In 1991, my senior year in high school, a teacher gave me an assignment to write a paper on a group of women in San Francisco. Little did I know that this assignment would impact my reading, living, and travel habits for decades.
The women, members of the Cambodian refugee community, were suddenly – and for no apparent physical reason – going blind. A whole group of doctors were trying to figure it out, their physical environments were tested for causes, but in the end, the only common denominator that could be found was history*. All of the women afflicted were survivors of the Killing Fields. At 17 years old, with little interest in history, even that which happened during my lifetime, it was the first time I’d heard that phrase.
As I did more research for my paper, I began to be pulled into their stories. First hand accounts of death, disease, torture, and systematic, purposeful murder. Something about it, I still don’t know what, fascinated me. Not the death and destruction part, I’m not that twisted, but the human side. The stories of how these people lived when 1/4 of their country’s population died. Their stories of how they could hope and love during the darkest parts of their lives touched something inside me and the resulting impact on my life has been large.
After turning in my paper (I got an A, thank you very much) I continued looking for stories. I have found, and read, hundreds. Survivors of the Killing Fields, the Holocaust, POW camps, Gulags, the Balkans, and other conflicts, famous and not. I devoured them. They gave me a better appreciation of history in general, but it was still the survivors who drew me.
A decade and hundreds of stories after writing my original report, I moved to Europe and, for the first time, I was walking through the places where the people in the stories had lived. It made them even more real.
I made a list. A list of beginnings and endings, and I started visiting them both. While my friends were off partying for a weekend, I was touring Dachau. Instead of hopping the train from Munich directly to Berlin, I took a side trip to Bruchenwald. I visited small villages where the people in my stories had lived, and sometimes stood in front of their homes. It made it all more real.
Today I feel like I’ve come full circle. Today I walked through the Killing Fields. I’ve been in Cambodia for a few days now and the entire time, the whispers of the stories have been in my head. Today, as I walked through the site, stepping over shards of bone and pieces of clothes from bodies still buried, I felt a sense of completion. Like a trip I started almost 30 years ago is now over. It felt right, even while standing in the middle of something so wrong.
I didn’t post pictures in this article, and I didn’t take many, because that’s not what this day or this post was about, but if you want to see the ones I did take, they can be viewed here.
* A few people asked about the cause of the blindness. There was no physical cause so
EDIT: I got the following note from a friend of mine:
My husband is an ophthalmologist and thinks the blindness was likely caused by vitamin A deficiency. He can’t be sure without seeing the patients himself. But, he says it’s a condition that’s very hard to detect by just looking in the eye. Special testing is needed, and those tests are much more sophisticated than they used to be. So, 20-30 years ago it could have been mistaken as a psychological issue.
Here’s an article I found about efforts to prevent nutritional blindness in Cambodia. It’s old, but gives a good explanation. http://www.nytimes.com/1995/04/21/world/kandol-journal-cambodia-s-agony-lingers-in-death-and-blindness.html
EDIT 2: I received the following tweet. I don’t know if the article linked is the one I originally read, but it’s a possibility and it was interesting to read something from that time since the details are foggy in my head and could very well have gotten confused. The statements about the blindness happening immediately after the trauma seem to counter the theory that it’s a Vitamin A deficiency.
— Alex Armstrong (@alehandrof) March 26, 2016