Before I came here, I knew that genocide wasn’t right. But as I stood in front of the S-21 prison in Cambodia, my hair stood on edge, my heart beat a little faster, and I knew that it was far worse than just not right. It was the most terrible thing imaginable.
For the past month, I had been traveling throughout Thailand, tanning on the world’s most beautiful beaches and hiking in pristine forests. It was perhaps the most beautiful month of my life. I’d seen the culture: the beautiful colors, outlandish nightlife, and tantilizing street food. I’d submerged myself in the life of fresh fruit smoothies, walks on the beach and romantic dinners. I knew this was quite the life. Yet, I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t come halfway around the world to go swimming, I wanted something that would challenge me; something that would get me excited about life.
We’d heard travelers tell stories about Cambodia. The mysterious country of Angkor Wat and the silently masked genocide of the Pol Pot Regime seemed right up our alley.
As our plane landed in Siem Reap, the home of the majestic Angkor Wat temples, my stomach twisted in knots. Our guidebook described Cambodia as a country teeming with landmines, an uneducated population and a nation without hope. This phrase really caught my attention – a nation without hope. I couldn’t fathom what this would be like. I hoped that I would spot a glimmer of life somewhere and that I could prove this guidebook wrong.
I wanted to believe that despite the past genocide, beautiful things could still happen.
Staggering into the city, under the weight of our heavy packs, we walked along the river and up towards a small quarter of shops and restaurants that had an unexpected colonial feel. Children began running towards us, selling fake copies of books and begging for money. Seven-year old girls clutched their baby sisters, begging for milk, not for money. They smiled sweetly, while using the few English phrases they knew to talk about the United States. When we didn’t offer anything, they told us that we must hate the children of Cambodia. These words stung more than anything I’d ever heard.
Walking further down the street, we saw grown men without legs sitting on the corner, holding signs that said the Pol Pot regime destroyed their chance at education and the landmines maimed their body, but despite all this, they wanted to stay alive. They still wanted their chance at life.
I needed to help, to restore their dignity and their life. Buying a book wouldn’t solve their problem. A few dollars wouldn’t fix their wounds or heal their country. It was the first time I felt completely helpless. Nothing I could do would repair this man’s misery.
After passing through the herds of begging children, we left for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia – a dirty city hustling with life. A brown river ran through the center, surrounded by begging children, overcrowded roads and tour groups destined for mass killing grave sites and shooting ranges.
On the surface, Phnom Penh seemed so alive. If you searched a little harder, though, you could sense the pain and distrust buried within these people. One third of the country was indiscriminately slaughtered only decades ago, almost everyone lost someone they cared about deeply. I can’t imagine living with such painful memories and trying to maintain daily life.
Back in the S-21 prison, I walked around, desperately holding onto my boyfriend – seeking comfort from death through love. These rooms, which once held happy school children, were turned into torture chambers – a room for development and enrichment had been converted into a prison that held destruction. I wanted to pretend it didn’t exist, but I couldn’t. I was there.
I saw pictures of terrified children and the remnants of human skulls. Something very wrong had been done to humanity. I could not let go of my boyfriend’s hand that day.
Leaving the torture prison, I noticed an elementary school right outside the forbidden walls. Children were laughing, singing and chasing each other around the room. Right in the midst of this terrible history, I saw hope flash before my eyes. In the middle of despair, these children were making the best of it, oblivious to the grief of their nation. In that moment, I realized that everything would be ok.