Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The kid who didn't appreciate how lucky he was

Back in the days before Kim Wilde moved into landscape garden design, Cambodia was not a place that foreigners could visit (unless they were armed to the teeth and trying to overthrow the incumbent communist regime). People had been forcibly relocated from towns out into the country, separated from their families and required to produce rice at levels which would have been impossible to achieve even if the workforce were not starving and unhappy.

We were taken by our guide, Nara, one of the nicest, gentlest people we've ever met, to an area about 20 minutes drive from the city centre, along dusty, bumpy, and incredibly busy roads, through former rice fields now turned into clothing factories. When we arrived at Choeung Ek, we entered a compound which is now a museum of sorts. We were walking in to "The Killing Fields", one of many hundreds of sites in Cambodia where intellectuals, opponents of the Khmer Rouge, ethnic minorities, people who refused or were unable to farm, or simply innocent citizens who gave any reason to be disliked or suspected by local leaders, and their wives, husbands and children were brought. They were killed and dumped in mass graves. As we walked around the pathways there would be glimpses of bone which had become exposed by the feet of visitors and in display cases were vast amounts of items of clothing which had been found at the site.

This place was clearly intended to act as a memorial to honour the quarter of the population lost to the Khmer Rouge regime, but also, I think, to allow people to move forward. I found it incredible that Nara was able to show us around, but even more so when it became clear that as a child she had herself been forced by the regime to work all day and most of the night with very little food. She pointed out a small orange lizard which she says she used to catch, dry out and eat simply to try to survive, and she would steal sweet potatoes from the ground and eat them raw, all the time making sure that she wasn't spotted.

There were no schools, some of those had been turned into "security centres" (torture prisons to use the less euphemistic term) such as the infamous S-21 which we also visited and which has been kept as it was found when the Khmer Rouge were overthrown. There were no hospitals or medicine, there was the risk of malaria, and it became apparent that Nara and her Grandmother were probably the only members of her family who had survived that relatively short-lived period of her country's history. She doesn't know how old she is for sure but thinks she is a similar age to me, so while I was complaining about potted meat sandwiches in my school dinner lunchbox in the safe tranquility of Northern England she was trying to survive on dried lizard and a few hours sleep before being forced back into farm labour fearful of being one of the victims of The Killing Fields.

We finished by lighting incense and placing flowers at the large memorial, and for the first time on this, or any other trip, felt no desire to take photographs. The lasting image in both our minds didn't need to be digitally captured, we'll never forget, in a glass case containing rags and fragments of clothing, the sight of a small child's pair of purple shorts.

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