Sunday morning I took Amirah and Simon to church. I like going to church in other countries, as much for the cultural experience as the spiritual. It’s authentic and natural, not designed for tourists in any way. People are just being themselves living their lives. Richard and the other kids opted for a walk on the river and good conversation in the park.
The meeting was all in Khmer, but an American missionary sat next to us and translated the best she could in a whisper. We sang the songs, broke bread and smiled at the kind elderly woman sitting next to us, who passed Simon and Amirah candies throughout the hour. Our tuk-tuk driver that the hotel had arranged for us that morning waited outside, happy to drive us back to the hotel for the return fare.
We met up with the rest of the family back at the hotel and loaded up into a tuk-tuk to drive 45 minutes out to Choeung Ek. In the 1970’s during the Cambodian genocide, the Khmer Rouge massacred hundreds of thousands of their own people in places that would come to be called Killing Fields. Choeung Ek is a museum of sorts where the story of the regime is told. We had been warned that the location itself was not problematic for kids, but the audioguide had intense parts. We decided not to give audioguides to Mim and Simon and we told Cameron and Eli to just skip ahead if it was too much.
Richard and I were trying to stay ahead of Cameron and Eli, so we could hear what they were going to hear before they did, and at one point it got so awful that I literally jumped to Eli’s side to yank off his headphones. The horrors were unspeakable.
The Khmer Rouge were trying to create a society of equality, so they first targeted the wealthy and educated. But as many regimes do, they became so paranoid and suspicious that they were undiscriminating in who they viewed as a threat, and killed. Including children.
The grounds were so harrowing, bones and clothing continue to surface to this day. It was heavy. Eventually I took the younger kids to a little snack shack to get cold sodas while Richard and the boys finished.
We used the tuk-tuk ride back into the city to have a conversation with the kids to try to process what we’d seen. As best as you can, there really is no way to make sense of these things.
Back in Phnom Penh we ate another lunch of our new favorites and then split up again. Cameron and I went to another museum about the genocide and Richard took the other kids swimming.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is an old high school that the Khmer Rouge transformed into a prison where they interrogated and tortured political prisoners. It had everything you would expect from a place like this- unfortunately these patterns repeat in history. Stories of innocent people who were forced to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, unlivable conditions and inhumane medical experiments.
At the end of our tour Cameron and I had the chance to meet a survivor named Norng Chan Phal. He was a boy at Tuol Sleng, and he survived by hiding with his little brother in a pile of laundry for days until the prison was liberated. It was touching to hear him tell us that he has a family now, and a happy life.
But I still couldn’t get my head around it. I never can. This was in the 1970s. After the Holocaust. The thing we swore would never happen again.
That night we were lucky to have dinner with some friends of ours from church. The Snows have a teenage daughter at home and happened to be in Cambodia at the same time as us. They came to our hotel and we enjoyed a warm evening on the rooftop of the hotel. They are the nicest people and the kids were thrilled to have the lovely Anna there to add a new dynamic to meal-time conversation.