December 23rd, 2008

storyteller doll

Leaving Phnom Penh

I'm taking a bus up to Siem Reap tomorrow, so let me briefly wrap up the last couple of days here.

Yesterday, I did the obligatory genocide tour. After seeing both the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, I still can't get my head around the Pol Pot era. You go to Choueng Ek and there is what looks like a quiet bucolic setting, but those pits in the ground were mass graves and the signs tell you how many bodies were found at each. That lovely tree was where loudspeakers were hung, broadcasting music to cover up the screams of people being bludgeoned to death with iron bars. There is a stupa at the entrance with shelves. Shelves and shelves. And what is on those shelves is skulls and bones, with the clothing of victims at the bottom.

And the people who did that killing were mostly teenagers. At the museum, they show a film which includes a segment involving an interview with a former guard. A particularly chilling statement has him saying he only killed 5 people and only because Duch (the head of the S-21) prison asked him if he was afraid to kill. Otherwise he just took down names and drove the truck.

Over a quarter of the population of Cambodia was killed just 30 years ago. People were killed for having lived in a city or being an intellectual or knowing a foreigner. Just wearing eyeglasses could make you an enemy of the state. It's impossible to understand.

Today, I was walking down Street 178 between Street 13 and Street 19. And I saw an elderly Camodian couple walking ahead of me. She was wearing a fairly bare top and I saw the scars on her back. How many scars am I not seeing?

Today was cooking class, which was great fun. The young man who taught the class is not quite 23. Had he been born a few years earlier, he could easily have turned into one of those torturers and murderers. Instead, he became a street child and was taken in by a project that trains street children for the hospitality industry. Today he teaches cooking classes by day and goes to university, studying English literature, at night. The food was good (spring rolls, banana flower salad, amok fish, sticky rice with mango) but the hope that a story like his gave me was the best part of the class.