It’s only been 22 hours since we landed in Phnom Penh, and already we have done so much! We spent the morning visiting the offices of our friends serving on the ground in Cambodia, learning more about the roles of the LCMS, CWEF, CCMC and ELCC, and the work they are doing to provide spiritual guidance and outreach to several church communities throughout the country. After a fabulous lunch at Tenle Basak buffet (a few adventurous eaters in the group may have sampled the crocodile), we prepared for one of the most emotionally challenging parts of our journey.
If you are reading this blog post and are not familiar with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and the genocide that took place in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, I would strongly encourage you to do some reading on the subject. Knowing the history of this place and what happened to these beautiful people, will provide insight into the culture that we are immersed in for the next 7 days. Our first stop was Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21 prison. Formerly a high school, S-21 served as a detention center for those arrested during Pol Pot’s reign. Prisoners were interrogated and tortured. They were often falsely accused and coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. Methods of torture included being shackled, starved, electrocuted, lashed and hung upside down until they lost consciousness, then being dunked into a bucket of filthy water head first to wake them back up so the interrogation could continue. Several hundred prisoners were funneled through S-21 each day. Each group was numbered and photographed. They were put into small brick walled holding cells, and were not allowed to speak to each other. Some prisoners were shackled to beds during interrogation, where they had to eat and relieve themselves. They were not given water to drink, and very little food. Many were tortured and murdered in those beds, the stains from their blood and urine forever imprinted on the floor tiles.
As the tour of S-21 ends, we head out confused, angry and sad about the atrocities that were committed at the prison. We are only more devastated as we experience the killing fields, land covered with mass graves. Prison detainees were loaded into trucks and driven out the fields in the middle of the night. Once unloaded, they were beaten to death with a myriad of tools. Babies were held by the legs, their heads smashed against a tree, leaving blood, hair and brains embedded in the bark. To this day, the rains bring bone fragments and clothing up from the soil. And for me, the irony is that we visited this horrific site on the most gorgeous day I have ever experienced in Cambodia. The sun shining, a cool breeze, butterflies filling the air, while I am listening to and reading stories that I can hardly believe. Why did evil overtake this country? How could 3 million people be murdered in a period of 4 years? Who could do such a thing to their own brothers and sisters?
In the end, we will never truly know why. It will never make sense. We can’t fix it. But what we can do is listen to the stories, experience the discomfort, and come to terms with the fact that 35 years later this young country is still reeling from the devastation. What can we do? We can keep coming. We can keep sharing God’s love with these people. We can make a difference one person at a time. The reality is that pain and injustice are all around us. It can make us feel overwhelmed. But God calls us to reflect his heartbroken compassion and longing for justice by doing what we can to help others. “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25: 40