30 January 2011

Same Skin. Same Bhudda.

(Published 10 October 2010)

I am 32 years old.  If I were Cambodian I would have been born into the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.  In all likelihood I would not be alive today.

“Then Ma hears the slush of mud as a soldier moves his position.  Her heart pounds as if it will rip through her chest.  One soldier slings his rifle across his back and walks toward the group.  Ma feels the ground beneath her become warm and wet.  Glancing to her side, she sees that the man next to her has wet his pants.  A soldier approaches the group.  He walks straight toward her.  Ma’s eyes widen with hope.  Her heart palpitates with fear.  The soldier reaches down and grabs Geak’s shoulders.  The two of them scream a loud shrill scream that echoes through the air.  But the soldiers do not stop and pull Geak out of her grasp as they cling to one another, yelling to each other not to let go.  The soldier tears them apart until only the tips of their fingers hold them together, then that chain too is broken.  All the villagers cry and beg and start to get up off their knees.  Suddenly the rattling sounds of rifles go off and bullets pierce through their bodies, silencing their screams.

Geak runs over to Ma’s slumped-over body with her face in the mud.  Geak is only six-years old, too young to understand what has just happened.  She calls Ma and shakes her shoulders.  She touches Ma’s cheeks and ears, and grabs her hair to try to lift her face out of the mud, but she is not strong enough.  While rubbing her eyes, she wipes Ma’s blood all over her own face.  She pounds her fists on Ma’s back, trying to wake her up, but Ma is gone.  Holding on to Ma’s head, Geak screams and screams, not stopping to take in any air.  One soldier’s face darkens and he raises his rifle.  Seconds later, Geak too is silenced.”*

On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city of Phnom Penh and all other urban areas of the country.  “The Americans will bomb the city” they said, “You can return in three days.”  The people believed them.  Cambodia was never the same.

Lead by Pol Pot the Khmer Rouge renamed Cambodia, Democratic Kampuchea.  Their mission was to radically reshape Cambodia into an extremist communist society supported by agriculture and beholden to no foreign nation.  The people were driven into forced labor camps where they toiled in the fields, planting, harvesting and digging irrigation ditches.  They were to follow the commands of the Khmer Rouge (or as they preferred to be known the Angkar) or face execution as enemies of the state.

Pol Pot’s Angkar did away with the country’s monetary system, outlawed modern technology, and systematically executed all doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers and other learned people, including anyone who wore glasses, a perceived sign of intelligence.

People in the camps all wore the same black uniform with red and white scarf.  They were allotted meals based on the availability of food, which was often determined by how much rice needed to be shipped to China to buy guns.  Despite their communist claims to equalize the people, life in Democratic Kampuchea was not equal.  The soldiers were the elite.  The native villagers were given a small modicum of leniency because they were seen as pure representatives of the state.  And the former city dwellers were distrusted and abused.  The abuses varied wildly from region-to-region but one abuse was universal, the people were starving.

“I never eat my soup all at once, and do not want my own family to take mine away.  I sit quietly, savoring it spoonful by spoonful, drinking the broth first.  What’s left at the bottom of my bowl is approximately three spoonfuls of rice, and I have to make this last.  I eat the rice slowly, and even pick up one grain if I drop it on the ground.  When it is gone I will have to wait until tomorrow before I can have more.  I look into my bowl, and my heart cries as I count the eight grains that are left in my bowl.  Eight grains are all I have left!  I pick up each grain and chew it slowly, trying to relish the taste, not wanting to swallow.  Tears mix with the food in my mouth; my heart falls to my stomach when all the eight grains are gone and I see that the others are still eating theirs.

The population in the village is growing smaller by the day.  Many people have died, mostly from starvation, some from eating poisonous food, others killed by soldiers.  Our family is slowly starving to death and yet, each day, the government reduces our food ration.  Hunger, there is always hunger.  We have eaten everything that is edible, from rotten leaves on the ground to the roots we dig up.  Rats, turtles, and snakes caught in our traps are not wasted as we cook and eat their brains, tails, hides, and blood.  When no animals are caught, we roam the fields for grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets.”*

On January 7, 1979 Vietnam liberated Phnom Penh bringing a shaky halt to terrors of the Khmer Rouge.  Under Pol Pot’s reign 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, sickness and murder, more than a quarter of its entire population.  The liberation of Phnom Penh did not return Cambodia to what it was, but it did mark the end of a living nightmare and the start to a tumultuous recovery that over the last decade has finally given Cambodia and its people a comfort and belief in tomorrow.  

