Cambodia is facing a long and hard path rebuilding after the utter devastation wreaked by the Khmer Rouge atrocities and years of war. The Khmer Rouge executed a quarter of the population, including anyone with an education or anyone from a city. They emptied the cities, which were somewhat ironically overflowing with peasants from the countryside seeking refuge from American bombing, and just killed them all. While the economy is growing, there’s still so much to overcome, so the work with the Country Office took on special urgency for me, particularly because I studied genocide both undergrad and grad, and spent a good chunk of my career trying to advocate for atrocity prevention, intervention and justice.
Because of my crazy work schedule, pulling 12-14 hour days, I didn’t get the chance to get out and see any of Phnom Penh until Thursday evening, when I called it quits after only 9 hours and walked down to the Buddhist temple (wat), Wat Phnom, at twilight, then wandered down the riverfront. Not much other than bars and restaurants was still open, but I had a couple of lovely martinis followed by a stellar dinner of duck breast with a Cointreau, fois gras and green peppercorn sauce that I thought would be too-too much with the duck, but was delicious.
The luxury of the drinks and dinner stood in stark contrast to the poverty apparent on the streets. Phnom Penh was a world apart from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, or even Hanoi. I passed many trash heaps with people picking through them, naked children playing in the dirt (and worse), and other clear evidence of crushing poverty — it felt more like Nairobi than Bangkok.
Of course, I couldn’t leave Cambodia without visiting the Killing Fields on my last afternoon there, the literal fields only about 15km outside of Phnom Penh where thousands were brutally executed. Words fail at describing the experience, though I will say that the hour-long audio tour was amazing, capturing the horror of the experience without sensationalism, giving the listener enough context and background to situate the atrocities without ever being boring, and highlighting survivors’ stories while demonstrating the sheer scale of the killings in a way that wasn’t sensationalist.
When I got home, a friend asked if the visit depressed me. It didn’t. I have 20 years of thinking about this stuff, and it doesn’t depress me. It makes me angry. Forget even the genocides that have occurred since then, and since the Holocaust, despite the pledge of Never Again. Right now, in countless places, Eastern Congo, Syria, Darfur, others, mass atrocities are still happening, and not only is nobody doing anything, they really don’t even pretend to care anymore. So, no, not depressed. I’m angry as hell.
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