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Thirty years ago today, I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom in Mendham, New Jersey, listening to Radio Moscow on my shortwave radio, as they described the "liberation" of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, and learning two new names: Kheiu Samphan and Pol Pot. I talked with my friends on the telephone about the events, and what we thought it meant. We were only freshmen in high school, not really clear on what the Khmer Rouge stood for, or what they would do. Naively, I assumed it meant that the war in Cambodia was over, and the people would finally have some peace. Even the most conservative of my friends greatly underestimated the turmoil that would envelop that nation in the coming years.

Flipping around our shortwave dials, we heard from that all communication fron Phnom Penh was cut off. Radio Moscow's jubilent tone quickly changed to talk of the war in Vietnam (that ended two weeks later) with no more mention of Cambodia or the Khmer Rouge. None of us knew what happened.

Fairly soon thereafter, we moved on to other interests, and forgot Cambodia. The world did, too, apart from a brief incident with a merchant ship, the Mayaguez. There were occasional rumbles of how brutal conditions were for the people, but people have it tough all over.

In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia after a series of border disputes, and "re-liberated" Cambodia. It was only then that we learned the full horror of what the Khmer Rouge did. Genocide. Famine. Torture. That was the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. It was horrible. Paul McCartney organized the "Concerts of the People of Kampuchea" with some of the top musical acts of the day: The Clash, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, The Pretenders, Queen, The Who... A lot of money was raised, and the world moved on... Fan-aid for Africa, Eritrean famine relief... Cambodia receeded back as another place slowly recovering from genocide, torn by a civil war between the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, and the puppet government of Norodom Sihanouk established by the Vietnamese.

In 1996, I ventured to Cambodia. I've enjoyed nature and wildlife photography, and I just had to take pictures of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. I flew in to Phnom Penh from Bangkok, and had an afternoon before going on to the temples (and the civil war, as it turns out.) My guide suggested a city tour, which included the royal palace and the city temple. We still had time, so we went to Tuol Sleng -- the old high school converted by the Khmer Rouge to a torture center, and now a museum. Then we went to Cheung Ek, better known as the Killing Fields. It was profoundly moving.

Every now and then, when I get frustrated with some aspect of my life, it helps to think back to the Killing Fields, and remember: losing a basketball game to Carolina may really suck, but it isn't the worst thing in the world.

Penned by James