Sunday, April 8, 2012

Phenomenally educational visit to Phnom Penh

The Royal Palace
Phnom Penh has come and gone and we have crossed the border into Vietnam. So many important things have happened and our days and nights have been full of activity. It seems to get harder and harder to find time (and energy) to write about it all. In fact, most of the time, I wish I had a dictaphone to be able to capture it all. But I don’t, so I will try to get at least a bit of Phnom Phnh down tonight.

Royal Palace
We visited our usual number of temples (including the Silver Pagoda – where we kept looking up to look for the silver tiles on the roof, only to embarrassingly discover that the temple is named after its floor tiles), museums, markets and the Royal Palace, had some good meals and really enjoyed the city. It is Cambodia’s Capital and the largest city in the country, but much less daunting than the other large cities we have visited thus far in SE Asia. Maybe this is due to the numbered streets and totally organized city plan. No subways to worry about and all of the sites were walkable from our hotel.

I booked us in to the Silver River Hotel in the River Front area of Phnom Penh. The staff were amazingly friendly and the street the hotel is situated on was chock-a-block with small restaurants and coffee shops. At night it was well lit and perfect for people watching while enjoying dinner and a cold beer.

Delicious coffee, chocolate banana cake with sliced frozen banana on the side!

History Museum

Although the city is bustling with activity now, in 1975 when Pol Pot the leader of the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, all citizens of this city were ordered to leave everything behind and move out to the countryside to become farmers. Within only several days the city became a ghost town. His party’s radical attempt at agricultural reform led to widespread famine and death. But that was not the only way this regime managed to murder their fellow comrades.

Inmates tortured in Tuol Sleng Detention Centre. Like the Germans, the Khmer Rouge documented each person who arrived.

We spent a full day learning the tragic story. First we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is the site of the systematic torture of 20,000 people, forced to sign pages of confessions before being transferred to and later murdered at the Choeung Ek extermination center. The extermination centre, 15k out of Phnom Penh is one of the largest Killing Fields in Cambodia. We hired a tuk tuk driver to take us to the Genocide Museum and later to the Choeung Ek, which is now a memorial to those that were brutally murdered there.

The prison was a converted school. The classrooms were divided into tiny cells.

It would be impossible for me to describe the feelings we both had at these two museums/memorials. After our trip to the sites of the Auschwitz concentration camp and Birkenau death camp this past July, we were shocked to see the eerie similarities in Phnom Penh. The numbers of murders that took place during the short reign of the Khmer Rouge are disputed, but however you look at it, the world chose to ignore the cold blooded murder of two to three million human beings during a period of three years, just 30 years after the end of the second world war.

While large numbers simply died of starvation or disease, those brought to Choeung Ek, where literally hacked to death. The tools of choice were an ax or a spade or a steel pipe. Bullets were expensive, so brute force was used instead. Many were buried alive after having their head’s smashed or neck’s broken in shallow mass graves, and then covered in DDT. There is a memorial now at this site, which houses the skulls and bones of the victims whose graves have been uncovered. Many fragments of their crushed bodies still make their way to the surface of the grave mounds after the rainy season. Volunteers collect them and add them to the memorial.

I know this is tough to read about. Believe me, it was tougher to be there and to see the cells the prisoners were forced to live in, the implements of torture and the rooms filled with their photos. But these stories need to be told. How many of you reading this post even knew this happened? We saw a documentary at the detention centre of a mother telling the story of her son and his wife, both tortured and killed in the two places we visited that day. When you hear the story of just two of the more than two million that died or were murdered, it is hard not to be overwhelmed at the grief this country has had to endure.

The depressions in the ground are mass graves.

At Choeung Ek, there is an audio tour narrated by a young man. One of the first things he says to us is “imagine if one of every four people in your country were killed by a fellow countryman”. That is a very strong statement that is impossible to comprehend, yet that is exactly what happened here. And thirty years later, there is little justice for the victims. Although there is a war crimes tribunal underway, it is fraught with delays and political quagmires.

The bones of the dead are kept in the memorial building. The bracelets on the bamboo fence commemorate all of the children murdered here.

In Israel the 19th of April is Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom ha Shoah). This year I will be remembering not only the six million that perished in the death camps of Nazi Germany, but also the three million who lost their lives in the Cambodian genocide in 1975-79, the approximately one million Tutsis, and moderate Hutus that were murdered in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the 10,000 who died in the genocide in Bosnia in 1995, and the growing number of victims of the ongoing civil war in Darfur that began in 2003. If you are interested in more information about all of these crimes against humanity, I found this very informative website.

We made it finally to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, and the pain does not subside quite yet. But our journey here was too comical to keep from you. So I will be working on that next!

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