Today was the last day of orientation with Star Kampuchea- the NGO that the broader NGO (Global Crossroads) connected us with that connected Chris and I with the NGO we will be working with for the duration of our stay (WOMEN). Between the two days, we visited the Russian and Central Markets, Wat Penh Phnom (again), and a bit of a pogoda where we saw beautiful Buddhist statues and were blessed by monks. Even amongst my fellow volunteers, who come from all over the world, I remain the sweatiest person alive. Ever.
The most moving part of orientation, however, was visiting the Killing Fields. For those who know little about Cambodia, a brief history lesson. It’s short and incredibly important, so stick with me!
In the midst of the Vietnam War, Americans began to carpet bomb suspected communist sites in the Cambodian country side. The bombings, in addition to continued social unrest- due to lack of employment and education despite Western “aid”- drove many farmers further away from Western ideology. Up until this point, King Sihanouk had tried very carefully to avoid taking sides in the war that divided the world into communism vs. capitalism, for international aid from both sides remained crucial to Cambodia, newly independent from French colonial rule. However, violence continued and eventually the United States helped overthrow King Sihanouk, who then threw in his lot with revolutionary forces- soon to be the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge quickly defeated the unpopular leaders instituted by the States, and by this time, “Year Zero,” a man named Pol Pot had taken over the revolutionary regime.
Pol Pot hoped to lead the world’s first “pure” agrarian revolution so that the people of Cambodia would become completely self sufficient, free of capitalist influence. In order to achieve this, Pol Pot felt it necessary to evacuate all cities and drive citizens into the countryside where they would farm, day and night, to dramatically increase rice production. In a matter of days, cities were toppled as homes, schools, businesses, and hospitals were leveled. Educated citizens- doctors, government workers, teachers, and upwards of 95% of the student population were murdered on the spot or immediately upon their arrival in the concentration camps. People with smooth hands, people with glasses, and the many thousands accused of suspicious behavior were quickly put to death. Once in the camps, millions more died of starvation, illness, beatings, and heartbreak. It was not until 1980 that South Vietnam overthrew the Pol Pot regime, though, due to several political reasons, the United States and much of the West fought to keep the Khmer Rouge represented as a legitimate organization within the Cambodian government. In the years under Pol Pot, Cambodia witnessed the second largest genocide of human history.
Today I stood in the Killing Fields, the home of incredible horrors, 2-3 million deaths, and infinite nightmares. We stood inches away from deep mass graves, a memorial tower of skulls, and trees were infants were had been smashed to death. Needless to say, it was both a heartbreaking and surreal experience. Where so many had suffered, I walked silently, attempting to imagine their fear, their anger, their hopelessness, though I knew I never could.
A hint of hope though, a mark of remembrance: at each of the mass grave, hundreds of bracelets had been posted around the bamboo fences. I recognized many as those made by monks for protection and luck. Others were more decorative or symbols of peace. All spoke of Cambodian honor and a promise to never forget.
Once I boarded the bus (30 min late- oops…), we headed home through streets lined with wooden shacks topped with rusty rooftops. Amongst the garbage and shops and the motos and the thick, brown dust, residents and children moved about their day. I wondered how these people could be so kind, especially to Western tourists like me, when only a few decades had passed since the toppling of Pol Pot. Though I felt disturbingly far from away from them, on the other side of the air conditioned bus, the head phones in many of their ears (likely produced by a Western-owned company) reminded me once more of our global connectedness. The volunteer to my right saw none of this, her eyes glued to Tetrus game on her kindle. I breathed deeply and said nothing, and later only spoke of the great tragedy the Khmer Rouge regime.
We all live in a world inevitably tied to each other- by direct or indirect political and economic influence- and though we remember the past of our many different countries, we are bound by one human history, for which we are all responsible.