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Upon recommendation by a woman I met in Thailand, I read “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” by Loung Ung prior to arriving in Cambodia, conveniently finishing it on the flight from Bangkok. The first hand account of living through Pol Pot’s violent period of control, and survival, starvation, and abuse under the Khmer Rouge proved to be educational and powerful, and it led to a deeper appreciation for the kindness and smiles of the Cambodian people. One wouldn’t know by taking a look around that these faces had seen some of the most horrible war scenes imaginable only 40 years ago. Those I encountered who would have lived through the Khmer Rouge persecution were eager to please and show me their cities and culture.

The younger generation is so full of life. I was instantly drawn to them that first night as my taxi weaved through the traffic. Young couples laughed as they whizzed by one another on motorbikes, flirting as they slowed at intersections. I watched from behind the cab window like the shy girl watching all the cool kids have fun, desperately wanting to be part of their world. I was enthralled.

Still, it was hard to ignore the history of the Khmer Rouge, especially after visiting either the Killing Fields or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I spent some time walking through the halls and classrooms of the old high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into the infamous torture and interrogation prison known as S-21. My stomach churned as I walked past images of victims who had died during interrogations, and of entire families who had been arrested and held there – including little children. Anyone who might have had affiliation with or been in support of the former government was subject to arrest. Intellectuals (including many foreigners), railway engineers, police officers, and civilians, men, women, and children all passed through S-21. Rooms that were once used to educate and inspire life in young Cambodians were now a source of nightmares.

I touched my fingers to the rusted barbed wire strung across the veranda – meant to prevent prisoners from jumping to their death. Holding to it, I tried for a moment to imagine this as my life. The men I know forced to confess to false collaboration with foreign organizations, or the children made to watch their parents killed, only to inevitably face a similar fate. A moment was all I could take.

Sitting at a café just down the road from S-21, I thought about the different realities experienced simultaneously around the world. It’s easy to sit at home and simply be aware that our lives, with the freedom to laugh and go out with friends, debate politics with neighbors, and compete for jobs, are not like many of those in the world. Safe in middle-class comfort, we are blessed and rich with opportunities and resources. We might read books and articles about tragedies and conflicts worldwide, but when it gets to be too much we can put them down and carry on with our day.

While walking through the tiny wooden boxes at Tuol Sleng that people like you and me sat chained in for months, and at the café afterward, I kept coming back to the concept of reality. Could it be true that while my parents were in high school and college, the Cambodian people were living through this reality? For nearly five years they woke up every day to this? Could you survive? How?

Hollywood et al. has a knack for romanticizing some of history’s most heinous events. Diluted with plots of love and mystery, stories of life in WWII Europe fascinated me as a kid, but it was not until I visited Dachau at 13 that I felt the gravity of it all. It was not just a story. It had really happened. Those were people’s lives.

Without movies and (often fictionalized) books as influence, Tuol Sleng was very raw. And it burned. It hurt. As it should. We are capable of so much love and so much destruction, and we have to be reminded of what wickedness looks like so we know to crush it before it rises. We can’t hate each other.

Chum Mey, one of only a handful of survivors from S-21, was sitting near the exit of the museum with a table of books he’d either written or contributed to. He smiled at me as I stopped to read a poster resting next to him. On it he was quoted as saying he could not hate his captors, for they were only doing what they had to do to survive. Could we be expected to do differently?

Tuol Sleng

*Edited December 26, 2014