We started our day by writing a letter to ourselves and sealing it in an envelope; in the note, we thought about what makes us excited and nervous about the days to come. Inspired by one of our mentors, Juan-Carlos, we all took a few cleansing breaths, and then thought about WHY we are here. We used those thoughts to close our letters. It will be interesting to revisit these letters towards the end of the trip, and talk about the ways in which this journey surprised us or confirmed our expectations.
After writing into the morning, we piled onto the bus for the short ride out to the Choeng Ek, the memorial commemorating one of Cambodia’s hundreds of “killing fields.” These mass graves were spread throughout the country, but this one closest to Phnom Penh is where the victims of Tuol Sleng were transported when death became imminent. As we walked around the the central Stupa, there was quiet music playing to remind guests of the solemnity of the place. The soft echoing music was in stark contrast to the graphic descriptions of how men, women and children were slain. According to the signage, the Khmer strictly adhered to the slogan that to “clear the grasses…[one must] dig its entire root off,” leading to the arrest and murder of entire families in order to avoid revenge later in life. We were reminded of a line in the book we are reading, Never Fall Down, in which Arn Chorn Pond recounts having to bend like “grass” in the wind and do what is necessary to survive under the Khmer Rouge regime; it is powerful to think about these contradictory images of grass and everything that we learned today.
Back in Phnom Penh, we visited another notorious monument to Cambodia’s recent past. At Tuol Sleng, which was once a high school until it became known as Prison S-21, we toured the areas where prisoners were accused of working for the CIA and the KGB; victims would be tortured if they said no, or killed if they confessed.
Only seven individuals survived their time there, and we were able to meet the two who are still alive: Chum Mey and Buo Meng. Mey was spared because of his skills as a machinist, while Meng worked as an artist for the regime. Both men have co-authored books about their experiences, and we were able to pick up signed copies of their memoirs. Although Meng was left deaf and unable to speak by the torture he endured, Mey spoke for a few minutes and our guide, Chanath, translated for us. He thanked us for traveling to his country, and shared his hopes that we would return home and teach our families about the Khmer Rouge genocide. No one spoke as we gathered around him for a picture, and Chanath reminded us not to smile as we usually would when being photographed.
We ended our day by seeing a performance from a group of artists who have been trained by Cambodian Living Arts, a non-profit organization started by Khmer Rouge survivor Arn Chorn Pond. Through this program, Cambodian youth are able to learn and preserve traditional Khmer art forms, which were in danger of dying out after the genocide. Our first day in Phnom Penh left us with a much richer understanding of what happened here during the 20th century, and a growing sense of gratitude for our shared experience of traveling together.