A few days ago, we visited the Genocide Museum in the heart of Phnom Penh. The museum is housed within a former Khmer Rouge “Security Center,” S-21.
As we entered into the museum, shaded by large trees that did nothing to betray the horrors that had occurred, we were given audio devices to guide us around the museum. They allowed for us to move around at our own pace and for us to take time for ourselves and reflect on the graphic and moving exhibits. The audio guides retold the stories of prisoners at the Security Center, many of whom never got the chance to tell of the things they witnessed and experienced. It guided us through gravestones, interrogation cells, holding cells, and the remains of dead bodies. Numerous pictures lined the walls, and many of the former cells remained in their original condition, forcing us to imagine what the Security Center would’ve been like 40 years ago.
The experience of walking around the very places that the audio guide was describing was moving and emotional, and forced us to reflect on the past, present, and future.
We left the museum with heavy hearts. We felt for those who were affected, both directly and indirectly, by the horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rough. Although the museum painted an image of turmoil and violence and suffering, we were told by Seavyi not to leave with anger in our hearts, for to hold anger within will only provoke further violence and intolerance.
This request proved difficult to accomplish.
We, Ruby and Rachel, are both Jewish. Although we have grown up and currently live in accepting and joyful communities, the traumatic impact the Holocaust has had on our community always remains present in our lives. So, inevitably, the stories of the trauma that took place in S-21 recalled memories of the trauma experienced by members of our community. In the tuk tuk ride back from the museum, we looked at each other and simultaneously agreed that this – this suffering and this anger and this hatred – was like the holocaust in so many ways. Although the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge Regime and by Nazis took place thirty years and thousands of miles apart, their occurrences prove the atrocities that humans are capable of.
However, the Cambodians do not live with anger in their hearts and neither should we. Their community has moved past the brief period of violence of the Khmer Rouge. Although the experiences of the Cambodian people during and after the Khmer Rouge differ greatly from the experiences of the Jewish people, the continued positive and welcoming attitude of the Cambodian people inspire us. It’s hard to live without anger when you hear about the terrible violence committed against fellow humans. Yet, the Cambodian people live their lives with no apparent hatred, just joy and love, inspiring all of us to let go of our anger and move forwards towards peace and acceptance.