Phnom Penh is a crowded, dirty city. French style townhouses, modern skyscrapers, Buddhist temples, and makeshift slum housing make up the majority of the buildings. Threads of motorbikes, tuk tuks, rickshaws, cars, and pedestrians weave precariously in and out of traffic, through intersections without stop signs or traffic lights. The undirected traffic at first appears chaotic, but after a few attempts of crossing the road, one learns that most drivers are keenly aware of their surroundings and will gently tap the brakes to make room for a pedestrian joining the swirl of moving bodies and vehicles. At the edge of one intersection, I stopped to take it all in and I'll never forget seeing a beautiful juxtaposition of a mother and daughter on a motorbike. The mother assertively steered the pair through the intersection, while the daughter, only 3 or 4 years old, slept peacefully with her head rested against the handlebars.
I spent one morning at the Tuol Sleng Museum. Tuol Sleng is an old high school, converted into a “security office” (S21), actually a torture center and prison, by the Khmer Rouge communist party from 1975-1979. The prison was eerily preserved with the original bed frames and leg irons in the same classrooms they were found in, with photos of the tortured and deceased victims that were found there. Room upon room was filled with mug-shots of the Khmer Rouge's victims. They stare out of the photos at you in expressions of pleading, anger, fear, and sorrow.
Almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population died during the Khmer Rouge regime. It was a human and cultural genocide that took the lives of almost 2 million innocent men, women, and children of all walks of life. I recommend the movie (based off the book by Loung Ung), “First They Killed my Father”, for some basic background of what happened in Cambodia so recently. When studying history, it can be challenging to connect with the experiences of past societies. Oftentimes, when we learn about the most horrific and shameful parts of history, such as the Holocaust or the genocide in Cambodia, it is impossible to imagine what it was actually like for the people involved. While the sheer magnitude of lives lost is challenging to grasp, the museum does an excellent job of telling the stories of individual victims and survivors based on the records that were left behind. A passage that stood out to me about the importance of an individual’s story in making history relevant and relatable to modern students of life is:
“. . . history is more than just studying past problems for present-day solutions. When we study history, we must remember that each detail and circumstance is the representation of an individual human being’s experience. This perspective carries implications not only for the individual person, but for the society at large. People who suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime deserve to be remembered and honored. By studying individual stories, we recognize the value of the individual human being, which is a fundamental ingredient to all human rights.” -Phoeurng Sackona, Minister, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts
From my understanding, Cambodia is doing well to educate the world about the atrocities that occurred there in the 70's. At the same time, it is attempting to develop as a nation that is defined by more than just the genocide. I had the privilege of meeting some of Yasmine's local Cambodian friends who helped me understand just this. Visiting Cambodia is an important reminder that a nation/culture/individual may be defined publicly by the challenges of their past. Yet, an equally important part of their identity is the way with which they choose to progress after hardships.
|Tuol Sleng: the high school turned prison.|
|Me and Yasmine in downtown Phnom Penh.|