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The Khmer Rouge from the eyes of our tour guide

A guest post by one of our travellers, Colin Stanley.

Wrought with disruption, violence, and unrest, the years leading to Chamreun’s birth were turbulent, to say the least.

External pressures from changing regimes and bombardment from imperialist powers threw the Kingdom of Cambodia into an unexpected tailspin that witnessed some of the most horrific acts of history. Dissidents of the once mighty Angkor Empire, were to feel the anguish of death knocking upon every home. Following release from French colonial rule, a deep dissatisfaction for the monarchy grew from the poverty stricken streets of Phnom Penh. Major conflicts in neighboring Vietnam raged-on year after year, a bloody affair that left few unscathed. An avenue for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Cambodia was under heavy attack by U.S. bombers targeting Viet Kong troops and supplies traveling south for the fight. A reign of fire fell from the sky above rural agrarian populations. War was brought to the doorstep of the small underdeveloped country by 1970, a price the people are still paying for today.  

“Faster, faster!”, pokes from a muzzle of an AK-47 wielded by young hands moved a procession of refugees deeper into the veil of the jungle. A once prominent family from the capital quivered in fear of their country brethren who had been indoctrinated with the prophecies of a fool.

Year Zero had begun and the plan to bring Cambodia back to simpler time was in full effect. Work camps were constructed and citizens were displaced from urban areas. Life was eerily left behind as Chamreun’s grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, aunts, and uncles were forced from their homes. A treacherous journey through the veil of the Khmer jungle saw the death of many. As unlikely as it was, a family was able to keep intact despite their surroundings. In this setting, Chamreun’s mother held bowls of watery rice porridge to the mouths of her younger siblings, bringing them enough strength and hope to fight another day.

 Cham Tour Guide

The Khmer Rouge put much of their efforts in recruiting and turning a population against itself. Those who spoke out against the Khmer Rouge or were suspected of thinking outside of what was allowed were brutally murdered by their own people. Tragically, teachers, lawyers, and doctors were prime targets during the genocide, sending the country into an intellectual dark age of sorts. In less than four years over 2 to 3 million Khmers died from malnutrition, exhaustion, murder, and disease; many of whom were once citizens of Phnom Penh. Visiting these sites in and around the capital is a somber reminder of this relatively recent tragedy.

Screams from underneath a palm rang through the refugee camp. Captors unbothered by the anguish, suck at cigarettes and continue to play cards. The terrifying howls were unlike the common calls of torture and death that they had become all too familiar with. Instead of loss, it was the cry of rejuvenation… a baby being born in circumstances that were nothing but joyous. Chamreun’s mother ran from point to point gathering help, water, and supplies to deliver her younger sister. A new life was brought into a seemingly crumbling society. This is not a story of death, it is about hope and overcoming obstacles beyond belief.