One night in Phnom Penh, on my way home from a bustling night market I caught a tuk-tuk and on the ride back to my hostel my driver and I started chatting. He began by asking me the obvious questions: where are you from, how long are you here for, do you need a driver for tomorrow, etc. I gave him my answers and we laughed and joked despite the obvious language barrier between us. His English was very minimal and my Khmer was next to none, but we didn’t let that stop us. I arranged for him to pick me up the following morning to take me to the Killing Fields.
Soon enough it was my turn to ask questions. I asked him where he was from, how long he’d been a tuk-tuk driver for and how long he had lived in Phnom Penh. He told me that the village he was born in no longer existed, that he had come to Phnom Penh in the 80s as a toddler with his mother and that he had spent his whole life raising money with the dream of one day buying a tuk-tuk. He had only owned his ride for 5 years.
And then I did something stupid: without even thinking about it I asked him if his family lived in Phnom Penh too, and the air shifted. He responded with a silence that was only occasionally broken with muffled sniffles and low sighs. When we got to my hostel I gave him an extra ten dollars and shook his hand. He thanked me profusely and drove off in tears, no longer able to hold them back.
Those were tears that I shared the next day when I visited the Killing Fields. I had never seen anything so brutal and inhumane in my life. For the people of Cambodia, displacement, execution and mass graves are a shared family history and the poverty that rips through the country is the phantom of the past that continues to haunt them.
Every single person has a story of their own; this regime left no one untouched. A museum curator later told me of how he was ripped away from his family as a child and forced to fight a war that he didn’t understand. The Khmer Rouge taught him how to set mines and fire rifles, stripping him of his human right to a childhood. He now dedicated his life to disarming the mines that he had once been a part of placing.
Cambodia is a country of people who are just trying to put each other back together, and in the absence of the ones that were taken from them they share a broken connectedness. They have endured trauma, separation and unspeakable horrors, but in spite of all these things a message echoes throughout the country: “We will never let this happen again.”