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Grappling with Genocide

Our first full day in Cambodia was a heavy one for us all, and difficult to describe in words. The main focus was to develop a deeper understanding of the Cambodian genocide that began in 1975. The day started with a visit to S-21 prison in the city of Phnom Penh, where over 20,000 died within these walls. It was with heavy hearts that each of us began an audio tour through the buildings and learned about the unimaginable. This once beautiful elementary school was now  a place of horrific tragedy. It was a difficult thing to wrap our heads around. We all ended the tour with a different perspective than before. One thing that troubled me the most was that many of the people working for the Khmer Rouge continued their normal lives in Cambodia after the end of the genocide. They just became the neighbours of those they tortured. How can this be?

I wondered how the Khmer people could let this happen, and the anger inside me filled. I wanted those people to suffer, as I thought this would be the only way to have justice for the victims. An eye for an eye seemed fair. But this is not what the Khmer people did. Instead they chose to forgive. Forgive those who tortured their friends, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers. This is how the healing of the country began. The people of Cambodia did not let this ruin them. They held onto hope and rose above the tragedy they all faced. An eye for an eye is not justice, it just makes the whole world blind. I feel so inspired by this country to not hold onto anger as it doesn’t promote healing. Although it may seem like it, no human will heal by watching someone suffer. Thank you, Cambodia, for this wonderful lesson.

We spent a lot of our time travelling by tuktuks; getting to know our friends and the upbeat city around us. Phnom Penh is unlike any other place I have been to. Just by observing the people on the street, I noticed something that I couldn’t put my finger on. You think you know the world, until you turn a corner and realize that what you know is very, very little.

We finished the day with a boat ride down the river to catch the sunset. The group had a debrief about the emotional experience we had had. It was something we didn’t expect to impact us as much as it did. Having these memorial sites (S-21 and the Killing Fields) is Cambodia’s way of forgiving but never forgetting. We must never forget the past. It is important to understand what happened and how we can never let it happen again. But as Yut said, when will be the last time? How many times as humans will we mess up until we get it right? I have been sitting on this for a while and I came to the conclusion that I don’t know. I don’t know if there are people out there who have the capacity to do this again, and I don’t know WHY.

Thank you for the best first day. I am already understanding the people, culture and food here in Cambodia, and am absolutely loving it!