We loved Cambodia. In fact, we stayed there longer than we expected to, and we want to return.
While there, we experienced the tension between the beauty of the people and their land and the very real presence of their recent bloody past.
For example, where I live, a tree root or rogue bulb might wiggle its way to the surface and trip me. In Cambodia, it could be a 40-year old landmine that would blow my leg off, or worse.
And imagine a slaughter in your country, behind closed borders, that took out most of who would now be your grandparents and great-grandparents. Consider the wind that would be knocked out of you as a person, family, and nation.
1975 was an unspeakable moment in Cambodian history, the beginning of a four-year trauma that killed 1 in 4 people. It was a bloody civil war that pitted the city dwellers against the peasants. Add to that other battles like the Vietnam War and you have offspring still reeling.
During our stay, we heard the stories of survivors and saw children and adults with limbs missing from their encounters with landmines. The Cambodians live with landmines like Australians live with poisonous snakes and insects. In the outlying temples and ruins, visitors are warned not to stray too far off the path because the areas around the sites have not been cleared of landmines. In fact, while we were there, a Cambodian hunter lost his leg when he stepped on a landmine while hunting for food in the local forest.
The cheerful and kind hospitality of Cambodians equaled their amazing stories.
We were astonished by the story of Aki Ra and our visit to the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Facility he founded in 1997, in Siem Reap.
At ten, Aki Ra was forced to join the Khmer Rouge – a communist regime determined to take control of Cambodia. Later, he defected to the Vietnamese Army to fight against Khmer Rouge.
During his time as a soldier, the armies planted millions of landmines throughout Cambodia.
Years later, Aki Ra returned to begin removing and defusing the landmines with homemade tools. He is personally responsible for removing over fifty thousand landmines and is the person villagers call when landmines surface. Millions remain. Other countries and organizations are joining the effort.
Aki Ra founded the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Facility to:
- Tell the story of landmines in Cambodia, how they have impacted the country’s past, present and will continue to impact its future.
- Show the world that, no matter who you are, whatever your background, your education, you can make a difference in this world.
- Give relief for at-risk village children. The money raised by the museum allows this facility to continue.
The Relief Facility of the museum offers a school and living accommodations for children affected by landmines. Some of these children are orphans and others have lost limbs from landmines exploding. Through the relief center, they are provided an education, food, lodging and all other support they may need. Their stories are also interspersed around the museum so that visitors can fully understand that this is not a past problem, it is one that is very present and affects everyone including future generations.
It was a somber walk through the Museum. The atrocities are still fresh wounds in Cambodia. Aki Ra has taken his unfathomable experiences and turned them into something that has saved thousands of lives. He has been recognized and awarded many honors for this work, which continues today.
Equally somber was our visit to The Killing Fields Memorial in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. We weren’t sure what to expect at the Memorial, but we knew some of the information would be disturbing, and we were correct. The Memorial site was just one of the estimated 5,000 killing fields around Cambodia.
It is estimated that around 2 million people, approximately one-quarter of Cambodia’s population, were killed from 1975 – 1979, half through execution and the other through half starvation or disease brought on by the regime.
In 1975, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot became the dictator of Cambodia. On April 17, he took over Phnom Penh and many other cities, forcing all civilians to evacuate to the countryside, promising them they could return in a few days.
What actually happened was they were either moved to agricultural labor camps or taken to the killing fields to be executed.
Those killed were ones The Khmer Rouge perceived to be intellectuals. Targeted groups were Buddhist monks, Muslims, Christians, Western-educated intellectuals, educated people in general, those who had contact with Western countries or with Vietnam, disabled people, and the ethnic Chinese, Laotians and Vietnamese.
If caught trying to escape from the labor camps, offenders were taken quietly off to a distant forest or field after sunset and killed.
Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered in order to create agricultural communism.
Hospitals, schools, industrial and service companies were closed. Banks were not only closed, they were raided and all records destroyed by fire, eliminating any claim to funds.
All religion was banned and minority group were dispersed, forbidden to speak their languages or practice their customs.
The Memorial site we visited was outside of Phnom Penh. We were each given headphones, an audio player, and a map of the site. The map contained 18 stops, and at each stop the narrator told the story behind that particular location.
It was a surreal experience to know that so many people were killed right where we were standing. They have excavated many of the mass graves, but still today bones and clothing surface after the heavy rains.
This killing field was not just for enemies of the state. It held men, women, and children of all ages. Bullets were expensive, so the Khmer Rouge would use whatever means they had available to kill. It still makes me sick to think about what these people suffered at the hands of their fellow Cambodians.
The final stop of the audio tour, which was done with such honor and respect, was at the Stupa, which houses over 5,000 skulls that have been recovered from this particular killing field. The skulls and bones have been categorized and grouped according to approximate age and gender. It is an ominous site which filled us with immense sadness and grief, as well as many unanswered questions about how something this tragic could happen.
The effect of this war still affects all facets of Cambodian culture. Since an entire generation of educators and leaders was executed, Cambodia struggles in these areas. Many countries and organizations are attempting to help them re-build, but change takes time.
Over dinner, after visiting The Killing Fields, our family talked about what we had seen and heard. We wondered what we would have done if we had lived in Cambodia during this awful time and if we were to live through something like this today, how we would handle it.
John and I talked about what little we had known of this.
I am sad to say, I had never really paid attention, which bothered me because it showed me what a little bubble I have been living in. My life has been easy, and I have never had to wonder where my food was coming from or if my family would live through the day.
We all agreed that we would work really hard to stay out of our little bubbles and pay better attention to the world around us. We also agreed that even though we may feel like we can’t do much to help or stop injustice, the first step is being aware of what is going on. Then ways to help will appear and it will be our turn to take appropriate action.
Yes, we loved Cambodia and its people and are eager to return. Thankfully, we didn’t step on a landmine; and thankfully, our hearts did explode with new understanding and compassion for those who have and who live knowing they might.
To find out more about The Killing Field Memorial, go to: http://www.phnompenh.gov.kh/phnom-penh-city-choeung-ek-memorial-139.html.
To find out more about the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Center go to: http://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org/.
Here is a link that gives some background about the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge.