Bryan and I recently had the opportunity to spend just under 2 days in Cambodia. This trip was part of Bryans work. He will be spending 2 weeks there in December on a humanitarian trip through work. This past weekend was a vision trip for the larger trip to come. We arrived in Phnom Penh mid afternoon on Saturday along with 5 others from Bryan’s company. We met their main contact and spent the evening getting to know him, trying some local foods, and doing some sight seeing in the city.
Phnom Penh is a busy city. Cars, motorbikes, and tuktuks everywhere, all full of busy people. We saw places of worship, businesses, and homes. The streets are not clean like they are in Singapore and traffic felt very “every man for himself”. Many people live above their businesses in the city as seen the photos below. Our hotel was across from a mattress business. They used a pully to lower things like pillows down from the upper floors to waiting purchasers below on the street.
The below photos is of power lines. The power lines are run entirely above ground in this city. There are so many, that at times, it seems like there is a canopy above you.
Food was quite eclectic. When we went to a local mall for lunch on Sunday we had the chance to eat Indian, Cantonese, Malay, and much more, much like in Singapore. We looked for a stall that sold Cambodian food as pictured below. I can’t even tell you the name of what I was eating, just that it was leafy greens, pork and egg. I quite enjoyed this lunch though Bryan’s curry was not nearly as yummy.
The next day we checked out of our hotel and made our way to the Bassac River where the team in December will spend much of their time. The images below are from the market on the city side of the river where the team will purchase food each day. As well as the jetty they will use to come and go.
Kor Island, lovingly called The Island by those who live and work there, is where the team in December will be. This island is set in the river and is only reachable by a boat / ferry guided by a local. This boat provides the only means of contact with the world across the river and The Island is a far different place from Phnom Penh. The images below show The Island sights, as well as where the December team will be working.
The Island is largely a farming community and many of the trees and plants seen in the photos above are fruit trees or vegetables sold in the market across the river. Aside from the cattle and dogs, we saw many chickens and geese owned by the villagers. The homes here are set 5-6 feet off the ground to help them keep clear of the flooding the happens in the rainy season. We met more contacts for the team and spent time exploring the school and vocational training center that they will call home for 2 weeks. I liked the village more than being in the city. Life is simple, the air is cleaner, rather than pavement there is green all around. We met a number of village children who were playing with something we often see in the states. I have a photo below, but how we recognise it.
Surprised? I chuckled inside as I watched the little girls kick this empty can back and forth like a hockey puck. They were having a wonderful time, playing a game with what Americans would view as just an empty can – trash.
After a few hours we left The Island, had lunch, and made our way to a museum. This museum was to be our last stop on our trip before heading home. We went to learn more about the history of Cambodia and its people. As we walked in, Bryan and I last minute decided to grab the headphones for the audio tour.
We are smiling in this photo. We were not smiling when we finished the tour just 90 minutes later. Little did we know that these 90 minutes of our trip would drastically change our trip. We were so effected that since leaving Cambodia, what we learned and saw has been discussed each day as we both think through and process. Though this was a short stop, in hind sight, I think, at least for me, this was the most important stop on our trip. I will advise now that what follows in this post speaks of evil. I will give my own thoughts on what we saw at the end, but the next paragraphs will included part of what we saw. This is merely part as I cannot put its entirety into words here. Though it is only part, it is truly evil and I beg that if you choose to continue reading, you do so with caution.
The museum we went to was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This museum was once a school for teenagers, but when the Khmer Rouge (KR) came to power in April of 1975, this school was converted into a secret prison. 1 of nearly 200 throughout Cambodia. The KR was a communist government. They were supported and aided in their rise to power by the Viet Cong. The war on Vietnam played a role in the rise of the KR. When the US bombed the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, many homes and farms in Cambodia were destroyed. With no homes and their land in ruins, the people of rural Cambodia flocked to the cities, like Phnom Penh. The city was large but not able to support the number of people who gradually made their way from the countryside. Food prices increased as farms were destroyed and farmers displaced. Jobs were not easy to come by in the city because there were so many people looking for them. The government could only do so much to help its people. As people grew discontent, support for the KR grew. When they took control of the Phnom Penh, the capital city, in 1975, things changed drastically. The KR wanted to revolutionise and purify the country by removing all western influence. All people were evacuated from major cities into the countryside.
