Thursday, February 12, 2009

Final days in Phnom Penh - By Faith Savoie

Our trip to Thailand and Cambodia was almost over just when I had finally adjusted to the time difference. I woke up earlier then usual and used the extra time to reflect on what I had seen, witnessed and participated in over the past few weeks. Yesterday had been difficult and emotionally draining. The morning had started early for me, and came too soon for others.

It was about 2:30am when I woke up and at first I thought it was time to get ready. However, the sky was still dark and realized that I had woken up because of the loud voice outside of our hotel. I could hear muffled screams or yelling in the background, but the voice over the loud speaker was making it difficult to make out what the other voices were. I turned around to see if Ashley had been awoken by the noise outside. Ashley had tossed around earlier so I leaned over and woke her up. “Yeah”, she said in a groggy voice and I asked her if she could hear the noise, which felt like it was right outside of our window. She sat up, listened briefly, and said she could hear something but turned back into the sheets and fell back asleep. By that time it was about 3:30 in the morning and I was jealous that Ashley could sleep through all of the noise outside.

I looked out my window and tried my best to see if I could see anything in the dark. It wasn’t very successful because I had taken out my contacts and I can’t see anything far away. Yet, I did notice that there were no headlights on the street next to our hotel and I thought I could see people walking down the road. I didn’t know what to make of it. Were they celebrating the Chinese New Year? Do Khmer people stay out late on the week days and not the weekend, I didn’t get it. The voice was still speaking in Khmer over the loud speaker and I still couldn’t make out the muffled voices in the distance. All of a sudden it seemed as if the voice was getting louder and the music came on and the voice stopped. The Khmer music played over the loud speaker until the sun came up, and then it stopped.

I wasn’t able to fall asleep so I just laid there waiting for the alarm to go off, the music and voice to stop and for Ashley to wake up so I could complain a little. As soon as she woke up, I told her about what I had heard and had seen and was amazed that she had slept through all of that. We made our way downstairs for breakfast and noticed that our hotel was busier then usual. In my mind I thought something was taking place for the Chinese New Year so I didn’t stop and take my time to look at the people who had wandered into our hotel. Ashley and I walked outside to a rather chaotic scene. One of the main roads had been barricaded and closed out to the public and only police and military personal were allowed to enter and leave. What was all of this? People had gathered up and down the streets and were pressing up against the barracade to try and get a closer look at what was happening down the road.

In the crowd of people, I saw journalists, people wearing different color vests and each person wore a distinct look of disgust on their face. I turned to Sarah and Brandon and asked if they knew what was going on and Sarah just looked at me and said, “It’s a humanitarian disaster”. What did she mean by that? I looked at Brandon and he said that they were evacuating the “slum” on this street and that was all that he knew. I ran up stairs and grabbed the flip camera and made my way into the crowd with Ashley and started to talk to anyone and everyone we could to try and understand what was going on.

From the short time that we had outside until we got on our bus and made our way to S 21 (the genocide museum) and then the killing fields, we had gathered several short interviews and a great deal of facts on the situation. The situation had come to the end. The people in that area had been negotiating and fighting with the government for rights to the land, compensation if they moved, and where they would be moved to. Basically the government ordered the families there to pack up their belongings on a truck and then they would be taken to another area where they could rebuild their homes and such. However, some of the human rights observers mentioned that the military and police had been using mild violence to move the families and that many families would not see any form of compensation. I realize situations like this happen all over the world and that some of the biggest cities in the United States were built this way. However, it’s always shocking to see something like what these people were going through.

We gathered everyone in our group and got onto the bus to meet Emma at the genocide museum. We took a detour since the road we had used yesterday was blocked off and made our way around the crooked streets and torn roads. We arrived at S21 and immediately I felt a chill come over my body. As we made our way into the museum, Emma described the history, set-up and purpose of the torture center. Even though I was in front while Emma was speaking, I couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying. I didn’t want to listen anymore about the torture and cruelty that took place here. It had only been about 10 or 15 minutes and already I had a knot in my stomach and a strange feeling about the museum. She lead us to an area where there were a dozen or so white stones and she told us that only 14 deaths occurred at Tuol Sleng. When the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and pushed the Khmer Rouge further north in Cambodia, the cadre left the prisoners in the rooms. By the time the Vietnamese army arrived, they 14 prisoners had been tortured so badly that they died before they could be liberated. A photographer had been traveling with the Vietnamese army to record the first entry into Phnom Penh since the Khmer Rouge had evacuated everyone out.

He took the photographs of the tortured prisoners and those photos are placed in each room displaying how the bodies were found. Personally, I don’t have the stomach or the words to describe to you what those pictures looked liked. I only saw a few before I was overcome with emotion and just needed to step outside for some air. We continued to make our way around the museum, but had been delayed several times because of the French group that was in front of us. Emma showed us the rooms with all of the pictures of the victims and the cadre and the youth soldiers. She showed us the rooms where the prisoners were kept and what they had been strapped to the floor with. One of the most disturbing things about that part of the museum is there is still blood on the floors and walls from the prisoners who were held there. We took a quick look upstairs and looked out onto the grounds of the former high school through the holes in the barbwire fence. We made our way downstairs, discussed briefly what we had seen or felt (briefly discussed because not many people in the group wanted to talk about what they had seen) and went across the street to a restaurant operated by street children.

Lunch was a relief for me because it gave me an hour or so to put Tuol Sleng in the back of my mind and try to comprehend what I had just seen. By the time I could even start processing what I had seen, it was time to go to the killing fields. The drive to the killing fields was short and we were given time to walk around and reflect about the time we had spent at the museum. As I made my way through the paths surrounding the holes were hundreds upon thousands of bodies had once be tossed away like trash, I noticed something coming out of the ground near a tree. Was I really looking at human bones coming out of the ground? I had not been prepared to see something like that while I was here. I turned around and made my way back to the bus, trying to erase an image that would be burned into my memory for a very long time.