Ordinary People

Whilst writing this blog post, I’ve had to stop several times to recognise and reflect on the theme of Ordinary People on International Holocaust Memorial Day. Ordinary People were involved in all aspects of the Holocaust, Nazi persecution of other groups, and in the genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Ordinary People were perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, witnesses – and Ordinary People were, and still are, the victims.

Angela Lawrence, Associate Dean, School of Arts & Creative Industries

I recently returned from a trip to Southeast Asia which included several days in Cambodia, one of the most beautiful countries I have had the privilege to explore. I’m repeatedly asked the question “how was your holiday?”, but in all honesty it didn’t feel like a holiday – more a kind of fascinating but sobering history field trip. Our feet barely touched the ground. We travelled over 22,500 miles across Vietnam and Cambodia in 21 days, by aeroplane, bus, car and tuk tuk, and we walked over 65 miles. We hitched up our backpacks and boarded the overnight sleeper buses that the locals use. We visited UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Halong Bay and the Angkor Wat temple complex. We shared meals and had conversations with lots of Ordinary People that we met along the way, from Cambodia, Vietnam and all corners of the world.

Streetside conversations
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

We visited the famous Angkor Wat temple site, rising at 4am to catch the sunrise over the temples – I climbed to the top of Angkor Wat and looked down on the stunning canopy of Cambodia before going on to visit the Bayon temple and the Ta Prohm Temple, where Tomb Raider was filmed. We swam beneath huge waterfalls and laughed and danced with the barefoot local children. We visited Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton, and learned of the appalling lives of the political prisoners who had the misfortune to be incarcerated there.

Ta Prohm Temple
Swimming beneath waterfalls in Cambodia

But by far the most moving site we visited was the Cambodia Landmine Museum. A tiny, outdoor collection in an area no bigger than the ground floor of your average 3-bedroomed house, which cost just $5 to enter (yes, the dominant currency in Cambodia is surprisingly USA dollars, although you’ll often get your change in Cambodian Riel). Here we learned of the atrocities of the Cambodia genocide and of the grim legacy left by the Khmer Rouge; the thousands of unexploded landmines still littering the rice fields, roads, and back yards of this war-ravaged country.

Cambodia Landmine Museum
Mr Aki Ra

We were humbled and honoured to meet the founder of the museum, Mr Aki Ra – an orphan of the Khmer Rough regime before he was even 5 years old, he became a child-soldier whose role was planting these terrible weapons that still today injure and kill dozens of civilians. In 1987 he defected from the Khmer Rouge and joined the Vietnamese army. Knowing so much about land mines and having trained with the United Nations at the end of the war, he became a deminer and spent over a decade clearing mines before opening the land mine museum. The museum was not only a place to tell the story of the Cambodia genocide, but also a home for many children, Ordinary People, who were orphaned by landmines or landmine victims. Mr Aki Ra estimates that he has probably cleared over 50,000 mines and unexploded ordinance (UXO) in his lifetime, yet there are still many more to be found.

Tuk tuks

We weren’t brave enough to visit the Killing Fields, but we felt the impact of the Cambodia genocide in conversations with tuk tuk drivers, market traders, barefoot children, street food vendors, and many other Ordinary People that we met during our travels.  It was a sobering reminder of just how privileged we are to live the lives that we live, in the peaceful countries that we live in.

If I could wish one thing for this incredible country, it is that more of us choose to experience its beauty and contribute towards its ongoing development. The loss of tourism since Covid lockdowns has hit them hard and they are desperate to share their country and their story with visitors – the story of Ordinary People like you or I whose lives have been devastated by the brutality of war.

Beautiful children, Cambodia