I learned more about life on the day I turned 40 than I have in many of those combined years of living. Today, I learned first-hand about the horrible genocide that Cambodians suffered during the Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge regime.
My Carpe Diem guide, Ro, was just eight years old from an educated middle-class family when life altered for him and hundreds of thousands of people in Cambodia. He remembers the moment when his family was told the Americans were going to drop bombs in three days so the family of 12 must pack and leave their Phnom Penh home.
It was all a trick.
Many of the middle-class, educated people like Ro’s father were targeted, captured, interrogated, taken away and killed. It was extermination of the Cambodian people. Culture, arts, railways, homes, and people were eliminated. The result was a country where everyone was equal and subservient. As Ro tells me, “there were no rich, no poor. No Mr., no Mrs. No education. Everyone was exactly equal.”
The only separation that occurred was the division of age into four labor camps. The older people worked on bridges, the adolescents worked in fields and the babies were in a camp of their own. Families were completely separated and most of them either died, or survived and never saw their families again.
Ro worked in a field where he was supervised by a Khmer guard. Ro said, “you work, you eat. That’s it. No education.” Food was scarce. In fact, Ro ate bugs from the field to supplement the ladle of rice porridge he would get for food. Even that was risky. Children who were caught catching bugs in the field were stripped naked, tied to a pole in the 120 degree sun and dosed with red ants. Ro saw many people die. A middle-class child who knew nothing about living off the land had to find the strength in himself to simply survive.
That lasted 3 years, 8 months and 20 days.
In 1979, when Ro was almost 12 years old, the Khmer lost power to the Vietnamese. Only then did families try to find each other-now scattered all over Cambodia. Ro says families would carve messages into trees as they traveled to different areas hoping to find their loved ones. Eventually, Ro found hi mother, 2 sisters and a brother. Unfortunately, the blessing of the reunion also came with the reality that three sisters, three brothers and their father all died.
Today, Ro is a tour guide. Angered by the opportunity of an education ripped away from him, he has devoted his life to sharing with visitors, not only the beautiful Buddhist temples and Cambodian countryside, but information about the people who live here. Information that Ro says is being left out of their history books. He never saw his home in Phnom Penh since the days his family evacuated the city. He now lives in Battambang and his mother lives nearby.
Ro took me high into a mountain to the Killing Caves where thousands of people were pushed to their death. Skulls had been enshrined and it is now a place of prayer.
When I hear a story like Ro’s, it is truly difficult to wrap my brain and emotions around the events that a person can possibly survive. I can’t help but think, ‘what if that were me? How could I ever survive the terror of something like that?” I think Ro is a testament to the human spirit. He gave me a gift for my birthday that will forever remind me that you never know the journey someone has endured when you first meet them.