How could I not know?
In my opinion, growth and learning are often outputs of traveling, even when not intended by the traveler. No matter how big or small the trip, travel opens a person up to change. Of course, with a trip like the one I am currently on, which is big both in terms of length of time away and number of countries visited, I expected and was looking forward to gaining some new perspective. What I did not expect was to learn about a genocide that ended not even 10 years before I was born.
If you’re asking yourself, ‘what genocide took place in the 1970s?,’ you are probably not alone. What I am referring to is the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia between 1975 - 1979, when an estimated 1.5-3 million people were killed under Pol Pot’s Regime. For perspective, that is roughly a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time.
Pol Pot’s goal was to reduce the country to ‘year zero’ and turn Cambodia into a communist agrarian society. To do this, he determined it was necessary to eliminate all intellectuals (including teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers), religious figures, and urban dwellers. If someone so much as wore glasses or had soft hands, they were considered a threat. Entire families were arrested, even children and infants. All of this happened so swiftly that ordinary Cambodians, even many of those enforcing the laws, didn’t really know why they were arresting people or what was happening to them once people were taken.
During this time many schools were converted to prisons, places where torture was carried out in order to obtain confessions to invented crimes. While torture was taking place in the prisons, mass murder was carried out in killing fields all over Cambodia. Prisoners would be taken to these fields in groups and executed in horrific ways. The Khmer Rouge considered the use of guns and expensive ammunition for the purpose of executing people to be wasteful. This meant that the majority of their victims were brutally murdered with blunt objects, machetes, and farming tools.
I am certainly not equipped to fully educate others on this. Beyond what I researched online afterwards, my knowledge is limited to what I learned from my visit to the S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former prison, and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. To stand in the rooms where these atrocities occurred or above a mass grave where bones continue to surface to this day is jarring. But what is more bothersome to me is that I didn’t even know that this happened until I was standing there.
Sadly, this genocide is a part of Cambodia’s history on which we westerners are undereducated. I can’t help but think, what if I had not come to Cambodia? I still would not have known the extent of these crimes.
The phrase ‘Never Again’, is used in reference to what took place at locations such as S21 and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. As a Jew, the words “Never Again” are particularly resonant. In the Jewish community, the saying that accompanies any discussion about the Holocaust. In fact, the phrase alone tells you exactly what the speaker is talking about. Western-educated students learn about the Holocaust and their knowledge helps ensure that the lives lost are not forgotten and teaches younger generations to identify the warning signs of genocide so that others can do their part in preventing this from occurring ever again. The memories of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany still echo today and with good reason, yet to many westerners, Cambodia’s story is largely unknown.
The museum acknowledges this lack of education, and implores its visitors to be a mouthpiece for future generations. I now know about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, so I am now part of the story and it is my responsibility to educate others. I hope by sharing this here a new cycle of education can begin.
As a destination, Cambodia is not overlooked. Travelers descend on Cambodia day after day, but primarily to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. When I mentioned to one woman on our bus from Vietnam to Cambodia that we were planning to stay in Cambodia for about 3 weeks, she asked, “where else do you even go besides Siem Reap (read: Angkor Wat)?” If you are traveling to Cambodia, or know anyone who is, I encourage you to visit S21 and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. Knowledge is power and by sharing the heartbreaking story of the Khmer Rouge, we can remember & honor the lives lost, and more importantly make sure this does not ever happen again.