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    S-21, Prelude to the Killing Fields

    February 1st, 2008 by mary

    Tuol Sleng, in the Cambodian capital of Phenom Penh, was once a secondary school but was turned into a prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Now it stands much as it was when it was discovered and made into a genocide museum. The Khmer Rouge favored the base people that worked the fields so they forced the people of privilege, essentially city dwellers, into the countryside to work sixteen hour days. In this way Phenom Penh was deserted for 4yrs. Though there wasn’t enough food to eat they were forced to continue the hard labor. Many died of disease, hunger, and torture. Our guide was ten years old when her family of ten were kicked out of the city on liberation day, April 17, 1975. She and her siblings were sent to the childrens’ camp to work. She heard her father died of starvation. Two of her brothers and one sister also died during that regime. She never found out what happened to her grand parents. An all too common story as the Khmer Rouge separated families without explanations. Individuals would be taken away in covered trucks for no known reason and never seen again. Even after Pol Pot, the teacher turned Khmer Rouge leader, was ousted people still had no idea what happened to their families. To this day many Cambodians have family members that they have no idea what happened to. People were taken from all walks of life; villagers, teachers, foreigners, journalists, soldiers, Khmer Rouge officials. No one was safe from Pol Pot’s paranoia. They would be taken with no explanation to prisons like S-21 where they would be catalogued, questioned, and photographed. Everyday three to seven hundred people would pass through the barbed gates. They would be tagged, and if they came shirtless then the numbers would be pinned to their skin. Then they would be tortured for confessions. They were chained in small cells or en masse on the floor, not allowed to move unless they asked for permission first. Tin cans and plastic jugs were used as communal toilets. Every disobeyance was met with slashes. People would be tortured to death or sent to the killing fields after the Khmer Rouge were done questioning them. Even the wives, children, cousins, parents, and neighbors of the prisoners were brought in and killed systematically. People were held here from one to six months, arms and legs chained to the ground so they couldn’t move. Many were grabbed from their villages, a sack thrown over their heads only to see a camera staring them down when the bag was removed. Each person had their own file and were photographed upon entry. It was this cataloging that four thousand pictures were recovered as well details of the treatment of the prisoners. Looking at those ghostly final photos was like looking at fear itself. Those faces were full of defeat and the eyes spoke of horror. The instruments of terror still remained as did blood stains on the floor. The Khmer Rouge had enlisted teenagers to guard and torture the prisoners. Any that showed weakness, sympathy, or disobedience became a prisoner themselves. In the end no one was ever held accountable for the atrocities and now the leaders of Cambodia are the same Khmer Rouge officials. We heard from several locals that the young generation, those born after the end of the atrocities, is neither interested nor wholly believe that it happened. Their attention is focused on western fads and the latest Nokia phone. Of the estimated 17,000 imprisoned in S-21 only 7 survived.

    Posted in cambodia | No Comments »

    Brighter is Better

    February 1st, 2008 by mary

    We wanted to see the rural parts where the locals live on the outskirts of Siem Reap so we disembarked from our tuktuk on the way back from Tonle Lake and walked the rest of the way along the dirt paths. Through dense trees we saw an explosion of rainbow. It was a new buddhist temple getting its final layer of paint. The saffron robed monks were sweeping, washing, and painting. Statues were being prepared to go to their standing posts. As I was gazing at the technicolor reliefs a monk approached me and struck up a conversation. He had been an ordained monk for 3 years and was focused on learning English. He taught three times a day to the other monks. He said monks live by 227 virtues but he holds 4 to be the dearest. As a monk he must preach five virtues to the common people to guide them to a good life. His exposed skin showed tattoos of a dragon down one arm and buddhist mantras on his chest and forearm. The dragon he got before he entered monkhood. The mantras were for protection. He told us the locals do not like tattoos and think they bring bad luck to a village. He gave us a tour of the temple that had his likeness upon the wall as a founder. This brand spanking new cement one was built to replace the wooden one that the Khmers destroyed. He spoke of some of the stories and characters on the murals. At one panel he stumbled with his words then apologized and said he could not continue the story because his english was not good enough. His worry was that he would use the wrong words and translate the story incorrectly to us, in essence lying. Thus he would commit a sin and could no longer be a monk. So we skipped the panel. We took up a good hour of his time so said bye and continued on our way along the stream that went through Siem Reap. Along the way a few kids invited us to play volleyball with them next to their straw house. You see volleyball nets scattered everywhere in this part of the world. Its a very popular sport along with badminton, soccer, and patong.

    Posted in cambodia, temple | No Comments »

    Floating Through Life

    February 1st, 2008 by mary

    For a diversion from the wats of Angkor we did a day trip to the nearby Tonle Lake. We took a tuktuk out but the whole boat ride was all controlled by the government. Only pennies get passed on to the people that actual live there, of course. We paid our fee and were ushered onto a boat held together by fish guts. The driver didn’t speak a word of english. He just drove, and very slowly at that. We were passed by everyone. The river was opaque brown and yet people were washing dishes and cooking noodles in it. Everything was on floating platforms from the homes to churches, schools, stores, and mechanic shops. Small row boats pull up along side and latch on. A kid boards with a woven basket filled with bananas and cold drinks. The river widens and leads to the lake with ocean like immensity. The floating village is made up of boats that number near a hundred and stretch far and wide through the trees at the river mouth. We get dropped off at a pontoon restaurant with a pool of fish next to the caged crocodiles. It’s the deliciousness of the croc meat that has made them extinct in the wild all along the Mekong. For a short while we watch the comings and going of the fishing villages. Kids and mothers selling lunch with babes in tow, men bringing in fishing nets, boys having water fights while floating in big metal pots. Many of these people never touch land. It was a nice slow float back to shore where we were dropped off near one of the many trash heaps. The locals seem to use the river for everything including a trash dump. Some naked kids came running up to us with open palms. I gave them bananas that we had bought earlier from one of the moms on the boats with their snotty kids. This country has a phenomenal number of children, of which the boys don’t wear any clothes until they’re six years old.

    Posted in cambodia | No Comments »

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