Words Really Matter

Tourists in Cambodia are likely to find themselves given the chance to buy a jokey T-shirt with the message, “I Survived Cambodia.”

Ho, ho. Very witty.

In fact, it’s about as witty as tourists visiting Nazi death camps being offered amusing souvenirs that play on words like “concentration” or “gas.”
Because in Cambodia, in the memory of half of the population, survival was by no means a given. Millions died at the hands of their fellow-countrymen, during the days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. To survive was a major achievement.

Most of us in the West are aware, to some extent, of what went on. We saw the movie The Killing Fields with its happy ending. And we know that Pol Pot was a bad guy. But a visit to Cambodia reveals a country that, in the words of one observer, is in the grip of post-traumatic stress. Tourists get more than a hint when they go to Toul Sleng prison, in downtown Phnom Penh (my daughter Katie lives about three blocks away). The site was a high school, and therefore a perfect location for a Khmer Rouge torture prison, since education was a threat to the peasant world the Khmer Rouge were creating. Now stunned tourists file through the cells with bloodstained beds with iron bars and shackles at the foot. After the dozens of silent, stained cells there are whole blocks filled with individual photos (police line-up style)  of the men and women , and young teenagers, who were tortured to death there, or executed elsewhere.

Incredibly, in one row of photos of the condemned, one hero is smiling. He’s a dark-haired man in his late 30s, wearing a dark shirt. The smile is a resigned one, and there’s even a hint of a shrug in his pose (“What can you do?”). In the array of hundreds of doomed, grim faces, his resigned heroism stands out.

“I Survived Cambodia” T-shirts, anyone?

Most of the prisoners were shipped, by night, just outside the city to a site that we also visited, known as “The Killing Fields.” It’s a major tourist site, and even giggling school groups are soon stunned into silence as the tour takes you past the scene of so many deaths. To save bullets, many people were bludgeoned to death by the axes and hoes and hammers that are carefully preserved in the attached museum. Worst of all is the tree against which babies were smashed by the young Khmer Rouge soldiers who ran the place. I walked around the tree, to try to absorb the evil, in the vain hope of understanding what happened here. Almost as horrible is the central stupa, or tomb, where a mountain of  skulls is  arranged in a central case, layered according to the method of death. And the site still has clothes of the dead emerging from the soil, which I tripped over.

Witty T-shirts, get them while you can?

As a finale we arranged to visit the United Nations-supported Genocide Courtroom, where a few surviving Khmer Rouge leaders are being prosecuted. The Court was not in session, but a Canadian friend who works there took us in and allowed us to see the bullet-proof courtroom, walled off from the 400-seat spectator area. It’s an awkward blend of UN-supported international court and a Cambodian Court that is uneasily administered by the Government, which is all too aware of how much of the population was implicated in the Khmer Rouge crimes. When they captured Phnom Penh, for example, they forced the entire population out of the city, directed in different directions to become peasants at work on the land. To have spectacles, or soft hands, was usually enough for summary execution. Roughly three million people died in this internal genocide.

And where were we, concerned Canadians? Because Pol Pot opposed the “Commie” Vietnamese (who eventually marched in and deposed him) the Western powers continued to support the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s official government at the United Nations, for many years.

I’m learning more about all this. I have now read a memoir of these days, The Gate, by a French survivor, Francois Bizot, which I recommend, as John le Carré does in his foreword.

And I’m learning the power of the word “survived.”

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2 comments on “Words Really Matter

  1. Leslie Nadon says:

    Totally unbelievable. Reality is stranger than fiction.

  2. dave stein says:

    wondering where pol pot came from…and how he got so many people to carry out his murderous program…from what i’ve read he sees to have been an almost colorless bureaucrat who mostly isolated himself, even when in power….

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