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Tuol Sleng Genoside Museum

After an egg and some funny tasting coffee for breakfast we met a girl called Kanya, who works for International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC), the local organisation that Tearfund works through here in Cambodia.

We take a minibus and travel to their headquarters, on a dusty side road a little out of town. After climbing six flights of incredibly steep stairs we enter a cool air-conditioned room, where we spend the next few hours getting to know who ICC are and what we will be getting up to for the next week.

This is Harry. He heads up one of ICC’s projects called the Village Integrated Development Project, or VIDP for short. (Sorry about all the acronyms by the way).

Harry tells us that VIDP is based on an approach that is sometimes known as ’Umoja’, a Swahili word meaning togetherness.

Rather than handing over aid or dictating a specific programme to people in need, Umoja is all about training individuals who go into their own villages and work together with the local church to start little projects that help grow community and fight property. Without any external seed money or financial backing they work out ways of making it happen, pooling the little they have to build something together. 

Context is everything

This all sounds great, but it is particularly relevant when put in the context of Cambodia’s recent history. The brutal events of the 70s and 80s left the country gutted, devastatingly poor and brought with it a strong sense of distrust at anything community-related. Harry tells us that the affects of all of this are still very much present today.

In the afternoon we went to the Tuol Sleng Genoside Museum. As the name suggests this is not an enjoyable place to visit.

Our guide was telling us about when the Americans moved out of Cambodia in the 70s and how he remembers cheering with everyone else as the Khmer Rouge army came in on Tanks to liberate it. The celebrations stopped abruptly as the people were told that they had to leave everything and move to the countryside in three hours or they would be shot. Middle class people, educated people, doctors, lawyers and religious people were killed and the whole country was subjected to forced labour in the rice fields with appalling conditions. By the end of it all, an estimated 2 million people had died.

Tuol Sleng was a torture prison during this time. Over 4 years this housed 20,000 people, including 165 babies, and at the end of it all only 7 adults and 4 children survived. It’s a horrific place with rough, stained walls and torture equipment still left out the way it was when the Vietnamese Army liberated it. Kanya told me that when she first went round the museum as a girl you could still smell the blood.

There were 167 prisons like this during the Pol Pot regime, along with 343 killing fields. I can’t get my head around the numbers, or the brutality of it all. How can people do this? What motivates them? I was expecting our guide to have an answer, but he just said that he didn’t know.

I don’t know either. Going through something like today, I find it pretty impossible to deny the presence of evil. And I think in a strange way, thats why I’m a Christian. I don’t doubt the presence of evil, its clearly in this world and I don’t doubt the presence of good, that’s clearly here too. And I believe that God is good, that he is ‘Umoja’ and wants more goodness and Umoja in the world. Hopefully see some more of that tomorrow.