Today was a particularly harrowing day.
We started off the morning with breakfast at the hotel (eggs and toast or pancakes for those interested) and headed off to learn about Cambodia’s recent history. Now if you’re anything like me, and barely know anything at all about Cambodia, then the following will be quite shocking, and possibly disturbing. This post does describe a genocide and the atrocities committed to the people who lived through it, so if you are uncomfortable reading such things, I would suggested skimming through to the end.
To begin, from 1975-1979, Cambodia went through a terrible genocide, where neighbours, families and friends were turned on each other, all under the leadership of Pol Pot. It is estimated that over three million people died in Cambodia out of eight million during those four years. That is roughly 1 in 4 people.
Our first stop was to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, more commonly known as the S-21 museum. This museum was once a secondary school, before the rise of the Khmer Rouge party transformed it into the Security Office 21, or S-21. The classrooms on the first floors were turned into torture chambers, while the ones above became mass detention centers for all the ‘traitors’ against the regime. In the first of the four buildings, the rooms were mostly bare, save the occasional bed. On them were shackles, or other instruments of torture, with photographs on the wall detailing their effects on the prisoners. As we continued to the next building, we saw the bars that had once been part of the high school had been used to suspend its victims. The second building, merely contained photos of the S-21 victims. Photos and photos of the faces, young and old, all convicted, all sentenced to die, lined the classrooms on double sided billboards.
Having been to Europe, and visited many holocaust memorials and grave sights, I told myself that I would be at least somewhat prepared for this day. Walking into that building with photos as far as the eye could see, and then realising there was just as many on the back sides of the boards, was the most overwhelming, emotional moment I have felt so far on this trip. I was not prepared for this, and continuing on through the museum, the heavy feeling in my gut, in my heart, only continued to increase. The rest of the buildings had been left with tiny cells running the span of the entire corridor. Maybe 2ft wide by 6ft long, with walls made of either brick or wood, these mass detentions were claustrophobic to look at, let alone walk through. Some of the people were able to go inside the cells, but the majority of us could only force ourselves to put one foot in front of the other until we found an exit.
We made our way through the courtyard in a somber mood. For many of us, knowing that this happened some 40 odd years ago, thinking that our parents, or friends, or neighbours would have been victims here, was a difficult thing to understand. Of the 20,000 people who went through this detention center, 12 survived. The fact that this genocide left the entire remaining population dealing with some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder shows that there is some serious care needed in this country.
Cambodia, like many other countries who have gone through genocides or wars, is no exception to worldy atrocities and human experiments where dictators deliver orders (World War Two). We continued our day with a visit to the killing fields of Choeung Ek, aptly named due to the mass graves that lay beneath the grounds. This was where prisoners from S-21 and other detention centers were transported and executed before their bodies were thrown in mass graves. At this particular location, it is estimated that almost 9,000 bodies were buried. One of the mass graves solely contained women and children, most of whom were infants.
After asking the group which had gathered to share and decompress after another emotional tour, there seemed to be a general consensus on what struck them the most. The so called ‘Magic Tree’, which had been hooked up with speakers during the regime, used to played revolutionary music continuously from 1975-1979. This, our audio guides told us as they played a clip of an old propaganda song, was the last thing the victims heard before being killed. The music’s main purpose was to hide the noises of hundreds of people dying.
After a quiet dinner, we joined together in our hotel room and sang songs, praising the Lord and His glorious name, that He is the Messiah, and that through Him, all will be healed and saved. Discussing the images that we saw today, what we had experienced, and praying to the Lord for His healing and guidance, for His grace and understanding, was the best way this day could have ended. We may not know why such atrocities are committed, but we can find comfort in the Lord. In struggles, in pain, no burden is too heavy for Him to take on.
So I pray for us here in Cambodia, as we go to sleep with the images of today heavy in our hearts, with questions of ‘why?’ and ‘for what purpose?’ plaguing us, that we could find peace in the Lord, and know that He is good, and to continue to put all of our faith and our trust in Him.“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4