Two schools represent distinction with a big difference

IMG_5604The complex in the photo above was called S-21 by the Khmer Rouge.  Today it is known variously as the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia.

The facility had been converted from a public high school to an incomprehensibly brutal prison in 1975-79, when up to 2 million Cambodians died.  Of the 14,000 ordinary citizens believed to have been incarcerated there, only seven survived the starvation, inhuman living conditions, torture and outright execution.

Toul Sleng is a 10-15-minute walk from my home, and I have occasion to pass by regularly.  It is wholly visible from the roof of my 15-story building.  Seeing it Continue reading

Advertisements

Visit to Khmer Rouge Tribunal sparks old memories

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, testifies at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia yesterday. ECCC

Convicted of crimes against humanity, Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, testifies at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in June. Source: ECCC/Phnom Penh Post.

The idea was not so much to report on testimony given at what is officially named the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia, or ECCC, a U.N. funded organization that otherwise is known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.  It was a sense of obligation.

The courts’ multi-million-dollar mission since its creation in 2006 has been to prosecute ultimately just a few of the individuals involved in the genocide of more than 1.7 million Cambodians in the 1970s.  That the government is filled with former adherents of the Khmer Rouge has resulted in years of negotiations, stalling and the resulting freedom from trial of thousands and thousands of killers.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held onto his position for 31 years, acknowledges that he once was a relatively senior member of the Khmer Rouge before he changed sides.

Having already borne witness to the atrocities committed by Cambodians against Cambodians at a high school that became the notorious S-21 prison — referred to as Toul Sleng — and the killing fields, I decided it was high time that I observe the trial taking place 16 kilometers (10 miles) from downtown Phnom Penh.  My goal was less to recount testimony but more to share with readers how it felt to get and be there.

It was an unexpectedly chilling experience because Continue reading

Let’s close a block to party, pray or pay respects

A wedding celebration takes over a block not far from Toul Sleng, the infamous converted school in which hundreds faced torture and death under the Khmer Rouge.

A wedding celebration takes over a block not far from Toul Sleng, the infamous converted school in which hundreds faced torture and death during the Khmer Rouge years of horror.

Most residents of Cambodia live in spare housing that lack space for numerous guests.  When the occasion demands many invitees, what to do?

Such an occasion might be a funeral, an engagement party, a wedding or a Buddhist ceremony showing respect and support for the elderly.  I have yet to Continue reading

Reflections on three weeks of travel in Cambodia

A major artery in the capital city of Phnom Penh (click to enlarge photos)

Among the numerous images that I have retained from my recent travels in Cambodia are two indelible ones.

Those impressions involve a family in the seacoast city of Sihanoukville on the one hand and, on the other, works of tourist art in sprawling markets as well as in hotel rooms and lobbies.

In a country of grinding poverty, there is no avoiding beggars, child laborers, individuals asleep where they work or on the street, shop after shop that literally is a hole in the wall, and one-room hovels that many must call home.

Thanks to Nicholas Kristof’s superior work aimed at ameliorating and his writing on humanity’s deprivations around the world, child labor, sex-trafficking and child abuse cannot be far from one’s thoughts.

What remains engraved in my mind is Continue reading