Ultimately suffering a worse tragedy than it's neighbors Cambodia was the last Indo-China nation to be drawn into the war in Southeast Asia. Surrounded by larger more powerful nations Cambodia historically has always had fears of being swallowed up by any one of a half dozen countries. Rimmed by mountains and hills on its borders it's heartland is a flat expanse of forests, fields, and grasslands watered by rivers and streams of the Mekong. River fishing and watered fields made Cambodians traditionally a well fed people during peacetime.
Angkor Kings ruled from the ninth to the fifteenth century but it was during the twelfth century that the kings converted to Buddhism. They built great temples in the shape of mountains which still stand today at Angkow Wat the religious capital of Cambodia. The dominant branch of Buddhism teaches that every person must seek his or her own enlightenment through meditation and it was this self enlightenment which made Cambodia appear to be losing its national identity. France, while establishing colonial rule over Vietnam, made Cambodia a protectorate in 1864. Under it's rule it encouraged productivity in the region giving Cambodians a sense of worth and ruled for the next ninety years. Losing it's hold during WWII Japan seized the opportunity to expand and occupied Cambodia until it's ultimate downfall. At the 1954 Genva Convention Indo-China went through a regional upheaval and Norodom Saihanouk was given the title Chief of State of Cambodia.
By the early 1960's Sihanouk was walking a fine line with all the major powers of the world. He broke off all relations with the U.S. in 1965 and permitted North Vietnam to use it's eastern border to supply the Communist takeover of the south. In March 1969 the United States began bombing both the Sihanouk and Ho Chi Minh trails to stop the influx of supplies and sent soldiers to deal with the Vietcong head on.
After one year of continuous bombing violent government orchestrated anti-Vietnamese demonstrations took place in Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia. The National Assemblies and government Ministries voted unanimously to depose Prince Sihanouk as Chief of State. Sihanouk, then in Beijing to gain support, sealed an alliance with his former worst mortal enemy. To regain his thrown with authority he sided with the Khmer Rouge and led Cambodia down one of the darkest periods in modern time.
A French educated Cambodian Communist Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, led the new Khmer Rouge government. The Khmer Rouge emerged in the 1970's as the most extreme and violent Indo-China revolutionary movement in its history. From 1973 to 1979 new violent and fanatical doctrines were imposed. These ideologies were buried in the psyche of the people beneath years of isolation, hatred of their neighbors, and war. Cambodia spiraled deeper into savagery as the war weary U.S. ended its bombing in 1973 paving the way for Pol Pot's new regime. By 1979 one third of the population was either murdered or displaced in violent attacks by the government. Cities were emptied out and millions of Cambodians were forced into slave labor camps as the world stood by and did nothing. The Khmer Rouge Regime was responsible for committing the worst genocide in the twentieth century second only to the Nazi's during WWII. In January 1979 Vietnam invaded its former ally and ended the reign of terror. After 35 years of continuous fighting the war in Southeast Asia was over and for the first time since WWII there was peace in the region.
We were sent to the isolated border region to find Vietcong and stop the influx of weapons. The chances of finding a base camp in such a remote area was nil but Delta was good at its job.
Dawn in triple canopy jungle is the equivalent of having a night light on. I had been up all night dealing with my apparitions and exhausted from both the night and the previous days adventure. My feet were bleeding and swollen but I had to go to work and ignore the pain. To add to our misery our hunger would also have to be ignored and wait for resupply helicopters to drop off our food. The clearing was about a half mile away. The jungle was to dense for landing and much to dangerous for any kind of a drop zone especially in the Vietcong's backyard. Half our unit was ordered to make the dangerous trek to meet the choppers leaving my point position open. I volunteered to stay behind and hold down the outpost while Peter and the others went on a two hour hike through dense growth.
My bravery came a distant second to the pain in my feet as I carefully unlaced the tension on the blood soaked canvass of my jungle boots. As I suspected my socks wouldn't come off without that outer layer of skin it was so fond. My raw feet were stinging from the damp morning air. Foot powder and bug juice were essential to the ground soldier and were probably made of the same smelly stinging ingredients. From the height of my boots to the tip of my toes my feet were bleeding from oozing pockets of clumped skin. Closing my eyes to the instant gratification of pleasure pain I wallowed in foot powder enjoying the moment.
An explosion rocked my body followed by the clacking of AK-47's first from the front then flanking me to one side between me and my unit. The day began, like many others in Vietnam, with a violent firefight pitting men against each other without personal cause. I was now alone without Peter for the first time and separated from my unit. I had a bad feeling about this place.
