In June of this year I went to Cambodia. I went for a study abroad program with school. Before I left I heard all about how studying in a different country changes you forever. How it broadens your perspectives and changes your life forever. You meet people you will never forget and see things you will keep with you forever. Now, being a cynic on anyone else’s opinion but mine, I thought this was a load of bull. I was going to one of the poorest countries in the world– I knew I would think about things differently. I’m not ignorant. But I didn’t realize the extent to how I would be changed. How it would change my motives, my aspirations, my story. My existence.
Before my trip to Cambodia, I did not know much about its history or about the Khmer Rouge. In fact, I had never stopped to think about how WWII and the Cold War had affected Cambodia at all. The required reading was my first taste of the Khmer story. And its wretchedness left me in grief for all of those like Loung Ung that lost so much.
Loung Ung , author of First They Killed My Father, is a survivor from the desperate years of the Khmer Rouge regime– a time when over two million Cambodian people were killed by slaughter, starvation, or being worked to death. When Sihanouk was moved to Beijing and denounced as head of state, the Lon Nol government was in control, and it was very corrupt. The Khmer Rouge was just a whisper before, but now it gained more support and followers out of the crooked political situation and sour sentiment. In 1975, they evacuated the entirety of Phnom Penh and it was the beginning of a four year struggle for the Khmer Rouge to stay in power and for the people of Cambodia to stay alive and sane.
Ung’s father was a member of the Lon Nol government and thus was a victim of the regime’s antagonism. Her family was forced to leave Phnom Penh, traveling the countryside searching for food and anonymity from Pol Pot’s spies. They made a living at various work camps, but the family was gradually split up and broken. After losing her father, mother, two sisters, a brother, and her childhood innocence, Ung was left alone to fend for herself. Without her determined spirit and strong resolve it would have difficult for her survive, though it is amazing to think she did survive this terrible time. She was eventually reunited with her brothers and sister, and fled to America, where she now resides and works as an activist and author.
Ung’s story captivated me. I started reading it on the plane ride to Bangkok and was finished in less than six hours. I knew how her story would end, because she is obviously still alive and well, but I had to know how it happened. My sick sense of curiosity had to know the suffering, the starvation, the despair– I had to experience it with her in her five-year-old mind. For those six hours I was running with her and the other frightened people from Phnom Penh. I was scared of being caught, scared of never seeing my home again, and scared of losing my family. I was salivating with her at every grain of rice she picked, except every time the food cart on the airplane came by it was a sickening reminder of how privileged my life is and how I will probably never know what it is like to be truly starving and afraid. I was immersed in that book. Everything was so incredibly real to me. And then it was over. We landed in Bangkok (eventually) and I got caught up in the excitement of a big foreign city with my friends and forgot about the land of literature that I had just come from. Because that was all it was to me then—literature. I read my fair share of books every year: memoirs, classics, fantasy, thrillers, religious works, political analysis, histories. And yes, this was a memoir, but I forgot that. I was thinking it was just another one of my fantasy books and that someone dreamed this out of their own disturbed mind and though that it was touching and profound and desperately sad, it couldn’t have been real. Deep down, I really thought this, until we got to Battamgbang.
The first thing that I remember feeling uneasy about on the way to Battambang was the red checked Khmer Rouge scarf in the dirt next to the bus. It was eerie how it was so visible to everyday people, of course the type of village we were in wasn’t exactly westernized and wouldn’t have been the object of wrath from the communist ideals of the regime, but the visual was still startling. It was the first thing I had seen that was described in Ung’s memoir. I had other moments of uneasiness in that city, but when we got to the Killing Caves I had a hard time separating fact from fiction, until I realized that what I was seeing and what I had read were both real. The book from the plane was finally becoming more than just a book. As my hands shook and my lips trembled I tried to keep my calm and not be too emotional about the fact that people rolled down into those caves dead or spent the last moments of their lives lying in a pit surrounded by corpses. I had a hard time walking back down the mountain after seeing where infants were thrown into the cave while their mothers watched. And that night I wept for humanity and all the evil it is capable of. I cried out my sorrow for families that had to see their loved ones die like that. I have experienced much death in my short life but I couldn’t even fathom having to witness something that barbaric and hateful. I sobbed in self pity because I felt helpless to do anything to make the world a better place. How could anyone be in their right mind commit a crime as heinous as murdering innocents? My reaction to the Killing Caves put me in a more somber mindset but the S-21 prison was an even bigger reality check for me, and also a lesson in world views.
I knew seeing the Killing Fields Memorial and S-21 was going to be heavy. I had prepared myself for it quite well actually.
Of course, that was before I knew there would be mug shots in the prison. I wandered into the B building first, which was a mistake because it numbed me to the rest of the prison and made me angry.
Icouldn’t believe they had kept all the pictures of the inmates. But I still walked through very slowly. I told myself, “This is what you have read about. Real people. The real people are right here. They lived here and they died here.” And so I forced myself to look at every photograph. I saw dejected children that looked like my sister and hopeless women with black eyes that looked like my stepmother. Those similarities didn’t get past me either; these people were the same as me and my family. They were living life as they always had, and then in one day their families were ripped apart forever. They were pushed into a tiny cell and treated like something less than human. It made me so angry, so I went and opened the door to every cell on the second floor in the prison. There is no reason for them to be closed anymore. The people are gone. That era is gone and a new generation that wishes change upon their country is coming into their moment to be revolutionary.
I talked with a few young people while in Battambang and Phnom Penh about the political status of Cambodia. There is so much passion and love for their country and yet so much hopelessness and frustration with their government. But the spark is still there. I would love to see them turn Cambodia into a flourishing country again. I would love to see that spark ignited into something beautiful and into some uniquely Khmer. The students in the democracy forum we attended were asking how they can have a democracy like America’s. I think the key to Cambodia’s future is realizing that they have to become a democracy in their own way. Ung has turned her experience into a stepping stone for activism, and so many other survivors could do the same.
I had a lot of time to think about Cambodia when I got back. I have been reading more on its history and I look for news articles on the upcoming elections—of course there are not many. But I still look. I will remember the temples, the botany, the monkeys, the nightlife, and the friends I made. Although most of all I promised myself I would always remember the people. I want to remember the people and their stories. I need to remember because if I don’t I may as well have gone to Europe or Australia for a study abroad program. I used to scoff at people who came back from studying abroad saying it had changed their life. Now I understand, and now I have a passion for helping people like I have never had before. Now, I know I am eating my words, but Cambodia changed my life. It made my experience as a young adult richer, more beautiful, and it gave me a story that needs to be told, a story of sadness and brutality, but also of hope.