Today Phnom Penh is a wonder.  It is bright and vibrant and proud.  The shimmering colors of its palace and its French colonial past are framed by skyward reaching construction projects that symbolize the city's growing strength and global importance.  It is sad that in a city with so much life the outside world comes to see death.  The festering wounds of the Khmer Rouge are on full display in Phnom Penh.  These “tourist” sites are advertised in every guesthouse and in the back of every Tuk Tuk.  Paying to see death feels exploitative, but as a visitor it is a truth you must see.  To truly appreciate light you must understand dark.

Our Tuk Tuk drops us off in front of an orchard.  It is beautiful.  It is quiet.  It is lush.  It is nature’s veil pulled across the blood and bone and agony that lie beneath.  It is Choeung Ek, The Killing Fields.  During Pol Pot’s reign unspeakable atrocities were committed at Choeung Ek.  The executed were buried in mass graves by the hundreds. Women were buried beheaded and nude.  Babies were smashed against trees.  The still breathing were covered in corrosive chemicals to silence their screams and stifle the coming stench of their decaying bodies.  In the center of Choeung Ek a beautifully constructed stupa displays the skulls of more than 8000 victims.  The skulls all bear the marks of the Angkar; puncture holes from pick-axes, gapping holes from hammers, bone split from the sweep of a scythe.  Bullets were a precious commodity in Democratic Kampuchea; blunt force trauma was the preferred method of extermination.  Thirty years later the dark secrets of Choeung Ek are still worming and climbing their way to the surface.  During the monsoon season rains wash away the veil exposing the skeletal tales of genocide.  

It is in our nature to survive.  It is in our nature to seek the success of our species.  We never see genocide coming and we never act quickly enough to stop it because we foolishly believe that there is a limit to man’s capacity for evil.  Alfred Nobel famously defended the potential use of his new invention dynamite for purposes of war by saying, “My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions.  As soon as men will find that entire armies can be utterly destroyed, they will surely abide by golden peace.”  Nobel made the mistake of believing that there is a difference between man and men.  He made the mistake of believing that evil can be uncontained in a person, but that people will always protect the species.  As we have seen too many times the masses have no such boundries.  Pol Pot did not kill a quarter of Cambodia’s population, the Khmer Rouge did, thousands willingly and purposefully starved and murdered millions.  How did people, a collection of individuals, commit such heinous acts for so long?  That is the absurdity of genocide. It should be impossible.  Instead it is impossible to deny.  

Sickened and doubting the necessity we next went to Tuol Sleng or as it is better known Security Prison 21 (S-21).  S-21 was originally a high school.  Given the Angkar’s disdain for education it is not surprising that they chose this site as their epicenter of torture and imprisonment.  If you did not know the significance of the site you could stand on the fringes and imagine what a brightly painted, student buzzing version of the facility might have looked like, but history has made that impossible.  Instead what you see is cold cement and barbed wire and death.  Inside the classrooms are separated by temporary walls.  With so many to torture walls needed to be built.  The Khmer Rouge soldiers working at S-21 kept detailed records of their activities, diligently recording the unspeakable.  Their exact methods do not matter.  The frightened and bewildered faces of the prisoners in photographs displayed throughout the facility say it all, “This isn’t real.  This can’t be real.”   

Leaving S-21 I was hit hard by the recentness of the Cambodian genocide.  As I walked towards our Tuk Tuk I saw two local vendors talking and laughing.  They stood within a few feet of the entrance.  They were older than me, probably in their mid-forties.  I half turned and watched them out of my peripheral.  I did not want to stare but I was too absorbed to break my line-of-sight.  As I watched them my pulse beat slow and thick.  I could feel the blood stretching and forcing its way through my veins pulling the moisture from my mouth and the strength from my joints in its wake.  My blood had become my thought made physical in all of its staggering seeping sadness, they know.

They are older than me.  They were there.  The starvation, the death, the separation and loss, they know and yet here they stand inches from tortures ghost laughing and living.  How is that possible?  The things they endured can crush and bind the soul until it is charred and lightless.  How did they resurrect their sense-of-self after all that they have seen?  I found the answer in an unexpected place, the bumpy confines of a Tuk Tuk.

Our Tuk Tuk drivers name was Mr. Call, real name Ouk Thearea.  Mr. Call was 40 years old, outgoing, and immediately left me wishing I had brought a pen.  I knew my memory would never capture all the words I wanted.  As he drove us through the city, I leaned forward to hear him over the buzz of motobikes and city hum. 

“Michael, you are American?”


“I can do a good American accent, ‘What’s up dude’  ‘How’s it hanging bro?’  ‘Long and (censored)”

“Who taught you that?”

“Americans.  Very funny.  They also teach me (censored) (censored) (censored)”

Mr. Call laughs hysterically.  He appreciates the jokes Americans should not be teaching him.  This was on the way to the National Museum, our first stop.  On the way to The Killing Fields his choice of topics shifted.

“Michael.  I am 40 years old.  I was 10 when the Khmer Rouge.  Little kid.”

