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Today we spent time at S21–a one-time high school turned Khmer Rouge detention center (think WW2 concentration camp)–and Choeung Ek Genocide Center, aka “The Killing Fields.” 

These indentations are excavated mass graves. Over 20,000 people were killed at this site.

I had already heard about the Khmer genocide under Pol Pot, and had just finished Tears of My Soul, a survivor’s account of the genocide, but even then my understanding was academic and without emotional context. Our experience today changed that. 

When the communist Khmer regime came to power, they wanted to begin a new self-sustaining Cambodia, resetting the country to Year 0. The party recruited poor rural people, young men, mostly, to fuel it’s rise to power. These groups of people were the first to be “liberated” by the Khmer as they moved from the jungles to the cities. The Khmer Party, or Angkar, regarded intellectuals as suspicious, more likely to resist the revolution and support the old regime. Indeed, those who wore glasses, had soft hands, and lived in the cities were among the most heavily targeted for detention and execution. These groups were liberated last, we’re labeled “New Liberated” people, and were often ridiculed by the “Old Liberated.”

Detention building at S21, a one-time high school.

Under the Khmer Rouge, all social structures were torn apart in an effort to eliminate class destinction: banks destroyed (finance/economics), temples and Buddha statues smashed (religion), schools closed or turned into prisons and warehouses (education), cinemas shuttered and movie stars killed (entertainment and the arts), and families separated. 

At the killing fields, there was a tree labeled simply, “Killing Tree” with a shallow pit a few feet away. Here, soldiers (Cadres) snatched babies from their mothers and killed them by swinging them by their ankles against the tree and then tossing them into the pit. Babies and young children were often targeted so that they did not come back to seek revenge.

There is a monument on site dedicated to the victims. There are several tiers in the monument, many of which hold these skulls excavated from the graves.

Here’s how I started to process all of this: I teared up thinking of my own children. But I also thought about my family growing up. The Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and ruled for 3+ years before falling apart and being overthrown by Vietnam. At this time, my dad, halfway around the world, was finishing his PhD. My mom had a bachelor’s degree. They were teachers. They both worked extremely hard, but I’d bet their hands were relatively soft. My siblings were born at this time. My parents were active in their local church. The reality is that had God seen fit to put us in Cambodia instead of the US, we’d be exactly the kind of people targeted for execution. My sister or brothers could have been smashed against that tree. 
My parents just celebrated 50 years of marriage, and the turnout for the celebration is a testament to their legacy. My siblings have beautiful families, have crafted meaningful, impactful lives. I can’t imagine a world without them. 3 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge; countless children. The thought of so much promise snuffed out before being fulfilled is heartbreaking. What impact could those children have had on the world?

I want to be careful not to appropriate someone else’s story or colonize someone else’s grief, but putting the genocide and what I saw today in the above context helps me realize just how senseless and tragic this was, and is a good reminder of how broken our world is. It’s a good reminder that I must respond to God’s great love for me and Jesus’s great sacrifice by bringing light into darkness and by doing what I can to usher in His kingdom here in earth. 


One thought on “Context

  1. Thank you for sharing. Sounds like a similar experience to visiting the genocide museum in Kigali, Rwanda. Among other things, it is a sobering reminder of the pain that is in this world, and the need that people have for the love of Christ!

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