The boy from Babhnan knew that this encounter was inevitable, that there was no escape. One has to fight his demons, after all. He had braced himself up. Yet he could not take it when it really happened.
He was standing in front of the Killing Fields, slightly out of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The execution centre of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979 and killed around two million Cambodians, almost one fourth of the total population. This is where the purged from party cadre imprisoned in the Security Prison 21 (S-21) were brought to get killed. Often with all of their family. The boy had been to S-21, a former school converted into first prison, and now a Genocide Museum! What a sad journey!
The trip had started on a positive note. The boy was there to participate in a United Nations workshop on rebuilding the rural communities. The days were filled with the discussions of hope, of looking ahead. The evenings with real yummy street food- though he could dare try one of the most famous of them all- red ants chutney! Early part of the nights was even more hep and happening- exploring many night markets that dot the capital. Phnom Penh Night Market was his favorite despite the jury preferring the Russian Market more. By the way, you can buy almost anything in the Russian Market barring a Russian! It got the name not for selling them, but because at the height of cold war, Soviets, the biggest, and welcome, expat community in Cambodia visited this market.
It was also about long walks by the Mekong Promenade and dining in one of the myriad of Indian restaurants. The ‘vegetarian’ boy from Babhnan was ‘culinarily’ home in the South East Asia for the first time. He thanked the UN which had taken over the country- along with the Vietnam backed liberators for rehabilitation in the post Pol Pot era. They brought Indian curries, the reverse, cuisine colonisers of Europe with them. “Indian” restaurants followed.
There was only a limit to which the boy could delay the inevitable. So there he was. In front of the Choeung Ek- the killing field with Sophary, his colleague.
It was a revolution gone horribly wrong and revolutionaries gone paranoid. It was a dream shattered. Not in my name, the boy could hardly tell himself.
It is not your fault, said Sophary, gently holding his hands.
Being in Cambodia is like time travel. A country stuck in times gone by, running decades behind the most of the world. It had to be- after the year ZERO, or 1975 when Pol Pot led Khmer Rouge snatched the country from a US puppet regime. They abolished the currency, evacuated the cities and ordered everyone back to the villages. Four years of mayhem ensued. Mayhem that included US carpet bombing against the communists in Indochina- Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam killing millions. Communist Khmer Rouge added another million to the tally.
Ironically, the latter had their own completely understandable reasons for getting paranoid. US led forces were not only bombing Indochina to get rid of the Reds, they were also killing communists with CIA made lists in the countries with allied governments in the region. Indonesia, for instance, had witnessed the killing of half a million members of communist party!
Ironically, once communist North Vietnam supported forces defeated the Khmer Rouge and ousted them, US immediately allied with them and kept supporting the Pol Pot led government in exile as the legitimate representative of the country in the United Nations! It ended up sheltering him too, where the UN indicted war criminal finally died peacefully!
Yeah, truth is far more stranger than imagination. So is history! History that changes Tuol Sway Priyala School into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the Choeung Ek orchard into killings fields and a die hard communist Pol Pot into an American protegee!
Later, resting at the steps of magnificent Wat Phnom, Sophary told him that the younger generations of the country hardly remember the horrors their parents and grandparents lived with. This gives me hope, she giggled, hope that nothing is beyond redemption. It also scares me, she sombrely added- we need memories to guard us from falling in the same pit again.
They agreed and went on the memory trip: the Royal Palace, the Wat Phnom, both night markets, the National Museum.
And being friends with locals, a gem unknown- a RO RO Ferry trip to the other side of the Mekong- at least 30 years back in time! Don’t miss the last one!