I just finished my second stint in Cambodia in the past two months. While this one was brief, only a few days in the capital city of Phnom Penh, they were packed to the gills with history and emotion. We visited both Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields in a single day…talk about a one-two punch to the heart.
Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, was the most secretive and horrific of the prisons run by the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Prisoners, mainly educated people and those who had worked for the former government, were brought here on buses, kept in tiny cells, tortured daily until they confessed to whatever crimes the Khmer Rouge could think to bring against them, and then finally executed. As we walked the halls of the prison, saw the torture rooms, looked at the pictures of the many prisoners, and stepped inside the coffin-shaped cells, it was difficult not to feel a chill. So much evil and cruelty had occurred fairly recently in the very spaces we were standing. It was a spooky feeling, and there was a heaviness in the air that wasn’t due to the humidity. The compound had once been a high school, but the Khmer Rouge shut down all schools, places of worship, hospitals, factories, and most offices when it took over. The school was turned into a house of horrors where people were tortured and murdered daily.
The Killing Fields were, if possible, worse. After prisoners had done their time at Tuol Sleng, they were sent a little way outside the city, to this site, to be murdered. By the end of the regime, more prisoners were arriving to be killed every day than the soldiers could keep up with. Thousands of people are buried here. Walking around, listening to the audio tour, is almost indescribably sad. The fields today are beautiful, and it is a very peaceful, tranquil place. The kind of place I can picture going on a picnic or taking a meditative walk. It would be lovely. Except, of course, that if you are very still and open yourself up, you can still feel the mourning souls of those lost to mindless inhumanity on the hallowed ground. It was here that the human race sunk to a new low…hopefully rock bottom.
It was a sad day, to say the least, but I think it was also a very important day. As difficult as it is to see those things, listen to those stories, look at those pictures, and walk those paths, nothing could be more necessary. It’s imperative that we don’t forget what happened in those rooms and at those grave sites. It’s essential to know what man is capable of at it’s worst because it’s only then that we can understand what is at stake when we fight for peace. When we seek to understand each other, to reach past fear and misunderstanding, to cross barriers, to hear all sides of the story, to forgive and love and accept, we are helping to ensure that what happened in Cambodia cannot happen again. When we fight to end domestic violence, gang violence, gun violence, and all types of violence, our battle gains new meaning when we understand exactly what is at stake: it is nothing less than our very humanity.
Depravity and cruelty reigned during the Khmer Rouge. It haunts the memories of all Cambodians, but it’s a burden we all carry as humans. We all share a potential for evil. That evil has manifested itself over and over again: the Holocaust, Sudan, Cambodia, Guatemala….and we cannot afford to forget. We cannot let the past slip through our fingers. We must grab hold. We must hold those memories and horrors tight as a warning to never let fear and selfishness control our actions. Fear is, after all, at the root of these great tragedies – fear of what we don’t understand, fear of personal repercussions, fear of loss. Thankfully, there is a very easy solution to this fear; it’s love. It’s that simple, and that’s what I take away from today. Love until it hurts. Love with everything you have. Because the consequences of not loving are too great to even consider.