I asked him how he could smile.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassions, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
— Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

The year is 1974. The water gate scandal has broken wide open in the US, leading to Richard Nixon’s resignation and Gerald Ford’s succession. The bloody and highly scrutinized war in Vietnam has been raging for the better part of 20 years with a death toll in the millions. Near the end of 1974 the American troops finalize their withdrawal from both Vietnam neighboring Cambodia. April 1975 the Viet-cong regain control of Saigon effectively ending the battle which also claimed roughly fifty-five thousand American soldiers and two to three hundred thousand Cambodians. What seemed like an end of a bloody era, was just the beginning for Cambodia. The following four years would bring a mass genocide of an estimated 1.75 million people. 

Barbwire on walls around SR-21, a former school turned into a prison

Barbwire on walls around SR-21, a former school turned into a prison

1975. Year Zero, as the Khmer Rouge militant dictator Pol Pot called it. The Khmer Rouge was the name for the communist party of Kampuchea (Cambodia) which captured Phnom Penh in April of Year Zero. What ensued was a four year, Hitler-esque purge that targeted the educated persons, and non-nationals. Pol Pot's ideology was half marxist half extreme nationalist. His militants began forcing people from the cities to the fields in order to push agricultural production. The Khmer Rouge also eliminated money and religion.

Khmer Rouge rolling into Phnom Penh

Khmer Rouge rolling into Phnom Penh

Do you wear glasses? Executed. Have soft hands? Executed. Speak a foreign language? Executed. Any signs of an education would lead to your immediate death. Trucks would move in at night and gather the educated middle class, as well as their families and transport them to one of the many killing fields. A regime motto read, if you are going to pull up the grass you pull it up by the roots. They wiped out entire families in order to prevent an uprising or revenge. The Choeung Ek Genocidal center in Phenom Penh was erected on one of the most infamous killing fields. Here around twenty thousand people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. As bullets were expensive, executions were brutally carried out by hand. Using anything hard enough to split a skull and if that didn't work they would cover the bodies in poison and pile them in mass graves. Now, if all of your problems haven't subsided by this point in the narrative your mind is getting the best of you. Visiting these sites is a grim yet educational undertaking. Outfitted with a map and head set, you slowly explore a few of the 129 mass graves and listen to first person accounts from survivors or family members. If somehow the sheer energy of the place doesn't move you, the stories will.

"look at the branches of the palm, they are sharp like a saws blade. These were used to cut throats of the victims when nothing else was available"

"look at the branches of the palm, they are sharp like a saws blade. These were used to cut throats of the victims when nothing else was available"

Think about that..

Think about that..

 Initially the Rouge could handle executing one truck load of people every 3 weeks, but as those trucks eventually began to show up multiple times per day they were ‘forced’ to corral the prisoners until they could get around to them. This led to a secret network of prisons where people were held and tortured before their inevitable death, the most famous of these prisons is S-21.

They took photos of the prisoners and kept detailed records of their lives. Most documents were burned when S-21 was liberated

They took photos of the prisoners and kept detailed records of their lives. Most documents were burned when S-21 was liberated

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After a short drive into the city center, you find yourself at Toul Sleng prison, otherwise known as S-21. Here you creep among barren cells, chain shackles, and ammunition cases that were used for excrement. The air is stifling and the heat unbearable, yet being there sends chills down your spine. 

You hear more first person accounts from prisoners, only 13 are known to have survived of the twenty thousand tortured. You see the conditions they were held in, the devices they were tortured with and you can begin to understand what kind of pain they had gone through. The prisoners were tortured until they 'confessed' all of their wrong doings. If they didn't admit they were CIA or KGB they were beaten. If they admitted, they were beaten more. One prisoner, Chum Mey, was tortured for 10 days straight. When the torturers typewriter broke, they asked who could fix it. Being a mechanic, his ability to fix typewriters and sewing machines kept him alive in S-21. He survived for two months until it was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979. He escaped to find his wife and two month old child, just to witness their death as they fled for safety.

This man is one of the few survivors still around to tell his story. This is Chum Mey. When I saw him, my heart dropped. He looked at me and smiled and I felt a sensation no words could explain. I sat with him and asked how can he smile. His translator told me, because he was alive he could smile. He could bring his story to people so that this never happens again. Out of respect for others and out of gratitude for being spared.

Cambodia still has issues like any other place. The biggest difference I have noticed, is that they accept it. In acceptance, they have dealt with what has passed and experience what is happening in the moment. If you feel like you are going through hell, keep going. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

Cambodia changed me. In a place plagued by darkness I was infected by the smiles. 

Stay Present, Stay Grateful, Stay Wild.

Joe

This post is dedicated to keeping the story alive. To Chum Mey, Bou Meng, Vann Nath, to all the survivors, to all the perished, and everyone who reads this and bears witness to what we must never allow to happen again.