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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Cambodia Is Close to Canada (and not just in U.N. seating)

Almost three weeks in Cambodia brought some unexpected links with Canada. We were visiting my daughter Katie, who has turned her back on a high-flying legal career in Toronto (she was a clerk at both the Ontario Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court in Ottawa) to do good work among struggling NGO’s in Phnom Penh. Katie took us around the country, including an evening performance of a circus in Battambang that helps to give street kids a profession.

Fresh from my being mistaken as the starter at the Deer Creek Golf Club, I was standing around in my Tilley hat while the milling crowds waited to be told to head for the big top . At this point a French gentleman approached me, the authority figure, to ask loudly if I was in charge. I’m afraid that I missed the opportunity to take charge of a circus, with jugglers, acrobats and tightrope walkers . . . surely the perfect career for a retired publisher.

Later, down in the southwest corner of Cambodia, in a forested natural area with road signs warning of elephants, a more direct Canadian link appeared. We were visiting the Four Rivers Hotel , which consists of private tents set on top of floating docks on a tidal river 15 kilometres in from the Gulf of Thailand. The manager, Francois Lamontagne, revealed himself as a man from Lennoxville!

Excited conversations about Sherbrooke and North Hatley ensued. Yes, he knew Hugh MacLennan! From a later career in film in Montreal he knew my friends who worked on the Trudeau documentary, and he had great tales of Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin, another Eastern Townships man. How on earth did Francois end up running a lodge on a warm Cambodian river, where we could swim to an island where fruit grew wild on every tree? Ah, he told us, it was a long story.

When we were half an hour from departing on the boat (an African Queen lookalike, minus Humphrey Bogart) I strolled into the little library, where previous visitors had bequeathed worthy books to later guests. There, to my delight, among a smorgasbord of books in various languages, I found Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro, with its dedication to her Port Hope son-in-law. To hold Alice’s book — even if it was the U.K. edition – while the sound of the jungle clicked and whirred around us, was almost too much happiness.

Recommended Reading: The Disappeared

In May I’m going to be visiting Cambodia for the first time, to see my daughter Katie, who is doing good work there.

I’m doing all of the usual preparation things (or, more correctly, I’m saying, “Sounds good” when Jane suggests two nights at this hotel, then three nights at that one). But past experience shows that a layer of familiarity with a place is much better acquired from a good novel than from  a tourist guidebook. (London I’m sure, is different if you have never read Dickens.)

So I have been very pleased to read Kim Echlin’s 2009 novel The Disappeared. It’s set originally in Montreal, where a private school girl (from Miss Edgar and Miss Cramp’s School) named Ann Greves meets a young Cambodian musician/student named Serey. Over the objections of her father, they get together and live on the Bleury Street fringes of the music world.

Serey was able to get out of Cambodia before the killing times. But when, after four Khmer Rouge terrible years, the Vietnamese army moves in and opens the border again, Serey moves back home, alone, in search of his family.

Anne hears nothing from him, year after year. Then she sets off in search of her lover. Miraculously, she finds him. But she also finds Cambodia, a country suffering post-traumatic stress. And the reader — and tourist-in-preparation – learns about the horrors of the Killing Times. “Year Zero” was the slogan shouted by 14-year-olds with guns as they forced the entire population of Phnom Penh to leave their homes and start walking to the country: anyone who asked, “Why?” was shot down. And so it went, year after year.

I’ve seen the Killing Fields, but The Disappeared brings the history of the Pol Pot times alive. Whether it also catches the sense of life in Cambodia’s streets today, is a question I won’t be able to answer until I return.