22.12.2016 - 22.12.2016 37 °C
Thursday, December 22
Today was an emotionally tough day for all of our group. We went to see the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and Toul Sleng prison, which used to be a high school. While it was difficult to see the locations mentioned in the book, Under the Banyan Tree, I'm grateful that I had read that book prior to our trip. It documented one young girl’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge period from 1975-79. She would have been the same age as our guide and host.
The author, our host and our guide all lost a number of close family members during that period. We learned today that almost half of the Khmer population died during that time, either at the hands of the Khmer Rouge or from starvation. Only 15% of the educated people survived the Khmer Rouge regime. You don't see a lot of older people in Cambodia; our guide told us that those who survived probably played some role supporting the Khmer Rouge - one didn't really have a choice. Since that period of genocide, the Khmer (Cambodian) population has boomed and now fifty percent of the population is under age 25.
The details of both locations we visited are too gruesome to show in this blog but I have included pictures of the memorial at the Killing Fields and the prison rules.
Our guide was a young child during that time and lost 5 family members. We were able to talk with 2 of the survivors who spoke about their experiences during that time. One was a mechanic in his 30's at the time who was kept alive to help the regime fix machines. The other was a young child who had been brought to the prison with his brothers to see his mother and ended up being spared purely by chance at the very end of the regime. These survivors speak to visitors so that this period of terror will not be forgotten.
Five former leaders have been charged for their roles under the regime but only one person has been convicted. Two died while awaiting trial. Two more are undergoing proceedings but the process is moving very slowly and at a very high cost.
For a change of pace, at dusk, we went for a cyclo tour of Phnom Penh. Even though we were in the midst of rush hour traffic, we felt very comfortable and secure. We weren't able to understand all of the street signs, though.
For supper, we were invited to the home of our guide today so we had the chance to see a typical home, enjoy real Cambodian home cooking, and dance with the kids in the family. The guide lives with his wife and four children, along with his wife’s 2 sisters and their families, all in the same large home. The sisters have separate bedroom areas for their families but the kitchen, bathrooms, living room, and outdoor dining area are shared. The guide supports the operation of and provides space in his home for an after-school English language program for community kids.