“Why did the world let this happen?”

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Cate asked the question half way through our visit to the Killing Fields, a 45 minute tuk-tuk ride outside Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The site of atrocities almost impossible to fathom, where many of the estimated two million Cambodians killed during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror lost their lives in barbaric fashion.

She shook her head back and forth and looking into her eyes I could tell she was both dismayed and angry.

I didn’t have an answer.

She also asked me why, even after Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown and hiding in the jungle, were they still recognized by the UN and many other countries of the world as the official government of Cambodia. Why wasn’t Pol Pot ever brought to justice and why was he able to live to 72 years of age?

I didn’t have answers for those questions either. It’s hard to understand how politicians and governments can sit on their hands during and after a genocide. A google search of this chapter of Cambodian history back at our hotel didn’t bring any valid answers. My best guess is political expediency during this volatile period in that corner of South East Asia. A hollow answer to give a child – or anyone for that matter.

I am not sure where to start or what to really say about what Cate and I experienced at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and at Security Prison 21 (now Tuol Sleng Museum), where prisoners were interrogated and tortured before transfer to the Killing Fields. It is really hard to write anything that can impart the feeling you get from being in a place where such brutality, suffering and countless atrocities and executions occurred. Looking at the mass graves, the memorial stupa with all the skulls and hearing the voices of survivors tell their stories on the audio tour was haunting. The low point for me at the Killing Fields was seeing the “killing tree,” where children were beaten to death.

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At Security Prison 21 (a former school), we toured the tiny brick and wooden cells where inmates were shackled to prevent them from committing suicide, as the Khmer Rouge preferred to torture them until they “confessed their crimes” and implicated friends and neighbors for a similar fate.

One of the buildings at Security Prison 21

One of the buildings at Security Prison 21

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While it was a heartbreaking day for us, we both felt privileged for the experience and to learn first-hand about this sad part of Cambodian history, including the personal stories that survivors and prison guards shared in the audio tour.

What is perhaps most remarkable of all is the enduring spirit and resilience of the Cambodian people, despite having lost almost 1/3 of their population during the Khmer Rouge regime. You would think they would be hardened and bitter about the hand they were dealt. But in just a few days here, we have been struck by the warmth and kindness shown to us by everyone we’ve met. It is simply amazing. For instance, on the way to the Killing Fields our tuk-tuk driver stopped by the side of the road and bought Cate and me face masks so we wouldn’t have to breathe in the dust, dirt and exhaust fumes.

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Cambodians also love and adore children. Cen experienced this first hand when a man gave him a big squeeze while we were walking down the street. It freaked the hell out of Cen (I think he thought the man was going to abduct him, as we were all walking a few steps ahead and didn’t notice at first) but it was all very innocent and you could see the simple joy in the man’s eyes to show affection to a child. I imagine the fact Cen is a little blond haired, blue-eyed boy added a novelty factor to the interaction.

Today we took the 6-hour bus trip to Siem Reap and will spend the next few days touring the incredible temples of this country – a welcome change from the emotional journey of the Killing Fields (pictures below).

Instructions to prisoners at Security Prison 21

Instructions to prisoners at Security Prison 21

Memorial Stupa erected in 1988 which contains more than 8000 skulls

Memorial Stupa erected in 1988 which contains more than 8000 skulls

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Some signs at the Killing fields marking former buildings

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Categories: Cambodia | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on ““Why did the world let this happen?”

  1. KJ

    Hard to read Karl – harder to visit I imagine. But important to know.

  2. Abbie

    Wow!

  3. Terry

    Oh, humans can be so horrible to each other.
    Dear, big-hearted and insightful Cate — I can imagine her pain in seeing this. I remember being heart broken when I was ten and read the LIFE magazine article about Anne Frank. I just didn’t want the world to be like that. A bit of an antidote is to talk about the Mr. Rogers quote. He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Even if they were powerless to stop all of the atrocities, you can be sure there were people somewhere working hard to turn things around.

  4. Hannah Grimsdale

    So good to see what you guys have been doing! I’m so glad you posted pictures of the information on here as we won’t get the chance to go to the killing fields, I have so much respect for the people here after reading this, thanks. Looking forward to reading what else you get up to! X

  5. Thanks Hannah. Great to meet all of you. Good luck with the rest of your time Elephant Valley Project.

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