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Jewish Journal

Cambodia’s killing fields revisited

By Phillip Nazarian, Tribe Contributor

September 3, 2008 | 11:07 pm

I can vividly remember the first time I visited the Museum of Tolerance, in seventh grade. Not personally knowing anyone who had survived the Holocaust, I had been shielded from the grisly details of World War II. Simon Wiesenthal's museum showed how horrible the Holocaust actually was and left me appalled for days.

I had a very similar experience this summer when I visited Cambodia with Rustic Pathways, a company that takes students to the underdeveloped regions of the world to participate in various community-service outreach programs. After hearing the chairman of Rustic Pathways, David Venning, speak about the genocide sites of Cambodia, I knew that some way or another I would get myself on his trip. I had originally planned to go to the northern region of Thailand, but the day before I left I changed my plans and set out for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

In 1975, during the Vietnam War, an extremist communist party, the Khmer Rouge, took over Cambodia. Pol Pot, its leader, planned to turn Cambodia into an example of Maoist Communism. His vision was to get rid of all intellectuals and to have everyone work as farmers and live equally. During this takeover, the Khmer government trafficked many people out of the cities and into the farmlands. Those who were deemed dangerous to the government (the educated, the ruling class and just about anyone with a different point of view), were systematically tortured in the notorious S-21 building and killed in mass graves, which became known as the killing fields.

While in Cambodia, we visited the killing fields and S-21 (Toul Sleng), a high school that was turned into a security prison. S-21 is located in an average neighborhood, and from a distance looks like a normal school building.

But as soon as I approached, I noticed the barbed wire along the walls. Once inside it was evident what a horrible place it really was. Each room still had the torturing tools lying on the floor, while in the hallway I could still see dried blood on the floor. Every time I entered a new room, feelings of uneasiness, sadness and detestation overcame me.

And the final rooms of the prison were filled with the pictures of the prisoners. Every single person had a look of misery and emptiness. Pictures of the prisoners that hung on the walls not only honored the victims, but put a face to the genocide; those in S-21 were tortured and interrogated and sent to the killing fields after a few days. In the end, no one escaped or survived Toul Sleng.

The killing fields are located a short distance away from S-21. It was hard for me to imagine how tens of thousands of innocent people could be systematically killed and buried in mass graves in a field that is only a couple of acres. The field is so small that I had to maneuver my way through the small paths that surrounded the mass graves.

These mass graves are very similar to those of World War II. The people were ordered to dig their own graves and as soon as they finished, they were summarily killed and buried. But instead of shooting the prisoners, in Cambodia they would execute them with everything from hammers to sharpened tree branches. There are still bones half-buried in the ground and piles of clothes next to the graves.

In the center of the field there is a stupa, a memorial for all who were killed during Pol Pot's rule, towering over the undeveloped region. This tower, however, is filled with thousands and thousands of human skulls. I understood that I was standing in the exact place where so many were killed senselessly.

These fields have been compared to Auschwitz, and even though I have never visited that sight, I could imagine that one would get a very similar feeling. An estimated 1.7 million people died under Pol Pot's rule alone. This number might not seem comparable to the 6 million Jews lost in the Holocaust, but in reality 21 percent of the population was wiped out in just four years. The systematic killings have left their mark on the Cambodian people -- it is almost impossible to find more than a few people over the age of 60 in a single day in Phnom Pen.

It may appear that Southeast Asia is finally recovering, but if you take a closer look, you notice that many things have not changed. For the past 20 years, the Burmese government has been burning hill tribe villages and carrying out an "ethnic cleansing." Burma's Karen, Shan and Karenni people have been targeted because they refuse to concede power to the government. This genocide is not well known because the Burmese government conducts all of its attacks in secret and does not let any information leave the country.

So, in response, the best thing that you can do is spread the word.

Elie Wiesel put it best: "None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness.... Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

Phillip Nazarian in the 11th grade at Brentwood School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; deadline for the October issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

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