–By Sara Johnson
We have just arrived back from Toul Sleng, otherwise known as S-21, just one of the interrogation prison locations during the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1978. It is difficult to put into words how I am feeling right now. Touring Toul Sleng where it is estimated over 20,000 men, women and children were tortured before being sent to the killing fields for execution is similar to what I imagine walking through Auschwitz would be like. While the education is essential to my growth as a human, the affect is profoundly somber. Room after room is filled with pictures of prisoners, taken upon their arrival. Each one stares at the camera with a mixture of fear, confusion, and even defiance. It leaves me feeling haunted.
I have a tendency to think of genocide as a thing of the past, something we have moved far past as a society and yet this happened within my lifetime, a mere 35 years ago. Had I been born into an educated family here rather than in the United States, I would likely have shared this fate with my entire family. It’s a chilling thought, made more real as I walked through the prison cells, viewed the instruments of torture, read the forced letters of confession, and looked into the eyes of small children torn from their parents and afraid.
The end of this period of history is often referred to as “Year Zero,” the year the country began to rebuild from the ground up. Imagine trying to rebuild a country without any educated people and most of the older generation to guide you, for over two million of them were the targets of this regime. All the engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen, and anyone with a degree was under suspicion, arrested with their families and sent to be tortured for information before execution.
The effects of this have spilled into every facet of life here. This morning we learned that as a result of the genocide as much as 70% of Cambodia’s population is under age 30. Many are raised by parents who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder but are unwilling to talk about their experiences, leaving the younger generations with learned behaviors that are not always healthy.
There is also a volatile rage boiling just below the surface, fueled by an accurate sense of injustice over the crimes committed, the fact that the leaders of the regime are just now finally coming to trial, and that victims often live just down the street from their perpetrators who have blended back into society without repercussion. There’s a sense of uneasiness, a wariness of those around you which to a certain extent creates a devaluing of human life, especially of marginalized powerless groups.
In addition, while they are seeking educations in greater numbers, with such a tremendous young workforce there simply aren’t enough good jobs to go around, especially for young women. Knowing this, families favor educating their sons over their daughters, seeing value only in what a daughter can earn through selling small trinkets or worse, through her sale into the sex industry. Other young women eventually are forced to “choose” a life of prostitution as it’s the only industry with enough demand to earn enough money to feed a family.
As their leader I worry as I watch my group become overwhelmed. The numbers are staggering, the need massive. How could we ever possibly help?
But then I remember yesterday afternoon.
When we first arrived we had a chance to visit a couple of the girls members of my family have sponsored for years. They are girls who grew up in at-risk homes, often having lost one or both parents to HIV. They were marginalized, defenseless, and destined to become one of the statistics I mentioned above. And yet our intervention did change their lives in a very real way. By providing them with an opportunity for education, we watched them grow from shy quiet children into women with strong voices, doggedly fighting to finish their education and reshape the trajectory of their lives.
I cannot help but wish that every child in America treasured their education as much, pursuing it with this determination, recognizing the gift that it is. These girls have fought off angry family members determined to take the opportunity away, juggled transportation challenges, continued on even when they lost their parents and had to support themselves, and fought back against society norms to carve out the life they want for themselves.
They are inspiring. They are fearless. They are hope. They are my reminder.
A reminder that overwhelming numbers cannot stop me from doing my part. I cannot help everyone, but I can help a few. And I can encourage everyone I know to help a few. And I can teach a million girls and women why they too should help. And working together, we will make a dent in the need here.