“Were you in Phnom Penh?”

“Two hours to the north.  I was working all the time.  Everyday.  I was very scared.”  

“And Michael, when I was very young.  Less than five, America was bombing Cambodia.  B-52s dropping bombs (exploding sound effects) like rain.  Fire.  I was very young, but my Mom tell me about it.  Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos borders, America fly b-52s, many bombs”

A United Nations truck drives past.  Mr. Call watches it with interest.

“United Nations.  They are helping the trials.  Trials for Khmer Rouge.  But they are only interested in the leaders.  The Khmer Rouge soldiers, the young soldiers they are everywhere now.”

Mr. Call points out at the bustling streets to illustrate his point.

“Young Khmer Rouge were cruelly.  Illegal.  So cruelly.  Illegal.”

Mr. Call says the words “cruelly” and “illegal” with deep emotion.  He wants these words to stick.

“The young Khmer Rouge change.  They no longer believe.  You cannot point them out.  Too many.  Trial is only for the leaders.  Young Khmer Rouge still everywhere.  Different.  But, used to be so cruelly.  Illegal.”

“Michael, maybe I am Khmer Rouge, huh?  Maybe Mr. Call, Khmer Rouge.”

Mr. Call laughs.  He was a little boy, five when the Khmer Rouge took power, ten when Phnom Penh was liberated, but his point is made.  Where did the soldiers go?  No where.  They are still living in Cambodia, forever unpunished for their crimes.

Driving through a part of the city with dense chaotic traffic, Mr. Call points at the sea of motobikes, most of which are driven by teens and young adults.

“Before Khmer Rouge, Cambodia no educate.  People working, don’t go to school.  Now the young people are smart.  They educate.  Before big companies take advantage, Cambodia makes bad deals.  But, not now.  People are learning.”

As we got in the Tuk Tuk after S-21, Mr. Call could see that we were gut punched.  Rather than getting on the bike he leaned against the side and pointed to his hands, to the color of his skin.

“Khmer Rouge…same skin…same Buddha…why kill?  This I don’t understand.  Why kill?  I don’t understand.”

“Michael.  America help the Khmer Rouge”


“My teacher when I was in school tell me this.  America have election.  Democrat?  Before many American soldiers.  After election all the soldiers leave.  But, America still watching.  CIA is in Cambodia.  They make General Lon Nol in charge of the country.  This made the Khmer Rouge mad and they are fighting.  The Khmer Rouge win.”

When he dropped us off that afternoon Mr. Call posed for a picture and agreed to take me to the airport the following morning.  He was a friendly guy.  I am sure he talks effortlessly to all of his passengers.  He probably tells them some of the very things he told me.  But, I wonder how many people actually listen to the beauty of what he has to say?  I wonder how many make the mistake of letting his voice drown into the buzz of the motobikes and the hum of the city.  I am glad I leaned forward.  I am glad I listened.  Because, later as I thought about what I had seen it was Mr. Call’s words that helped me understand how a people ravaged so completely can smile so genuinely.

Buddhism encourages calmness and understanding.  There was no subtext to the things Mr. Call said to me.  He was not trying to elicit a response or take a shot at an American.  He did not want my sympathy for the evils he has suffered.  He was simply, and in his own way eloquently describing the world as he knows it.  As an American it is hard not to jump into a debate.  We use statements as opening shots.  But, the world is different here.  Here a modest man, a Buddhist man told a stranger from America the things he knows because the stranger seemed interested.  That is all.  Words in their purest and most honest form.

I realized that whether it is through Buddhism or practiced recovery or both, the Cambodian people have a unique ability to live life in the linear.  The past is there, but they do not scratch open old wounds.  It took them a long time to get their country to a place where the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese occupation were not at the forefront.  After more than thirty years of hardship they are finally starting to emerge and reclaim their vibrancy.  Why would they look back now?  If you want to know what happened here they will tell you, but you better walk fast because they are moving forward.           

One last keeper from Mr. Call:

Mr. Call: “Michael.  Look at all these girls.  Cambodian girls are so beautiful.”

Michael: “Don’t look at too many girls, I need you to drive.”

Mr. Call:  “Mr. Call can drive and look at many girls, its okay!”

A comically overloaded scooter drives past.

Mr. Call: “Look!  Five Cambodian people on one scooter!”

Michael: “You could never put five Americans on a scooter.”

Mr. Call: “Why not?”

Michael: “Americans are too fat”

Mr. Call laughs

Mr. Call:  Cambodian girls very small.  American girls very big ass!”

I smiled at this, but didn't laugh.  Mr. Call was looking forward and didn’t catch the smile.  Worried that he might have offended his new friend, he offered.

Mr. Call:  “America has pretty girls too.”

*Source: “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung

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