the murdered remaining in this place, but rejoicing in peace.
They are hard to see on this video, but look close... the whole field is moving with orange and yellow butterflies.
The audio tour takes you through the graves, plays you confessions of Duch (the first man tried for war crimes in this atrocity), lets you hear the revolutionary music mixed with the diesel generator sounds that were played at night to drown out the sounds of mass murders, and tells the truth about terrible things done right where you are standing. Near the end of the tour is one of the saddest graves. The one where hundreds of naked women were found next to a grave full of babies. Beside the grave of babies is a tree, the weapon used to end most of their young lives.
At the very end of the tour is the stupa. A very large stupa that houses the skulls of 5,000 of the victims found here. It is hard to go inside it. I think the hardest part is seeing that all the skulls in the monument, all 17 layers are meticulously stacked and forensically catalogued, all of the skulls show that the victims suffered a skull fracture. Unlike the scientific, and efficient Nazis with their gas chambers and firing squads… the Khmer rouge killed each of their victims one by one with a head trauma… the explanation I got for this horrifying detail was that bullets were expensive.
We wandered around a bit in a daze after the tour, then headed to wander through the Royal Palace. There is some interesting history connecting the monarchy and the Khmer Rouge here. If it hadn’t been for the backing of King Sihanouk in the early 70s, it is probable that Pol Pot never would have taken power. Sihanouk was the king and head of state from 1941 until 1970 and was beloved for being pivotal in Cambodias independence from the French in 1954. Then in the 70s, because of how loved he was, he was the single most powerful force in the recruitment and public acceptance of the Khmer Rouge. After house arrest and exile in the late 70s he was later the first elected monarch of the country in 1993!? Then today, randomly, there are busloads of students at the Royal Palace, who spill out and line the streets between the palace and the independence monument. They are all holding flowers, flags and placards with the king and the king mother’s faces on them. And then, there he goes, the current monarch, King Norodom Shihamoni, the son of King Sihanouk in a secure motorcade, hanging out the window waving at all the students. It has been a very surreal day.
Cole and I have a travel day tomorrow to Siem Reap, we will post about the elephants and big guns tomorrow.