I awoke, groggy, in a white washed concrete room. The only window faced a dark corridor. Hot viscous air was buffeted at my face in frequent intervals by a revolving fan. Reaching my limit of permissible heat I dressed and made an exit. The cheeky reception boys were entertaining the last few breakfasters.
‘Good morning!’ they chirruped together. Blinking at the daytime light, I sat down. ‘Where do you want to go today?’ one asked. Guiltily unresponsive I murmured something about a museum. After a quick coffee fix I was bundled into a flamboyant lime tuk tuk. Wearing a Jack Daniels emblazoned t-shirt, with a pony tail longer than mine, I warmed to today’s company.
He drove erratically through the teeming, overwrought streets of Phnom Penh and spoke little. He dropped me at a gated corner of the perimeter of an enormous concrete wall, adorned with plaited rolls of barbed wire. We agreed to reconvene in 90 minutes. He left me at the open gates of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
I knew astonishingly little about the genocide before arriving in Cambodia. I was aware of the synonymous name of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge yet the details of the event drew a blank. It had only been one week prior at the foot of the ‘Secret Lake’ that any details of Cambodia’s past had been divulged. We had hired a tuk tuk driver to take us on a short tour of the countryside surrounding sleepy Kampot. We stopped at the salt fields initially, and in well rehearsed English, our driver explained the laborious work of the salt collectors. He pointed at the dried out empty fields bordered by shallow levees and irrigation tracks. Not a single soul was to be seen. During wet season, he told us, many people work in the salt stores, but there is not enough work so most leave to work seasonally in Vietnam or Thailand. We drove on. He slipped off the uneven concrete road down a dirt track. Dust thrown up by traffic painted the wooden thatch houses, farmed fields, and playing children in a sheet of red mud.
We drove along a canal where buffalo chewed grass and butterflies roamed. Two boys on bicycles caught sight of the two foreigners in the back of a tuk tuk. They pursued us up stream on the other side of the water way, arms flailing amidst shouts of welcome. ‘They are good boys’ our driver mentioned. ‘They look after the cows for their mother and father…’ There was a short glitch in our driver’s speech. The tuk tuk trundled up the ascending road. A shining lake revealed itself just over the grassy fold. Our driver stopped at the foot. ‘This is the Secret Lake’ he informed, ‘it used to be small. But the Khmer Rouge came. They made all the people work to dig a bigger lake.’ A flurry of motorbikes drove by, stopping a few meters away. ‘For a lot of people, the work was too hard, they didn’t give enough food to them’, he continued, ‘many people died to make this lake’ The bikers made their peace fingers, took their selfies, and sped off. Their voices caught the wind as they departed unaware of the secret of the lake.
In 1975, shortly after the taking of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia closed its borders. The atrocities which bore the name of communism contributed to the extermination of millions who posed a threat to the ideology, all of it behind closed doors. The regime had few foreign visitors. The admitted few were fooled into believing that the Khmer Rouge had established peace, prosperity, and solidarity, in order to garner Western support. Refugee stories were branded as ostentatious and untrustworthy by reputable theorists, scholars and journalists. Only after the liberation of Phnom Penh, the irrefutable evidence contained within the S21 prison and the Killing Fields was unveiled to the international community. By this stage nearly a quarter of the population had been exterminated. The long term damage caused by less than four years of Pol Pot’s hard rule ensured that many more would fall from starvation and disease in the following years.
The disturbing neglect of the Western community in this case is nothing short of appalling. The West ignored the stories of the refugees, choosing to believe their ambassadors. Many of those visitors still maintain a pro Khmer Rouge stance, believing the evidence to be a fabrication of the Vietnamese or anti-communist sentiment. The genocide is still subject to denial in some circles, even in the West.
The Cambodian people however do not appear to bear a grudge. Recent history has left tell tale pockmarks on Cambodia. Parts of the country remain plagued with land mines. The economy began the slow road to recovery decades ago yet economics has yet to be kind. Most eerie is perhaps the seeming lack of presence of an older generation. Like most humans, Cambodians possess a tenacious capacity for love and laughter, and forgiveness, but particular to the Cambodian cultural narrative is the duty to educate about an unrepeatable past. The message from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum rings clear. Genocide is not new. Genocide will happen and since 1980 has happened again. But we need to put our ‘needs’ aside and recognise the early warning signs of a humanitarian crisis. We must respond more swiftly. We must learn from the mistakes of the past.
Writing about Cambodia has been difficult; I do not wish to sound egotistical in saying that. But I cannot help but relate my compassion for the Cambodian story to the ongoing crisis we face right now. There are approximately 4 million Syrians displaced by a conflict which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Reportage on the conflict fell quiet years ago and resumed only once dead children began to wash up on Turkey’s shores. We have the tools, the learning, and the compassion, yet we continue to ignore the cries of millions. Are we too busy, drinking Malbec in the comfort of our armchairs watching The Great British Bake Off, or are our governments too desperate to please in a first past the post system? Collective Western negligence already condemned Cambodia to suffer. By refusing basic asylum now, our negligence will again, unintentionally, contribute to what could one day be called the genocide of the Syrian population. Do we want that on our collective conscience? The only argument I have been presented with so far is that refugees will want to settle in our country but we do not have the capacity. Plainly, that is cold arrogance. I am sure if you asked any one of the millions of refugees ‘where do you want to go today?’, their answer would be home.
Anyone who is interested, here’s an article on what you could do to help.