Throughout my years of blogging, there have been a handful of posts I’d really looked forward to writing. There was the one about Kazantip, an event I’d been anticipating for a solid year; the one about Thaipusam, because of the strange and frightening photos; and the series about Transdniestr, because honestly, how many people end up in a rogue nation that technically doesn’t even exist?
During my months of living in Cambodia, a discussion of the Khmer Rouge gradually became one such post – but for very different reasons. As you well know, one of the things I love about traveling is setting up camp and really immersing myself in a culture; interacting with locals, seeing how they live, and learning what they’re about. In this regard, Cambodia has turned out to be one of the most interesting and different places I’ve ever been – so for as dark as its recent history may be, it’s been both fascinating and incredibly powerful to learn about firsthand.
Sadly, while most Westerners have heard the term “Khmer Rouge,” few seem to know much about it. History class teaches us all about more Western-related atrocities like the Nazi Holocaust or Soviet gulags – but few touch on what was easily as ruthless a regime as the rest.
To summarize it very briefly…*
In the wake of the Vietnam war, a man named Pol Pot came to power. Based on a twisted vision of pure agrarian communism, he set in motion a plan to completely redesign his country. Step one was to force everyone out of the cities; Pol Pot’s Cambodia would be based entirely on low-tech farming and manual labor, which had no need for urban centers at all. Families were torn apart and people relegated to slavery-like conditions; it wasn’t long before they began dying of starvation and disease. Because a labor-based society also had no room for intellectuals, anyone with a hint of an education was summarily executed; crimes like “being literate” or “knowing how to speak another language” was an instant death sentence. Even wearing glasses – which looked like a sign of literacy – meant you’d be killed. Often, simply revealing a personal opinion – or being suspected of having one – was more than enough to label you a danger to the regime: “I think my neighbor wants to go to Thailand” would be sufficient evidence to abduct the whole family, never to be heard from again.
To the Khmer Rouge, a human life was not even seen as worth the price of a bullet. Executions were performed by bludgeoning in the head with a shovel, or simply by burying alive. Political enemies received the harshest treatment: tortured to death in the most horrendous ways imaginable, but only after being forced to inform on (usually innocent) friends and family, who were also tortured and killed as a result. Any soldier unwilling to take part in the brutality would soon find himself at the other end of a shovel; the paranoia and random accusations became so extreme that in notorious prisons like S-21, those being tortured today were often guards the day before. Massive killing fields were set up all over the country, where scraps of clothing still wash to the surface whenever it rains. Trees bear the marks of blood and brain, where Khmer Rouge soldiers would murder infants by smashing their heads on the bark – right in front of their crying mothers, who were in turn raped in front of their husbands, who were in turn buried alive.
And even with so many people dying every day, Pol Pot had no trouble finding more soldiers for his army. He’d simply steal young children from their homes, kill their parents in front of them, and thrust a gun into their hands. Escape was nearly impossible: Cambodia’s borders had been sealed so that nothing – not even medicine – was allowed in or out. Thousands more died from easily treatable disease. When all was said and done, the Khmer Rouge had wiped out more than a quarter of the country’s population in barely four years.
Just try to imagine what it must’ve been like to live in a world like that, how hopeless it must feel. During my time in Siem Reap, I met several Cambodians who survived those horrible years – as educated, fluent English-speakers. When asked how they got through it, they simply said “you keep your mouth shut, your eyes on the ground, do what you’re told, and pray that some day it ends.”
And it did end. But not completely. Because although the regime may be a thing of the past, the scars that it left don’t heal so quickly. Even beyond the tremendous loss of life or the immeasurable effect of wiping out every educated person for a generation – the Khmer Rouge has left millions of hidden “gifts” in every corner of the country. Those gifts are landmines. Millions and millions of landmines, which continue to kill to this day.
Few people realize that during the Vietnam war, Cambodia became the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world; it absorbed more bombs than all the allied forces dropped throughout all of World War 2. But it doesn’t end there. Today, Cambodia remains the most heavily mined country on earth – particularly near the borders, where Pol Pot used them to seal his people inside. Any guidebook you pick up will warn never to stray off the beaten path; if you’re out for a hike and need to use the bathroom, you never go past the edge of the trail.
Of course, rural farmers don’t have the luxury of trails – and the result is that men, women, and children get killed or maimed every day. An average of three an hour.
That’s where Aki Ra and his Landmine Museum come in.
Taken as a child soldier by the Khmer Rouge and later defecting to Vietnam, Aki Ra touched his first gun when he was only 4, and killed for the first time at 10. He watched his friends and relatives get murdered in front of him; growing up in army camps, war was the only thing he ever knew.
Throughout his early teens, Aki Ra developed a specialty in landmines, laying thousands by hand – until something inside him changed. He realized the pain his devices were causing his own people. Somehow he managed to defect and survive through the war, and ever since then he’s dedicated his life to de-mining the country and caring for those who can’t care for themselves.
It really is an inspiring story; every penny his museum makes goes towards caring for and educating those disfigured by landmines. He estimates to have personally cleared over 50,000 – with no equipment other than his own two hands. He literally walks around in plain clothes, prodding the dirt with a stick, digging them up, and taking them apart then and there. 50,000 down – an estimated six million to go.
Anyway, what I’d hoped would be just a quick summary post has turned into way more than planned, so I guess I’ll stop here and, for those who are interested, leave the reading to you. There’s actually a documentary about Aki Ra himself (which I haven’t yet seen; trailer below) – but for a more mainstream look at the Khmer Rouge in general, most will enjoy the famous 1984 movie “The Killing Fields.”
*Disclaimer: I apologize to any history buffs, as I’ve probably made some mistakes; I wrote this mostly from memory over a year after leaving Cambodia.