Intense heat threw my head back, left knee ripped out, calf exploded, hips displaced, and pain shot up my groin through the center of my spine and they kept shooting me. I was alone and both the Vietcong and I both knew help wasn't coming. I took another round as they kept my unit pinned down at a considerable distance. I was their bate lying in no-mans land to be dangled in front of the men. They shot me again for good measure. The firefight continued breaking the silence of the morning mist with that familiar smell of battle as gladiators, both champions for their own cause, went at it. Some stood, some fell, and still no one came for me.
I was not here and I was not there but peaceful in a new place watching from a comfortable height. The light was bright but not intense as it cradled me in serenity and allowed me to think in a rational calm venue and view the events of the day. Ever so slowly my men were inching closer and with a volley our medic got to me and cut my clothes off feverishly. Doing what he could he signaled the men to wrap me up in a pancho liner so be could attend to the others in need.
Returning without supplies my six man team attended to me immediately. They would go back to the drop zone again only this time they would carry my limp body and exchange it for food. I could see the horror in Peter's face and tried to comfort him but no words came out. I was here and I was there and I tried to talk to him. I knew I would leave with unfinished thoughts from the previous night. What would he do without me? How would he survive? I wanted to be ok for his sake after all we were a team from back home and we needed to see this through.
I floated awhile longer with grace and ease and an uncanny ability to think at multiple levels. Thoughts of Peter, the men, all the days here, and home all came and went fluidly with a clarity of mind I never possessed before. Focussing on Peter I wanted him to know I was sorry for leaving him but again there were no words just a limp body wrapped in plastic. I knew my time here was done, unfinished but done. I'm sorry Peter.
Peter, Dave, and two others put me on the chopper along with a few other men wounded from our sister unit. Still limp I was first to be put on so I got the bottom rack while the others were locked in above me. Garcia was shot in the throat and bleeding all over me in sporadic bursts that the medic couldn't control. I had no place to go so his blood mingled with mine and coagulated on the floor. He was in bad shape I thought and I wondered if he too was watching or had he already left and gone to another place. Pictures in my head was all I had then everything went away.
When you call it S-21 it gives it a museum stop touristy feel but once you enter Security Office number 21 your pulled into a world of darkness unmatched by any Hollywood script. Welcome to hell. Pol Pot came into power as a direct result of the conflict in Vietnam. Drawn into the war out of neccessity Cambodia suffered more than any other country in Southeast Asia. Skirmishes with Cambodian forces along the border were commonplace but little did we know we were fighting what would be the future genocidal killers of the savage Khamer Rouge Regime.
A row of cell blocks houses a couple of hundred prisoners and in total approximately 1,700 were contained tortured and sentence to death for the crime of being educated. If you could read you were considered educated and so you were beaten and tortured until you confessed. Only 4 people survived S-21 and 2 remain alive today to tell their story.
Cell block and torture room.
Meet Bou Meng one of only two survivors. I sat with Bou and through his interpreter I told him who I was and why I was here. He sat patiently and probably thought to himself, who cares, but there we were both survivors and both moving forward. We were close in age but he suffered a fate far worse than I. His family including his wife were killed in S-21 and yet he feels compelled to continue. I could feel his spirit was large and I absorbed as much of it as I could. This is the energy that we all need and it keeps us moving forward.
Bou testifying before the world court.
From S-21 I followed the route of some of its inhabitants to the quiet little village of Choeung Ek and walked through the orchards of a mogul pock marked landscape. If I were in a picnic frame of mind I would have sat under a shady tree and had lunch. This peaceful setting holds the remains of thousands of victims of genocide buried in mass graves. Each mogul I walked through was filled with hundreds of naked bodies small and large.
I looked down at the muddy earth and was shocked at what I saw. It had rained that morning and human remains were uncovered by the downpour on the very path I was using.
Selfie in the orchards, welcome to The Killing Fields.
I was in a room containing 9,000 human skulls and other body parts.
Thousands upon thousands of souls appear to be trying to get out.
Children were beaten against The Killing Tree and the savagery didn't stop there. It is believed that when you eat the hearts and lungs of your enemy you gain their strength.
My Cambodian experience rounds out the last week of my journey and as hard as it may be to see such atrocities it is a necessary evil to convey the full picture of the War In Southeast Asia. As a direct result of outside interest this region has suffered greatly and although compensation will never happen an honest forthright understanding of the facts is not asking to much. We as a society, although maybe not directly, helped create this upheaval and we should at least aknowledge our role. Then and only then do we move forward in earnest without guilt and understand the past so that we may better see the future.
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