BootsnAll Travel Network

a heavy heart

some of you read the blog i wrote about cambodia and the khmer rouge and wanted to know more… its really sad that they don’t teach us much about it in school. i feel so ignorant, but i never really knew anything about it until coming here… over 2 million – some estimates say 3 million – of cambodia’s 7 million people were killed during the late 70’s when the khmer rouge party took over. they killed men, women, and children indiscriminately, but made specific targets of the educated – anyone who spoke foreign languages, anyone who wore glasses even, were automatically enemies of the new government. they were trying to create a marxist society of farmers and peasants (i still dont quite understand what they were hoping for)….

they made child soldiers out of many cambodian children and just basically forced the whole country to go through so many things that no one should ever have to go through… before the khmer rouge takeover, cambodians were facing a bloody civil war between the khmer rouge and the government, and even AFTER the khmer rouge was overthrown, they still were not brought to justice for the horrible crimes they committed. in fact, the US government and the UN included them in the new government that was installed after they were kicked out! so many cambodians lived in fear that it would happen again, for over twenty years! only in the past ten years or so has the khmer rouge been officially shut down. its absolutely nuts.

i know its sort of depressing, and it may seem irrelevant when our own country has so many problems of its own, but i just feel like its something that we should know about. especially since the US bombed so much of this region during those years and pretty much just covered the whole thing up. if nothing else, i feel like the story just needs to be told.

if you want to learn more, i seriously recommend a book called first they killed my father by loung ung. the author was 5 years old when the khmer rouge kicked her family out of the capital of cambodia and into the countryside, with millions of others. it’s told from her 5-year-old point of view, and its very well written…

this morning we watched a movie called the killing fields. i think it was made in the early 80s or so, and its a GREAT movie. its about an american journalist and his cambodian translator that were in cambodia during that time, and what they both went through in the time before and during the khmer rouge takeover. its an incredibly powerful movie (stock up on kleenex beforehand!)

in phnom penh, i also got to visit the tuol sleng genocide museum, housed in a former high school, and which served as one of the bloodiest security prisons during the khmer rouge takeover. i didn’t take any pictures, out of respect for the thousands who were imprisoned, tortured, or killed there, but i was completely overcome with an almost tangible feeling of despair as i walked through the quiet halls of this school. over the railings of the classroom buildings are barbed wire fences (to keep the prisoners from throwing themselves over the balconies to commit suicide), and inside the halls you’ll see hastily-built cells where the detainees were kept.

the most moving part of the museum is a hall full of photographs, mugshots of all the prisoners who were kept there – men, women (some with newborns), children, infants, the elderly. it was heartbreaking, and i literally had to walk outside to catch my breath when i stared into the face of one of the boys’ photos… it looked just like my driver from the day before. in fact, the rest of the day, when i looked at the smiling faces of the cambodian people on the street, at the market, even at my guesthouse, i saw those haunting mugshots staring back and me. and the children – it breaks my heart just to think of it… they were so young, and i don’t even know if they understood that they’d been brought there to die, or to see their family members tortured and killed. you couldn’t see it on their faces, just a hollow sadness in their eyes… how could the khmer rouge live with themselves??

being in vietnam, i also felt like i should visit the war remnants museum, which documents the history of the vietnam war and also just war in general… my heart has just been heavy after cambodia, but i just felt like as an american i needed to see this museum. it’s definitely a very honest and candid look at the vietnam war, warfare in general, and the human costs of armed conflicts. it puts a human face on the tragedies of war and makes you wonder how human beings can do these things to one another…

and its really hard to miss all of the charities that have sprung up here to help the victims of agent orange, one of the harmful chemicals used by the US during the vietnam war. even decades later the effects of these chemicals are still having an impact on the ecosystem of vietnam, and babies are born, even today, with horrible birth defects as a result of the remains of the chemicals. it makes me wonder if we’ll see the same things in iraq and afghanistan in twenty years. in the US we are always afraid of terrorists waging nuclear or chemical warfare on us (weapons of mass destruction anyone?), but look at the things we’ve done to other people too…

though visiting places like these leaves me with a heavy heart, it also makes me feel hopeful. the first step in stopping war is to educate people about the effects… there’s also the rebuilding that comes afterwards, and you’ll see it everywhere in vietnam, cambodia, and laos – there are tons of charities here that are made to aid victims of agent orange, for survivors and victims of leftover landmines, and those left in poverty after the devastation of war. we’ve been trying to donate where we can here, and i’m going to be following up on a charity that builds schools in cambodia (and who needs volunteer teachers, if anyone’s interested!) but at the very least, i think really, we’re all helping by learning more about what these people have been through and by sending our love their way. war really isn’t the answer… there HAS to be a better way.

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4 responses to “a heavy heart”

  1. Mom says:

    well said….it must be overwhelmingly emotional

  2. wisa says:

    Thanks for your story Malia.

  3. Cousin says:

    yeah for sure cousin, its always surprising how much our education can keep from us… just think if we never traveled, how naive would we be??? i always told my ex that not everything written is the truth… anyways seems like you are growing tree of knowledge… i cant wait till you come home, we will have way too much to talk about… miss and as always BE CAREFUL!!!

  4. christy says:

    so incredibly sad and tragic, and i agree with wisa. thanks for your story.

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