Sadly today was a rough day as we visited two historical sites that were mainly focused on the 1975-1979 Cambodian genocide during the Khmer Rouge reign.
We started the day with a devotional led by Morgan. We were able to focus on the importance of prayer and praying fervently. This was especially important for us as we knew today was going to be hard. Many of us were not emotionally prepared for what we were going to experience, but we knew that this tragedy was a significant part of Cambodian culture and history.
First we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or the S21 Prison. Our tour guide had a personal connection with the Cambodian genocide because during this time she escaped with her mother to Vietnam. Unfortunately, her sister and father were one of the victims of this tragedy. It was inspirational to hear her story as she explained each building of the prison. She says that in the past she would cry everyday at work, but now she is able to share her story and educate the younger generation. She tells her kids this story to help them understand this so that history doesn’t repeat itself. As we walked through the cells we learned about how they were tortured and interrogated. We saw how poor their living situations were. They were hardly allowed to take showers, maybe once or twice during their three months, which caused deadly skin diseases. We also learned about the horrible ways that were used to torture. There were only seven survivors from this prison. We were fortunate enough to meet three of those survivors. We cannot imagine how strong their will is to stand in the same place they experienced those horrific life events. We left with so much respect for the older generation in Cambodia. We were thankful to be able to learn more about the history.
Next we visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, one of the many killing fields used by the Khmer Rouge. All 10 of us had the audio guides which walked us through the history of what occurred during that time. At the beginning of the tour we learned how many of the victims were taken from the prison blindfolded, without knowing where they were being taken. A lot of the buildings that the Khmer Rouge used during this time were not still standing, so there were signs in the exact location of these buildings explaining what each would have been used for. One of the areas we saw was a chemical storage space, for chemicals like DDT. This chemical was used to cover up the smell of the bodies in the mass graves. Some of them were mass graves with people that were beheaded or with women and children. The women and children mass grave was especially hard for some of us. It was next to a killing tree decorated with bracelets. On this tree there were so many innocent babies killed for no reason. There were also graves of foreigners involved with trying to stop the Khmer Rouge. One of the most impactful stories we heard was from one of the survivors that wanted to preserve this historical site as a way to educate and pay respect to the victims. He was taken at 13 by the Khmer Rouge and he survived because another man sacrificed his life for him. Another moment that made us sad was hearing the exact music that would play to drown out the moans of victims that were being killed. This was for many victims the last sound they would ever hear. The last area that we were able to go into was a Memorial glass-walled stupa filled with so many skulls. Many of the skulls were marked according to the evidence of torture found on the victims. They keep the stupa sacred by having visitors take off their shoes and with having incense and offerings at the entrance. Once inside the stupa, just looking at the overwhelming amount of the skulls was heartbreaking and devastating, especially with looking at the smaller baby skulls.
After visiting both areas we could not comprehend why such tragedies had to happen here. What is even more surprising is how recent all of these events occurred. Visiting the sites, looking at body fragments, seeing stains of blood on the floor at the prison, hearing the music and taking in the smells of each site was hard to process for all of us. After lunch at a delicious Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Cali and going to The Coffee Bean across the street we all needed time to rest. We worked on our crafts for Kids Club and then relaxed after being exhausted physically and emotionally. Some of us were grateful to take a nap and others enjoyed the swimming pool on the rooftop.
At dinner we were really able to fully debrief the day and express what we were feeling. We realized that God did answer our prayers to have our hearts break for what his breaks for. Even though we don’t understand why all of this had to happen, God is very present in Cambodia healing the darkness and restoring something tragic into something that creates appreciation for how much Cambodia has overcome. Even though this day was hard for us, we still managed to keep our fun-loving spirits. We had a dance party in the bus with flashing disco lights. Morgan and Bethany had a dance off and we all bounced to the music so hard that the bus shook. We could not help laughing when people driving by us were pointing, laughing and waving at us.
We are so grateful for your prayers and we ask you to please continue praying for us and the people we will be serving at AIM this week through Kids Club, Leader Disciple and Young Disciple Bible Studies. We are excited for what God has planned for us in the next few days!
Daija and Tif