“Of course we despise what they did but should we act and feel the same towards them? Of course not, then we would be just like them.”
Today in Phnom Penh, Cambodia we saw death and hatred. It was a difficult day, but a necessary one when visiting Cambodia. Necessary because you must experience the Killing Fields and S21 in order to understand the scars of the Cambodian people.
This country has more amputees than any other country, per capita, on earth— a legacy of a brutal regime that littered the land with minefields. This country also has more orphans than most countries, for various reasons— illness, no access to basic healthcare.
The current generation of Cambodians is also getting over the psychological scars of a brutal regime that in the 1970s (in my own lifetime!) conducted a mass genocide of people it deemed unworthy and unnecessary in its goal to create a perfect agrarian society.
Pohl Pot was the madman who perpetrated this evil, that led to the mass murder of all of the country’s educated people— those with drivers licenses, passports, glasses… Teachers and other professionals were all targeted as well.
The capital city of Phnom Penh— today a bustling city of 2 million people— was evacuated in 72 hours and emptied of all human existence in the mid 1970s— its citizens taken to rice fields for forced labor and eventually to the infamous Killing Fields.
It’s ironic that I’m on a journey, in support of Leon Logothetis who is traveling around the world relying on people’s kindness. And today, we visited a place known for brutality. We walked on blood soaked land where hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were brought to be massacred by machete and left to rot in fields and orchards.
In all, we were told there were 388 known “killing fields” around Cambodia where almost 3 million people were brought to be killed.
During the rainy season, bits of bones appear on the surface, as do scraps of clothing the people murdered here were wearing when they were left to rot. This is happening— forty years later.
We also visited an infamous tree— the baby tree, they called it, because it was here were the Khmer Rouge officials took in fats from the arms of mothers and smashed them (yes, I said smashed) against the tree— so not to waste a bullet on the babies. After they subjected the mothers to the horror of watching their children’s brains smashed onto the side of a tree, they were then hacked to death in a pit right next to the tree
“The lucky ones”, the guide told us, died of a heart attack while watching their children being killed and were never subjected to the Khmer Rouge sword.
After the killing fields we visited S21, a former school that the regime turned into a torture facility and jail, where an estimated 20,000 people were killed in some of the most brutal ways. The place still smelled of death and evil four decades later as much of it was left as it was when the Pohl Pot regime was overthrown.
While there we met a man who struck up a conversation with Leon and his team. We learned that he was a prisoner here and ultimately survived the ordeal. When asked how he felt about the Khmer Rouge and the death they brought upon Cambodia, he responded without hesitation:
This was yet another of the many lessons that I have learned on this journey that has forever changed me.
If I react and respond the same way towards my aggressor or opponent that he did to me, then I become exactly like him.
The other thing I learned is that fanaticism— if left unchecked— is the root of all evil on this planet. Religious, nationalistic, ethnic, political— any kind of fanaticism— can lead to destruction, which is why I love the Ancient Greek philosophy of “Pan Metron Ariston” or everything in moderation— even our beliefs.
It was nationalistic fanaticism that led maniacs like Adolph Hitler, Kemal Ataturk and Pohl Pot to wage their genocidal campaigns… Religious fanaticism that brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11 and caused endless death and destruction during the Crusades… Political fanaticism that led George Bush and Dick Cheney to wage a useless war in Iraq that killed tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis for reasons still unknown to most of the world.
It’s why I’m learning not to be a fanatic about my religion and beliefs, about my nation, about anything, actually. Everything in moderation.