musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Sunday, June 10, 2012

From Cambodia: Beauty out of a Dark Past

Last Monday was the most difficult day of the trip. By a long shot.

Today, as I sit on the porch of a bungalow looking out over the ocean to the islands in the distance, it's hard to imagine that Cambodia and all it's beautiful people, beaches and heritage could have been such a place of carnage just over three decades ago. The dichotomy of what I see today and what I saw Monday is astounding.

I've written about paradise on a couple of occasions. There's the Madagascar version and the Zanzibar version - both examples of how time slows to a crawl, how the sun wins everytime over my pale skin, and how infantessimally small a place we each occupy on this earth. I'm not here to tell you that our newly experienced chunk of heaven (at Paradise Bungalows on Koh Rong Island off the coast of Sihanoukville in Cambodia) is better or worse than that which we experience in East Africa. I'm not a beach guy and, if anything, I prefer Koh Rong because (probably because of the time of year we're here) it's a bit cooler.

What I am here to tell you is that, despite the regular naps, cocktails and sound of the waves hitting the beach, I'm still struggling to come to terms with Monday, the day I met the Khmer Rouge.

It's difficult to describe the atrocities committed by the leaders of Cambodia from 1975-1979 in any detail without turning yours and my stomach. In brief, Pol Pot and his cronies killed over 2 million people in 4 years, a third of the number killed in the Holocaust. They didn't have the funds for bullets, so they used farm tools. You get the idea.

Walking around the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh and the killing fields (their term, not mine) just outside of town, I was struck by a few things. Firstly, the museums (especially the killing fields) are presented with taste and reverence, no easy task given the gravity of the subject. They're meant to (and succeed in) present information, honor the memory of those who perished, and cause the visitor to consider the implications of what they have just experienced. They didn't think it could happen to them. Not in peaceful Cambodia. Those types of things only happen in Nazi Germany, Pinochet's Chile or Sudan's Darfur... right?

The second thing that was impossible to ignore was the abundance of middle-aged amputees and other disabled survivors. They beg outside museums, they perform music while you walk around the temples of Angkor Wat, and most do whatever they can to be functional members of society. Another legacy of the genocide, their plight is expanded upon by a friend on her blog, so I'll stop there. (Here's another good post from her on Cambodia.)

Lastly, Monday's eye opening has caused me to think a lot about the nature of humanity, specifically how such evil can make a home for itself inside some people. This is most likely not a discussion that will manifest itself here on the interwebs where Angry Birds (all the rage in SE Asia) and Facebook reign supreme. This is something that I have to deal with through education, thought, and discussion with those who understand me the best. What makes people do something like this? The Pol Pots. The Hitlers. The Gaddhafis. The Saddams. Are they insane? Are they inherently evil? Were they abused as children? Is there anything we can do to make sure this doesn't happen again?

Their hate is real. It came from somewhere. It will undoubtedly (and unfortunately) manifest itself somewhere else in history, such is the reality of human nature. Luckily for me I have been privileged enough to be loved by amazing family, friends and communities throughout my life. I'm lucky enough to be able to explore the far ends of the earth and the stunningly beautiful parts of Cambodia (quick pause to look up from the iPad). The smiles on the faces of villagers, airline attendants and waiters remind me that fortunately those with love greatly outnumber those with hate in Cambodia and our strange world. They're trying to move past a devastating time in their history, encouraging visitors (as do I wholeheartedly) to experience all parts of their history (admirably even the darkest hours) and, as I am currently doing, soak up the copious sun on one of the many white, sandy beaches.