All the people were now farmers, regardless of who they were and what they had done before the war. Many of these people would die of starvation as the KR traded the food they grew to other nations in order to supply their weapons. Those who didn’t starve were so weakened by hunger that many died from infectious disease. In an attempt to rid the nation of the western influence, anyone who had been influenced by western customs or thoughts was killed. This included anyone with an education and most people with trade skills. Doctors, Lawyers, Dentists, Engineers, Teachers, Painters, Writers, Journalists, and many other vocations were targetted. Simply to be wearing glasses was considered a sign of intelligence and education that could result in the death of the wearer. The KR also desired racial purity. Foreigners were killed. Anyone of mixed race was at a much higher risk of loosing their life. At the end of their reign of terror in 1979, the KR would have killed over 2 million people, a 4th of the population of the entire country.
The KR was also highly suspicious. They were determined that many people were working with the US and other western nations to overthrow them. This brings me back to the prison we walked through. Bryan and I took some photos but the not many. I have included them below for you.
The image below is the outside of the interrogation building. People were brought to this prison because they were believed to have committed crimes against the KR and thus to be working against the KR. Crimes as small as being educated, working with the previous government, wearing glasses, or picking fruit for your starving family to eat were enough reason for a person to come through the gates. People in this building were tortured into confessing things they had never done. Many were forced to confess collaboration with the CIA, which they had never heard of before being tortured.
The arch and pot in the photo above were also used as means of torturing people. The buildings we walked through contained photos and paintings of the horrors that went on here. People waiting to be “interrogated” were chained together in mass holding. They laid down with their legs bound on metal bars to 10 or more other people. Although the KR destroyed as much as they could before they abandoned the prison, some records remain. The beds that victims were strapped too in order to be beaten or electrocuted, still remain. The devices used for torture are still there. Water, salt, bugs, fire, electricity, knives were all used in unspeakable ways. In addition, the photos that the liberating army took when they first came into the prison, are also there. What was in these buildings was so gruesome I could not take photos. I had intended to give a full account of what we saw. Yet as I write, I cannot bring myself to put such evil things in writing in full detail.
Pictured above are 14 unknown graves. When the liberating army came to the prison, the remaining torture victims had been bludgeoned to death on the beds they were chained too. They were bludgeoned, not shot, so that the guards would not alert the liberating army that they were there by firing guns. The liberators buried the people and gave them a final resting place, though we will never know their names.
Of the 20,000 people who came through the gates of this prison, 14 would survive. 3 of them were children. When a suitable confession had been extracted, and the KR had a good enough reason to execute a prisoner for treason, they were taken to the killing fields. I am told that these field can still be seen today. Giant pits containing skeletons of the KR victims. Proof of the heartless and senseless murders that took place. Many who died in these places were not shot because the KR didn’t want to “waste” the ammunition. Rather they were hit over the head with sledgehammers. I am certain, that of the people who came into this prison, they all would have begged for death. For many, they probably begged long before it came.
I ought to also include, that this weekend I read an autobiography by Loung Ung, a survivor. Her book is titles First They Killed My Fathe. She was 5 when the KR came to power and 10 when she finally escaped Cambodia. What I read in her book has greatly added to what I saw. It has given voice and emotion to what began as just images. When we returned home in the wee small hours of Monday morning, I was so haunted by what I had seen and read that I couldn’t sleep. I lay in bed, weeping, hyperventilating, and totally overwhelmed by what I had seen. I have spent more time in my life than I can count learning about Nazi Germany. I have walked through the National Museums in the US and in Israel, dedicated to remembering the more than 6 million people who died. I have read accounts of survivors. I have read listened to eye witness testimony. I have read of both heroes and villains. Yet what I saw this weekend has rocked the core of my being much more than all of that. In my time in Israel, I read much on the Holocaust as I tried to understand how someone could do such unspeakable things to another human being. I ready many books and searched in many ways. I found no conclusion. No understanding ever came.
In the week since then, Bryan and I have sent many hours discussing what we say and trying to process it. The question of how people could do this to other human beings has come again to my mind. I still do not have an answer for my question. I do not think I will ever have an answer. Such things I think only God can understand, and to continue searching for an answer has not brought me any comfort, but only more anguish and confusion. But this time it has been different from my time in Israel. As we have talked, we have been trying to look at what we saw from the lens of faith and trust in a loving God. Below are some of the things that we, I, have come too.
- People naturally have evil and wicked hearts. Scripture tells us again and again that this is true:
Jeremiah 17:9 – The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
Matthew 12:34 – You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks
Mark 7:21-23 – For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.
