This little girl has haunted me since I first saw her December 1, 2002. Something about her struck me as I walked past the thousands of mugshots that hang on the walls of S21 Prison Camp, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She’s probably 5 or 6 years old in this photograph- her mugshot- the last photo taken of her before she was killed for her “crimes”. She has stuck with me through the years and continually whispers “live…I didn’t get that chance.”
One of the rewards of travel are moments that gobsmack you. I wrote in my journal the day I visited S21, now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, that “the image of this girl paralyzed me, scared me, humbled me. She made me want to be, to do, more.” She would only be about 5 years older than I am if she were still alive today. She was likely killed the year I was born. That’s a humbling thought. I had never before processed the “what if” of being born somewhere else. I understood the gift of freedom that day.
Prisoner rules in S21. If you are not familiar with Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge, take a few minutes to read the linked articles. I knew nothing of this tragedy before visiting Cambodia. It is recent history that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Just down the road, at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, I had another make-your-knees-weak moment. It was an incredibly hot day, and we had been walking around the mass graves of thousands of Khmer Rouge victims who had been buried alive. It was a sobering site, but it wasn’t the mounds upon mounds of unmarked graves or the monument containing skulls of victims that hit me the hardest. We had purchased a couple of bottles of water and were sitting in the shade trying to cool off from the heat. We were close to the chain link fence that separated the killing fields from the outside world. Two children from the town ran up to the fence, stuck their tiny, dirty hands through and begged us for our empty water bottles- not money, not candy- empty water bottles. I had never seen that level of poverty; it rattled me. It dawned on me that I had been born with the gift of privilege.
Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims encased in a stupa at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields memorial.
I grew up, as did most of you reading this, in a world where freedom and privilege seem to be a given, not a gift. History lessons about the Holocaust and evening news images of refugees fleeing horrific conditions feel abstract when you are in the comfort of your home. Gifts like freedom and privilege can’t really be understood until you feel the absence of them. Travel educates by making the world more tangible. It humbles you, it changes you, it inspires you, and sometimes it leaves you with ghosts that remind you to “live.”