Thursday, December 17, 2009

History Lesson

I thought I would just give all of you a little bit of a history lesson and some background information on the nation that is my home for the next several months! Cambodia is in Southeast Asia and has been wracked with poverty, war, and genocide over the last several decades. The nation is really just beginning to establish herself and bounce back from some of the destruction she has faced.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge overtook the capital city of Phnom Penh and forced her inhabitants to flee the city. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, sought to destroy all educated people and all attempts at a democratic government. Their goal was to create a "pure" Cambodia. Thus, people were taken to camps where they were forced to labor and live communally. Money became worthless, religion in any form was banned, and basic human rights and freedoms were suspended. This, of course, only applied to those who survived as hundreds of thousands of educated, middle-class people were tortured and murdered. Many others died over the course of the next few years due to starvation, exhaustion, and disease. Estimates vary as to how many people died in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, but a reasonable range is between 1.5 to 2 million people.
That is the short version of the story, but I encourage you to do a little research for yourself if you aren't familiar with this historical era.
This week I went to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. Tuol Sleng was the former security office 21, created on orders of Pol Pot. It was designed for detention, interrogation, inhuman torture, and killing after confession from the detainees were received and documented. In 1979 after the Khmer Rouge was overtaken by the Vietnamese, all the evidence in S-21 (Tuol Sleng) was collected, including photographs, films, prisoner confession archives, torture tools, shackles, and 14 victims' corpses, which had not yet been disposed. Now, all of this is on display at Tuol Sleng.
These are the graves of the 14 victims that were found in 1979.
This is taken from inside one of the cells. There were rows of these cells on three different levels of a building. The first floor was cinder block like this one, but as you went up to the other floors the cell walls were wooden and became considerably smaller. This one was probably about 6 feet by 4 feet.
This is a torture room with a bed and some of the tools of torture.
There were rooms and rooms of photos of all the prisoners who were marched through Tuol Sleng, tortured and murdered. Faces get to me. I looked at all these pictures, and my heart ached. These were sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, neighbors and friends, who had done nothing to deserve this treatment except pursue rights that we take for granted daily.
And, this was their fate. This is a photo of only a tiny portion of those who were executed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
Someone wrote this on the wall outside one of the rooms, and though I don't condone defacing property like this, I do agree with the statement.
Walking through this museum and looking at all the photos, the shackles, the blood-stained tiles, I was tempted to ask, "God, where were You?" But, I know where He was. He was right there. He was in those torture chambers. He was in the dark cells. He was holding the prisoners. And, I believe He was asking where His people were. God, I don't ever want You to wonder again where Your people are and why they aren't doing something to fight the injustices of the world...
"Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?' Then I said, 'Here am I! Send me." ~ Isaiah 6:8


  1. If anyone is interested in learning more about this period in Cambodia's history, I highly recommend the book First They Killed my Father by Loung Ung. Loung was a young child when the Khmer Rouge overtook Phnom Penh and she tells her story of living through that time.

  2. This reminds me, to an extent, of some of the exhibits in London's Imperial War Museum. When I went after our freshman year in 2005, they had a special exhibit on genocide, and I kind of stumbled into it. I'll never, never forget the footage I saw.