It’s hard to put into words exactly how I felt in Phnom Phen, Cambodia. After only two days in the city, I needed to leave. Not because of the incessantly badgering tuk-tuk drivers, or the unbearable heat. I needed to leave because my heart was becoming too heavy. Another day and it would have sank away, I’m sure.

Cambodia is a country, like Vietnam, that has a very tragic recent history. But unlike Vietnam, Cambodia’s story takes place only 30 years ago, and it wasn’t a story of war between countries, but one of internal genocide–horrific and widespread genocide, that left the country crippled and maimed in a very literal sense.

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Today, 60 percent of the population of Cambodia is under the age of 26. Looking around on the streets, you see very few older people; if you do see them, they’re often missing limbs or hunched over on the street selling goods for very little money. These are the real-life reminders, the living evidence of what happened here between 1975 and 1979.

I didn’t know much about the Cambodian genocide, which was one of the most gruesome and horrific genocides in documented history. Coming to Phnom Phen, the capital city, I jumped head-first into a graphic history lesson that left me quite seriously shaken. When I was in Myanmar, I had read the book First They Killed My Father, written by a survivor of the genocide who now lives in the United States. It brought me to tears multiple times. It was the first I had learned about the details of the genocide, and reading the story of a family that was separated and forced to work in labor camps to produce impossible quantities of rice while starving to death was horribly depressing.  Coming to the place where that book took place, only 30 years ago, I realized the sadness is inescapable when you take the time to hear the story of the thousands of people whose lives were recklessly taken in the name of some ridiculous fantasy of a fanatical leader.

Walking down the streets of Phnom Phen, the country seems to have come a long way. There is evident growth and development, and it appears just like any other Southeast Asian country. But then there are the tuk-tuk drivers, who–when you walk by–put pictures in your face and say “Killing fields, you want to go? Good price for you lady.”

The Killing Fields?

I was off-put by the way the tuk-tuk drivers had seemingly turned a sad memorial into a Disneyland-like attraction, but I was interested in going because I wanted to learn. And as it turns out, despite it’s popularity with tourists, the “killing fields” historical site was shockingly preserved in a very respectful way that emphasizes preservation of history and promotion of education, instead of making a couple of dollars off of tourists.

First, I went to the museum in the center of town, which is actually the school-turned-prison that the Khmer Rouge used to detain prisoners during their rule.

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The Khmer Rouge was the group that seized power in 1975, when Cambodia was struggling to recover from the American carpet bombing. The affect the Americans had on countries neighboring Vietnam cannot go unnoticed, and this was emphasized by the museum exhibit. Cambodia was devastated by bombs, and the people from the countryside were forced to move to the city, Phnom Phen, to find work so they could support their families. What happened is this:

The Khmer Rouge, led by the fanatical Communist visionary Pol Pot, took over the government and began to slowly transition the country into an agrarian communist society. In just a couple of days following the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Phen, the city had been evacuated–the people were forced to leave their homes and go out to the countryside, where they would be assigned to work in labor camps. Many people had to conceal their identities, for anyone with any connection to the previous government would be immediately killed. The horror started slowly, but once it began, it only got worse. First, families were separated. Then, the people were forced to work all day in the hot sun with nothing more than a couple of spoonfuls of rice to eat. This went on for years.  If they were caught sneaking extra food, they were immediately killed. The people who had been sent to these camps from the cities were the workers, governed by the “base people,” or the farmers who had lived in the countryside before the Khmer Rouge took power. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge saw the base people as pure and worthy examples of hard working lowerclass people; conversely, people from the cities were seen as the upper class, educated, bourgeois  and so they were treated terribly. What has come to be known as the “killing fields” are places where people were sent when the Khmer had one purpose in mind: to exterminate them. The fields were all over the country, and they were places that had no holding facilities or anything–the purpose was just for people to come and be immediately killed.

Initially, the people sent there were the previous government employees, doctors, teachers, lawyers, or anyone else with education. Even just people who wore glasses, as this was seen as a sign of past education. In the beginning, a truck arrived at the killing fields every 2 weeks; but in the last years of the regime, a truck arrived with hundreds of people per day. And they were killed in awful ways: with any tools that were available, often instead of guns, because bullets were expensive. There was even a slogan, used by the soldiers, “Better to kill an innocent by accident than to accidentally spare an enemy.

The ‘enemy’ were the majority of Cambodians; their crime was their family name, their education, or where they had lived.  These were the rules posted at the prison,

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By the end, it seemed they were just trying to kill as many people as possible. They were afraid that the more people that survived would one day seek revenge against them.  When the Khmer Rouge finally knew the end of their rule was near, they killed every last prisoner they had in captivity.  The school-turned-prison was discovered by Vietnamese troops to dismantled the Khmer Rouge, and in the prison they found the bodies of 14 prisoners on their beds.

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They were killed in terrible ways.

In three years, 1 out of every 4 Cambodians was murdered. Can you imagine that?  The country was closed off to the rest of the world while this was happening, and the Western countries, who had apparently been so upset about the spread of communism before turned a blind eye. Perhaps after 25 years of war in Vietnam, the US has exhausted itself? I find it remarkably ironic that the US spent so much effort (failing) to eliminate communism in Vietnam, but in that pursuit they inadvertently set up the perfect situation for the country right next door to embark on a full-blown, devastating communist revolution.

Well, the history goes on and on.  It is so horrible, I can’t even think about it without getting queasy.

I went away from the museum and the killing fields feeling simply terrible. The tuk-tuk ride back to the hostel was quiet; the two other girls I had shared the trip with were equally as taken by the information we had just heard. At the killing fields, they give you an audio player, and take you on a walking tour accompanied with audio.

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So you spend the time there in silence, listening to the narrator telling about the discovery of the fields, and what happened there. After walking through the mass grave site of thousands of people in silence, I could hardly find the words to speak to anyone.

You know what the most amazing thing I learned was? The Khmer Rouge was still recognized by the Western nations as the official government of Cambodia for 10 years after. You know why? Because the actual government had been put in place by the Vietnamese, and the Western countries didn’t want to recognize the government that was established by Vietnam. So when Cambodia sent delegates to U.N. meetings in NYC, guess who showed up? The Khmer Rouge killers. They were living in the jungles of Cambodia, hiding from the survivors who were so desperately seeking revenge. And Pol Pot, the mastermind of the madness, lived on for 20 more years without any repercussions. Finally, 20 years later, he was put under house arrest, and later that year he died of unknown causes. An autopsy was never performed.

The gravity of this history lesson will stay with me forever. Genocide is something that needs to be actively remembered so that we can try to prevent such things from ever happening again. Today, Cambodians live with this horrific past still very much a part of their lives. The country is poor, and there are still many places where active landmines have made the land unusable   I spoke to a man who is my age, born just 2 years after the war.  He said it’s the reason Cambodia is filled with open space–because so many people were killed.

I think it’s impossible to understand why something like this happened, but it is important to remember it so that we can become truly aware of what we as humans are capable of doing to each other.  It is almost unbelievable, but looking over the ground where clothing and bones still resurface every week or so, it is impossible to deny what happened.