As we walked the halls of the prison this has resounded in my heart and mind. We are wicked people who need Christ. The men who stood there and electrocuted other people, or waterboarded innocent women and children, are evil people. Their heart and core of their being is evil and wicked. I pray that the people who did these things came to know Christ as their Saviour before the died. If they did not I cannot imagine what awaits them in hell. What is more unnerving as that this wickedness lies in all mankind. The KR are not the first to do such wicked things and they surely will not be the last. There are men today who do such evil things. While the Lord will surely punish such evil things, He sees my sins as just as disgusting and gruesome as that which I witnessed this weekend. Were it not for the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in me, I would be no better off from an eternal standpoint than the men of the KR. We are all wicked in the sight of God and we offend Him even more than the KR offends us. We so so desperately need a Saviour!
2. All men are wicked and do not deserve good.
The natural question after seeing things such as this is the question asked of God for ages: “how can a good and loving God allow such evil things to happen to innocent and good people”. Surely many people who were innocent in the eyes of the world died for no reason. Many of the people who were tortured in the prison were not in any way guilty of what they were accused of. As I have pondered this question this weekend, I am reminded, as stated above, that all people are wicked and evil until they are cleansed by God. All people have sinned against God, even the smallest of children (Rom 3:23). All people have broken the law in some way shape or form (James 2:10). It is for this reason that Christ was sent to die (Jn 3:16-17). That people might be able to turn from their wickedness and come to God to be cleansed. Each of us deserves to suffer in hell for an eternity. We are not entitled to any good, for we, before we come to Christ are not good and even after we become part of the called out covenant community, we still sin! We continually defile ourselves and need to come back to the Father. This is not to say that any of the people who suffered under the rule of the KR deserved what happened. May this be very clear. No one deserves what happened there. Yet I cannot say that any person is good. For we are not. One person ever to walk the earth can be given such a title and He was crucified on a cross next to thieves for crimes He did not commit.
3. God works everything for His glory.
This is the answer that people hate to hear. This is the answer that brings no hope to people who do not believe and it seems like not much comfort to people in the midst of suffering. This is the answer that is hardest to understand and even harder to accept, even for me.
Romans 8:28 – And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
For those who believe, we can look at this atrocity and know that God used what happened for His glory. I cannot tell you why God allowed such a thing to happen. I cannot tell you how He will be glorified through it. I cannot tell you when. I can’t tell you a thing about what it looks like. I cannot even tell you that the woman who’s book I read found the Lord through what happened to her. I can tell you that God works in all situations so that HE might be glorified, even when I cannot see or understand it. Sin does not win. Evil does not triumph. I take comfort knowing that the Lord will have His vengeance one day for the countless evils that were done in that prison. The people who perished there were all seen by God and the Lord will repay for what was done.
4. Lord come quickly.
As I sit here, broken by what I know and thinking through all these things, my heart weeps and begs that my Lord might return. That such evil would not be allowed to continue any longer. However, I know that the reason He tarries is so that more people might know what He did for them upon the cross (2 Pet 3:9). So I wait. I pray.
This time as I process what I have seen, I am content with not fully understanding. I realise now that I cannot understand fully. As much as I do not like to, I have to rest in not knowing. I have to trust that it is better that I not know. The Lord, in His sovereignty has not that revealed that to mankind. As I have come to terms with this, I have found a peace.
I was told by a wise woman once that as I began counselling, I would come to know evil that I wish I never knew. After this weekend I can honestly say this is true. I am still shaken by what I now know. I still think more than I want too on it. I am caught off guard each time someone asks how our trip was – I don’t know how to tell people that while it was at times good, overall, it was awful. I learned awful things. I saw things I wish I could unsee. Yet despite all this I have learned things. I have learned things about the hearts of men and the sovereignty of God. I now can better pray for Bryan as he leaves in December. I ask all of you to pray with me! Pray for a nation that still hurts from what happened to them. I now can be part of a generation that remembers what happened there. For only by remembering can we keep history from repeating itself. I now can more than ever anxiously await the return of my saviour. I now must rest in my time here on earth knowing that thought I may not understand such evil, God does. He understands and He will have victory.
I know that for many of my readers, like myself, this concept is not easily understood or accepted. I cannot convince you. This is something each with us must wrestle with and come to peace with God about. I am sorry, that I cannot give more comfort. I am sorry I cannot give a more satisfactory answer. Please know that I share this with you after wrestling with this for myself for a number of years.
I end this post now praying that it will help keep the memory of what happened in Cambodia alive. Praying for the team in December. Praying for the Lord’s glory to shine. Praying for you who read this, and may be wrestling with these questions yourself. May the Lord bring you to peace with this difficult question.