This year my story starts at ground zero

S-21 - A face to face encounter with the horrors of Cambodia's past.

S-21 – A face to face encounter with the horrors of Cambodia’s past.

I have refrained from blogging too much about Cambodia’s genocide years under Pol Pot for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a little bit guarded when it comes to Genocide-Tourism, or the idea that the Genocide is in any way the only narrative within Cambodia’s long and often mysterious history. Second, I’ve seen a number NGOs make a direct emotive link between the horror of what took place in the 1970s (and the aftermath in the 1980s) and what they’re doing in Cambodia today: 40 years later. Do we need Pol Pot’s horror to justify what we’re doing today?

For sure, history and wars shape the national psyche – but people move on as well. Only twenty years after WW2 the Beatles were in Abbey Road recording John Lennon’s elegiac Norwegian Wood, but it takes a tenuous, or creative stretch of John’s DNA and personal family story to honestly join the dots between this pining song and the bombing of Liverpool back in 1940. By 1985 the distance back to Hitler (the same distance between us today and Pol Pot’s ascendency) was a world away.

Yet today I’m in strange mood. On my CD is playing a Khmer CD (with its perky arrangements and plangent vocals,) and in my mind I have been walking over the sacred grounds of memory: rekindling the moods and emotions of my first visit 11 years ago to Cambodia. Back then the shadow of the holocaust seemed more immediate, the wounds a lot more raw.

I noticed it the other day in a FaceBook message that Savong wrote. He showed a photo of a woman weaving palm-leaves into roofing thatch, and had been reminded how – during hard years ago – his mother did the same, to earn a few riel.

When any new visitor to Phnom Penh’s S-21 school turned prison-camp sees the bulletin boards filled with humanity – the thousands of faces of men women and children who faced reasonless torture and execution – it is impossible not to reflect on the tangible eye contact they make with us. Here: a boy, defiant. There: a man, broken and worn. Over there an intrepid young woman. One by one we examine these human faces. We empathise, we internalise and we try to reconcile what we we see and know about the past with what we see today.

It was during that process, that percolation of horror and sadness, that my fresh commitment (two days earlier,) to help Savong build a school was infused with – dare I call it this? – moral courage. I made a promise, not just to Savong, but to the children in these photos, to do something constructive in their honour.

This year I’m setting out to win sponsors and to set up a fund-raising group; not work I enjoy, but work I must do. Today my mood led me to listen to the Khmer music I purchased in Cambodia back in 2004, and it led me to reconsider the experience of my first contact with Cambodia’s people. It led me to rediscover why I made the decisions I made, and confirmed more than a decade ago.

Do we need Pol Pot’s horror to justify what we’re doing today? No we don’t. The role of education for the poor never needs further justification. But the victims of that horror deserve to be remembered. They remind us of the intrinsic value and dignity of every individual who knows right from wrong.  The journey doesn’t stop here, they told me. It must continue.