Two days ago we visited the Government-owned War Museum, and this afternoon we visited the privately-owned Landmine Museum. Both of them told the same story, of the terrible impact on the country of the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge period, and the continued civil war which ran until 1998. Although the displays focused on land mines, artillery, tanks and guns, it was the personal stories of suffering which will be the memories. At the War Museum, our guide was a 25-year old man who’s brother was killed in front of him by Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who had lost his arm in the same attack, and had then heard that his parents had been killed by guerrillas while he was recovering in hospital. His parents had been killed with a spade for not handing over their water buffalo to the Khmer Rouge. Before coming to Cambodia we had read two books covering the Khmer Rouge period, so we have a basic understanding of the recent history of the country, and the impact on families of so many random, brutal deaths. We definitely found it difficult to listen to the personal story of family death, while looking at a display of AK47 and M16 rifles.
The Landmine Museum didn’t have a guide there during our visit, but the impact of individuals’ stories were still difficult to read, and especially to read out to Charlotte, who was captivated by them. The museum was setup by a man who had originally been a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge, then a soldier for the liberating/invading Vietnamese forces, and then finally a mine-clearer for the UN. His frank and brutal memories were pinned up on the walls, which were dotted with displays of deactivated mines and armaments. The owner still occasionally clears mines – one of the villagers had found a live landmine last summer in their back garden, 2M from the house and only 500m from where we were standing reading the story.
There was also a simulated minefield setup in the garden – even more moving since we knew that mines like these were laid all over Cambodia, and although some areas like the Angkor temples have been cleared, most others still lie in the ground and in paddy fields, waiting for somebody to stand on them. (If you want an innocent challenge, there are four mines in the photo on the left). One of the plaques reads “It costs $5 to purchase a mine and $500 to clear and destroy one. The museum is also home to young children injured by land mines, who’s parents send them there to learn languages, go to school and hope to change their lives. As we left the museum, we saw them across the road, playing football on a patch of dirt. At first, it looked like a normal game of football, but after a second we realised that half the players were on crutches because they only had one leg, and the rest were missing one or two arms. It served as a reminder that Cambodia is home to 45,000 landmine victims, and every month there are 120 new victims. Only some of them are lucky enough to be injured within reach of a hospital, and even fewer have the $50 required to get the hospital treatment required to save their lives.
Cambodia is a country with high contrasts, and you can expect to have your thoughts challenged by what you see, hear and experience. And it causes you to ask questions about yourself and everything else.