What do you say to a man who survived a genocide, who was tortured for 12 days straight, and saw his wife get killed in front of his own eyes…
…all by his own countrymen?
I know what you’re thinking: That’s an absurd question. But not too long ago I met a man who had all of these things happen to him.
And that’s just a small part of his life story.
Let me tell you what happened.
Around 3 weeks ago I went on a trip to Cambodia. And while I was looking forward to visiting Angkor Wat: the world’s largest religious structure built in the 12th century for the Hindu god Vishnu…
… I also wanted to learn more about Cambodia’s recent history. And the events that shaped the identity of the Cambodian (Khmer) people.
It’s safe to say that nothing had a bigger impact than the Cambodian genocide.
A period in which 1.5 – 2 million (nearly a quarter of the population) people were killed by the Khmer rouge; the members of the Communist Party of Kampachea.
While there were no less than 150 – 196 prison camps spread across the whole country that aided in these killing, the most infamous one was Tuol Sleng, also known as “Security Prison 21 or S-21, in Phnom Penh.
A place that has been turned into a museum to remind the Khmer people of the horrific events of the past. And for foreigners to learn more about Cambodia’s recent history.
So, after arriving in Phnom Penh this was, of course, the first place I went to visit. I got to the museum after a Tuktuk ride of about half an hour.
And it’s safe to say I wasn’t fully prepared for what I was about to see.
Because even though I’ve been to The Vietnam War Museum where I saw a person who was born with a heavy birth defect (caused by Agent Orange) ask for donations…
… S-21 didn’t fail to make an impression.
Sure, your stomach turns when you hear all the stories about how prisoners were held for months and tortured by beatings with sticks, electrocution, waterboarding and even pulling out their toenails.
But there’s something else in the museum you simply can’t see without being heartbroken: Pictures of the prisoners from the moment they were taken into captivity.
You could see the fear and confusion in their eyes. And knowing what was about to happen to them next makes it a very haunting experience.
But as I was processing everything I learned about S-21 while walking towards the exit…
… I suddenly saw a man sitting at a stand with a bunch of books in front of him.
Quickly after glancing in his direction, I was approached by a woman. She started talking to me in English and said something like: “This is Chum Mey, one of the only survivors of the camp. Do you want to buy his book?”
He then looked in my direction. And I was taken aback; I honestly didn’t know what to say. Because what do you say to someone who had to go through so much misery for no reason at all?
Any attempt to relate to his experiences would be futile.
So, I quickly recomposed myself and made a Sampeah with a deep bow (a way of greeting someone and showing respect).
And said: “Of course I want to buy your book. And I’m sorry you had to go through all of that.”
As I was grabbing the money out of my wallet, the woman translated my words. And he made a slight nod in my direction.
After being given the book, I walked towards the exit. And grabbed a Tuktuk back to my hotel with the book still in my hand (as you can see in the picture).
I started reading it the same day. And I learned there was only ONE reason why Chum Mey survived S-21: It was because he was able to fix the typewriters the Khmer rouge
needed to to write down the (fake!) confessions of prisoners about working for the CIA.
His own “confession” can be found at the end of the book. And it was obtained after 12 days of torture.
As you can imagine, meeting this man left a deep impression on me. Because when you hear the stories about the Cambodian genocide, you can still mentally distance yourself from them.
As if it happened in an alternate reality.
But when you meet someone who actually went through it, there is no escape: All of this happened in real life.
The impact of the genocide is also still very evident in Cambodia. Because even though it happened over 40 years ago, countless intellectuals and community leaders were killed.
This made it that much harder to rebuild the country after a long period of famine under Pol Pot; the leader of the Khmer Rouge.
And that’s a big reason why Cambodia still ranks high on the list of poorest countries. And why nearly 600,000 children have been orphaned because of AIDS, malnutrition, or poverty.
My experience in S-21, but also meeting so many amazing, friendly Khmer people during my travels motivated me to do something to help.
That’s why I started donating to Cambodian Children’s Fund: https://www.cambodianchildrensfund.org/donate
CCF is an organisation that helps fight (generational) poverty by focusing on:
- Basic needs
- Family & community
- And leadership
The reason why I chose this organisation is because I know my money goes directly to those in need: Financial audits have shown that 85% of my money goes to the program, 10% to administration and 5% is used for fundraising.
CCF has also received perfect scores from the largest independent charity evaluator for 11 years in a row.
If you’re feeling generous today, please also consider making a donation. I know most people that read this have plenty to spend (inflation or not).
And even a small amount ($5 – $10) can make a big difference.
Thank you for considering this!
P.S. Want to learn more about the Cambodian genocide? I highly recommend watching the documentaries “Enemies of the People” (2009) & “Year Zero: “The Silent Death of Cambodia” (1990), which you can find here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAM7smXmU2M&ab_channel=JamesBuchanan