Interestingly, Phnom Penh was one of the cities the kids were most looking forward to visiting based on the reading they have done. Henry read several age-appropriate historical fiction and non-fiction novels about Cambodia set in the era of the Khmer Rouge. (“First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung and “Never Fall Down” by Patricia McCormick are good for teens and advanced pre-teen readers, and “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner is appropriate for younger readers, Braxton enjoyed this one.) We also watched the movie “The Killing Fields” prior to our trip. Given this preparation and their interest and maturity, we decided to include a tour of the Killing Fields on our itinerary.
The Killing Fields refer to the sites throughout Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot tortured and executed 1.7 million people – 21% of the population – between 1975-79. The best known one is Choeung Ek where 17,000 men, women, children and babies were brutally executed after being tortured first at nearby Tuol Sleung, a former high school turned prison and torture camp. These were very powerful and moving exhibits. Nothing can prepare you for seeing the glass memorial stupa containing 8000 human skulls, the mass graves, the huge vats of clothing, the 8 x 10 photos of every prisoner who passed through, including young children, the seemingly normal school where classrooms were turned into prison cells and torture chambers. While we had our reservations about exposing the kids, in the end I’m very happy they experienced this. I think they are too. How can you understand Cambodia without understanding this genocide, and how can you begin to understand genocide without understanding the horror? As the narrator of our audio-tour pointed out this was not the first or the last genocide, and to prevent future atrocities, anywhere, one needs to understand these past events. “For your sake, remember us and remember our past as you look to your future.”
Add to all this the perspective we enjoyed of our charismatic tuk-tuk driver “Tree” whose mother was a nurse under the Khmer Rouge and whose family is very poor. He explained the intricacies of dealing with the corruption of the system and the “rich ones” every day as he tries to provide for his family and rise out of poverty. You begin to understand yet another layer of the complexity that is Cambodia. While not necessarily condoning the violence, there are a great many poor in Cambodia who continue to support the ideals of the Khmer Rouge and who themselves were KR soldiers or who are descendants of this largely peasant group. It is much more complicated than we would have imagined, and still seems quite tenuous.
While emotionally challenging and certainly draining, this day was actually a highlight of our time in Phnom Penh, allowing for great conversations with the kids and amazing learning opportunities for all.