Just a Little Bit of History Repeating: Shirley Bassey

Since my previous posts have been about the terrible history of the Khmer Rouge, I thought I’d share an upbeat song with the lyrics, ‘Just a little bit of history repeating.”

In this version, Shirley Bassey (who sang the 1964 theme song to James Bond’s ‘Goldfinger’) is backed by The Propellerheads. Enjoy!

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Just a Little Bit of History Repeating*: The Killing Fields

*This post will be upsetting to most readers because it describes a place where atrocities were committed. None of it should have happened but history continues to be repeated.

Killing Fields
After an emotional morning at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, our trip through Cambodian history continued to The Killing Fields. I was a bit apprehensive but with Kate by my side, I took a deep breath and walked through the gates. At the end of a flower-lined path is a tall, Buddhist Stupa- a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. This regal structure holds the skull of 5,000 Cambodians- a small fraction of the 1 million people who were killed on this site.

P1050522I expected this site to have the same heaviness as Tuol Sleng but I felt a difference here. The site is thoughtfully ‘curated’.  The Killing Fields were not left alone to testify to history- the memorial tower surrounded by bright flowers and shady trees lets you know; what happened in this place will not be forgotten. No one lost here will be forgotten.

P1050547The most exceptional piece of the experience is the audio tour where people tell their own stories about Choeung Ek in their own voices. This doesn’t make the experience less sad but I was grateful not to be left with my own thoughts.

P1050540The audio narrates each numbered stop along a path that meanders through the site.

P1050528The thatched roof (pictured above) shelters the area where a mass grave of children was found.

I left a friendship bracelet on the bamboo fence pictured below.

P1050529After 1979,  graves were emptied and the bodies reburied but due to the quantity of graves, not all were able to be excavated.

P1050534Even 40 years later- bones, teeth and pieces of clothing continue to work their way up out of the ground after a heavy rain.
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After a few hours, it was time to head the 11 miles back to our Phnom Penh hostel.

P1050519The road work and traffic slowed our pace but Kate & I weren’t in the mood for cheery traveler banter. We shared a ride with a couple who had purchased a touching book called, “First They Killed My Father.”  (You can purchase it on Amazon.)

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 10.34.51 PMThis book offers a look into the privileged life of a government official’s family in 1975 – when the Khmer Rouge evacuate Cambodia’s capital city. I read out loud for an hour- everyone was mesmerized by the story and I didn’t stop reading until our Tuk-Tuk pulled up outside the hostel. Read a bit for yourself: Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 10.33.13 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-19 at 10.34.19 PM

There is so much more to say about this day, but I will leave you with this happy glimpse into 1975.

Just a Little Bit of History Repeating*: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

*This post will be upsetting to most readers because it discusses a terrible event that should never have happened but continues to be repeated.

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Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge evacuation of Phnom Penh. Tanks rolled through the Cambodia’s capital city and the population was forced to march back to the countryside to grow crops like the Chinese Communists peasant society. Below is a map of the  evacuation.

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Over the next four years, nearly 2 million people were exterminated as Pol Pot ‘purified’ the population. There are enough similarities to Nazi Germany that I can’t quite fathom this tragedy was still happening in 1979 not 1939. I visited Cambodia less than four decades later and the country is still recovering.

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One of the more noticeable results of the genocide is the absence of older Cambodians.  In 2014, the population was estimated at 16 million but only 9% of the population was over the age of 55! Today, the median age of the Cambodian population is 24.1 years-old.  In the States, it’s 36.8 years-old. One of the elders I met had a spectacular story of surviving Pol Pet’s regime.

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This adorable man is Bou Meng and I met him on a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or  Security Prison-21 (often called ‘S-21’). In 1975, S-21 was a Phnom Penh high school.

P1050482Tuol Sleng is a popular tourist destination for both local and foreign visitors interested in learning about Cambodia’s recent history and that history weighed heavy on me as I walked the corridors of this school.

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Most of the rooms of the school have been left empty except for leg chains or a steel bed frame but brick cells have been built into the classrooms of one of the buildings.

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Other rooms were filled with photographs like these, which documented each prisoner in a very systematic way. These photographs and detailed logs immediately brought to mind the comprehensive record-keeping done by the Nazis.

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The bendable, metal clips that these girls use to pull back their bangs are just like the ones I had growing up. I have to keep reminding myself that these grainy black and white photos were taken less than 40 years ago. Below is the ‘chair’ used for procuring uniform photographs.

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When the prison was liberated in 1979, a photograph was taken of the 12 people found alive that day.  Bou Meng and Chum Mey were two of the survivors who have written books about their experiences.  Chum Mey is also in a documentary on Tuol Sleng. (The tour guide is pointing to Bou Meng in the photo from that day.)

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Both men were spared because of a certain skill they possessed that could help Pol Pot. Chum Mey was a highly skilled at repairing machines for the armed forces. Bou Meng was an artist, which normally would have marked him for immediate execution along with the scholars; but his artistic talents were used to produce Pol Pot’s likeness. Drawing propaganda posters of a tyrant kept him alive.

P1050516It is remarkable that he voluntarily comes back to the place where he was imprisoned. He comes  to tell tourists about Cambodia’s history and I got a bit misty-eyed when Bou handed me his book. A big fat tear rolled down my face as he leaned over to hug me.