Cambodia, land of silence

Cambodia, land of silence

(Thanks to Raffaella Rossi for the translation)

Silence. A golden Buddha is shining right in front of me, almost lost in the darkness of the temple. I sit comfortable to better admire it, completely covered in darkness. The air is stale and filled with incense perfume. Compared to all the Buddha statues I have seen for far, that were even 10 metres tall, this one is tiny. Not far above my head, the light is peeping through the spire as I sit here, on the cold and dusty stones, in complete silence for a moment contemplating and admiring this placid Buddha.

I slowly climb the last steps that take me at the top of Bayon temple, part of Angkor Thom complex, to finally get close to the Buddha and spend a moment alone. Almost a miracle considering the amount of tourists around. We currently are in Angkor Wat, at the border of the city of Siem Reap, the most important and visited archaeological site of all South East Asia. Tiziano Terzani, Italian journalist and writer, who loved this country and its temples writes “…this is one of the few places in the world that makes you feel proud of being a human being; a place where greatness can be experienced in each single stone, tree and breath you take.

In despite of the intolerable amount of tourists visiting the site, it is impossible not to agree with Terzani. Cambodia is a land of architectural and engineering marvels but, in its past, it has also shown to the world how deep down the humankind can reach. Silently, all the times. Silence has hidden the American bombs dropped on forests and rice fields of the Vietnamese borders. The silence of people who knew that speaking up during Pol Pot regime would only mean dying. Years later, silence again is covering the sell-off of the land by its own political class.

Land and water have always been at the centre of the history of a country which, in despite of being relatively small, is full of precious natural resources and a perfect place for cultivating rice, so important for the whole South East Asia. At the peak of the Khmer empire (between XI and XII century) thousands of people, subjects to the King-Gods, Hindu and Buddhist, moved tons of land to build ditches of over 190 metres in width and 1 Km in length, and canals to drain the water, giving at the same time protection and a magical appearance to the temples.

A land that is always been contested, sitting between the powerful Siam Empire, nowadays Thailand, on the west side and Vietnam at the west side, until it became Frenchprotectorate until the 1953, year of the Cambodian independence.

fertile land, as we notice admiring the landscape from the top of a Buddhist temple near Battambang. A lush green flatland, crossed by roads, full of noisy bikes, rickety auto rickshaws, wobbly buses and smelly trucks heading to Phnom Pehn. A boundless farmland where the best rice of the country is grown, where the horrible memories of the Khmer rouge are still kept and where a single cave turns out to be the grave for thousands of Cambodians killed by the regime.

A land that is still soaked in blood, in places like Choeungk Ek, one of the several extermination camps where between the 17th of April 1975 and 9th of January 1979 2 million Cambodians out of a population of 7 million died. One Cambodian out of 3 did not live to see the end of the regime and the rest was left to deal with one of the most horrible tragedies of the XX century. A land that still returns bones and clothes from what is left of over 300 extermination camps that had one single goal: to destroy the history, culture, identity and religion of a whole country by physically eliminating the intellectuals, clergy and anybody who could write and read as they represented the corruption of the Cambodian society. The only ones meant to survive were the farmers, the only ones to represent the ancient and true values of the Khmer. The motto was “In order to eradicate the weed you need to eliminate the roots”. That is how whole families, millions of innocents were slaughtered as they could not match the ideal Cambodian society the regime had in mind. Not only the Khmer rouge killed a third of the population but also aimed at destroying the different social classes levelling it all into one, eliminate the currency, the private property and even family as an institution. Nobody was even allowed to cook at home and share a meal with their family but rather eat all together at the soup kitchen.

Furthermore, the Khmer leaders, considering urban centres a dangerous place for aggregation and soul corruption, decided to evacuate thousands of people from first from Phnom Penh as soon as the city was freed and then from the main cities. Most cities were emptied from one day to another, everybody forced to leave everything behind a move to the countryside where they would collectively working in rice fields and contributing to the build new irrigation ditches.

One of the key places that helps understanding how far the delusional Khmer ideology reached is the Tuol Sleng prison, former school transformed into a detention and torture centre by the regime. Nowadays a fundamental remembrance site. Walking the empty rooms, reading the stories of the ones who died and the few who survived is touchy and overwhelming at the same time. The few who managed to come out alive carry on their life with a sense of guilt and shock for what they have seen. Arbitrary detention based on fake confessions obtain with torture, food, sleep and water deprivation, physical and mental violence, humiliation. Prisoners were forced to release false confessions that would justify their own death and prove that the decisions made by the Ang Kar party (literally translated as The Great organization) were right and fair. Desperation was as such that prisoners would attempt suicide by setting themselves on fire or cutting their veins with a pen or a broken spoons. Prisoners were used as blood donators, their blood drained out until death would take them. An even worse fate was reserved for women who were raped by groups of 10 people and tortured by teenagers not older than 14 years old, indoctrinated and made part of this murdering machine. The regime was so highly structured and duties so maniacally divided between each single person that nobody would necessarily see the responsibility of their actions and recognize the madness of the dictatorship.


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