Thursday, February 23, 2012

Day 2

While yesterday was frivolous and fun, today was serious and contemplative. Though yesterday's tours of Phnom Penh's temples and markets weren't an inaccurate representation of Cambodian culture, we spent today educating ourselves about the darker elements of Cambodia's past and present.

In the morning, we visited the Cambodian office of the Somalay Mom Foundation, an organization that rescues victims from sex trafficking in Phnom Penh, educates and councils them, provides them with free healthcare, and generally prepares them for a healthy and independent life. We spoke with several women who survived and escaped the world of human trafficking, with assistance from the Somalay Mom Foundation.

I could detail the stories we heard or the facts we've learned, but that wouldn't properly communicate the reality of our experience. As several of us said as we were thanking the young women, talking about sex trafficking in an analytical way deprives the listener of the reality of these stories. I think it's safe to say that we all felt the true impact of the human trafficking epidemic in Cambodia, thanks to the brave survivors who shared with us this morning. Somalay Mom is fighting an uphill battle, but it's truly a worthwhile one.

Our next stop was Tuol Sleng, former school turned Khmer Rouge prison. One could walk directly into different cells, practically untouched since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. As Sabine and I discussed on the benches after our self tour, this was the most raw genocide museum we had ever experienced; when you were inside one of the cement-walled rooms, looking at the original torture devices, it felt as though the Khmer Rouge had fallen just yesterday. One can't the full magnitude of Pol Pot's regime without a visit to a site like this.

The next visit followed that same theme. We drove to Choung Ek, Cambodia's most well-known killing field on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Again, we self-toured at our own pace. I began with the memorial in the center of the site, commemorating the approximate 9,000 people found dead at this killing field's mass grave. Then I followed the dirt path around the site, reading the signs that detailed the daily function of the field during the Khmer Rouge rule. One particularly shocking moment was passing by what's known as "The Killing Tree," at which Khmer soldiers killed the babies of prisoners. Again, the reality of Pol Pot's rule wasn't truly impressed upon me through the book we read or the packets we were given; seeing the location of some of the Khmer's atrocities hit it all home.

Luckily, our night activity was a relaxed one, which allowed us some time to process. We watched a dance performance from a Cambodian Living Arts troupe, complete with live music and ornate costumes. It definitely reminded us of the beauty of traditional Cambodian life. Though Pol Pot and his regime forever tainted the history of the country with tragedy, and the sex trafficking epidemic continues to undermine Cambodia's beauty, CFA and its productions are a testiment to hope and beauty in Cambodia.

Kate (H.)

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