Genocide at Phnom Penh
Days 830 – 837 (Part 1)
When people visit Phnom Penh, they often visit S21 and the Killing Fields. It may seem a macabre thing to do, but we found that it was a powerful way to learn about the recent history, the genocide that killed 25% of Cambodians.
Jac found an international church right next to where Tim and I wanted to visit. We went our separate ways, and Tim and I entered the old Tuol Svay Prey High School, where children would have studied in the classrooms and had fun in the courtyard playground.
That all changed in 1975 where children and their families would be banished from their homes in Phnom Penh, sent to the countryside for hard labour, many starved to death. Or they ended up in one of the detention centres scattered around the country, such as this school, which was turned into Security Prison 21 (S-21), becoming the largest detention and torture centre in the country.
The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, tried to build an agrarian society. They abolished the monetary system, destroyed schools, hospitals and religious buildings, they indoctrinated innocent adolescents into executioners and tortured and killed multitudes of innocent people. This is not an easy read.
We paid for our tickets and listened to an introduction of the nightmare on our audio guide. Thousands of people were held captive here in S21; Men, women and children, often for the crime of living in a city, being educated, being bilingual or wearing glasses.
The paranoia was so great that even guards, aged between 15 and 19 from peasant backgrounds, feared for their lives. If they “allowed” people to die when interrogating and torturing them, they also would end up on the wrong side of the prison. Only death was the escape here. Just seven prisoners of about 20,000 managed to survive S21.
We walked around the classrooms in silence, some rooms still with blackboards on the walls. The head of this place was known as Brother Duch, who was highly educated and a former maths schoolteacher remembered as a kind and committed teacher. What happened to him that he turned into a monster? I am in the dark; I do not understand.
With a mathematical mind, he kept detailed records and photos of all the detainees. Many were frantically destroyed at the end of this awful regime. We walked around, looking at photos upon photos of victims, some with signs of torture, mothers with babies, innocent civilians.
We listened to accounts of what some of the survivors (including guards) witnessed. Artist Vann Nath’s life was spared by Brother Duch so that he could paint and sculpture portraits of Pol Pot. Afterwards, an outspoken advocate for justice for the victims of this dreadful regime, he painted his memories of S21, many displayed here, of powerful and distressing scenes.
I was shocked to learn that after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 by Vietnam, with Pol Pot fleeing to Thailand, the USA backed a vote at the United Nations officially allowing the Khmer Rouge to represent Cambodia in the General Assembly. Other international countries, including the UK, supported this.
I sat in the courtyard contemplating what happened here. A cockerel and two guinea fowl were sculling around, oblivious to the recent history of this place.
Is it disrespectful to have this place as a tourist attraction? I think not. We hear “lest we forget” on Remembrance Day, but a war memorial or a museum in a modern building often doesn’t hit our emotions deeply like here. And it is emotions, rather than facts and figures that impact us more.
We decided not to visit the Killing Fields on the same day. We left that for next Sunday.
One week later, again while Jac was at church, Tim and I got a Tuk-tuk to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, 17km outside of the city in a farming area, otherwise known as the Killing Fields. There are more than 300 killing fields scattered throughout Cambodia., but this one is probably the easiest for tourists to visit.
We listened to the audio and walked to the place where the Truck would have stopped, after transporting people from detention camps, bring them here to their death. Many were killed as soon as they arrived, with the guards using farming equipment to bludgeoned or stab them to death; bullets were considered too expensive to be used.
As I sat listening to the horrors that took place here, a lady was next to me, distraught, so I handed her a tissue, the least I could do.
We walked further into the area that used to be a peaceful Chinese burial ground and orchard. The land is now undulating where bodies were buried in 129 mass graves. Many skulls and major bones have been dug up and removed, but 43 of the communal graves have been left. During the Khmer Rouge genocide, 1 in 4 people in Cambodia was killed. Think about that – 25% of the population.
We wandered around a lake where bodies have been left underwater. I can imagine that prior to the horrors that took place here, this area would have been a place of beauty. Now the sense of anguish and sadness is palpable. We listened to survivor stories, people who continue to suffer from PTSD even today.
The next part was the most horrific. I had read about this, but standing there was awful. I just wanted to weep. We were facing a tree covered with bracelets that people had tied on. This tree is called the Killing Tree, and where babies were swung against it until they died and then thrown in a nearby grave with their dead or dying mothers. All the bodies were found naked.
Many of the guards here were not much more than children themselves. I cannot imagine the torment they went through during and after this period of their lives. Many would be the same age as me now. To live with these barbaric, horrendous acts on your own hands must be excruciating.
The walk ended at the Memorial Stupa where more than 8,000 skulls have been placed, arranged by sex and age.
Will the human race ever learn? In my lifetime there has been genocide in about 20 countries.
Many of us have some judgement within ourselves. It may be about race, politics, religion, class, education or character traits. By coming to these awful places, I hope it makes people aware of the danger that these judgements can lead too.
The only way that we can stop these atrocities is to take full responsibility for ridding ourselves of judgement. Be open to understand others, accept that we are all different and find love within ourselves for all human race. Perhaps I am naïve, but what else is the answer?