Four hundred eyes stare back at me, pictures arranged in rows - eerily like passport photographs only there is intense fear in many of the faces. The photos are arranged in rows, twenty by ten, on boards around two metres wide, the faces are Cambodian, they wear some kind of uniform. The room has maybe five of these boards, two hundred people on each side of each board, the room is one of many, chequered brown and beige tiles on the floor, windows barred, rooms the size of class rooms. Before 1975 this building was a high school, from 1975 to 1979 a torture camp and prison in the heart of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city. Tuol Sleng - the former Khmer Rouge S21 Prison. The photos are the faces of the thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge, imprisoned, tortured and then taken out of the city and killed.
Phnom Penh - pronounced “P-nom Pen” silent h's all round. A bustling colonial city on the banks of the Tonlé Sap River, a city with highest number of western ex-patriots per capita in South-East Asia. Traffic like shoals of fish, buzzing motos swarming around pedestrians bravely crossing while traffic weaves
around them. Markets selling fruits to books to clothes. Scratch the surface and the scares are visible, the recent history of Cambodia is tragic - the period from 1969 (American bombings) to 1990 when Vietnamese soldiers withdrew. The most brutal of those years were under the Khmer Rouge, 1975 - 1979, around 2 million people lost their lives in a regime that turned family members against each other, set the clock back to year zero, and starved vast numbers of the population in an attempt to set up an agrarian society free of western contamination.
April 17th 1975 -
The soldiers are everywhere. There are so many of them around yelling into their bullhorns, no longer smiling as I saw them before. Now they shout loud, angry words at us while cradling rifles in their arms. They holler for the people to close their shops, to gather all guns and weapons, to surrender the weapons to them. They scream at families to move faster to get out of the way, to not talk back.
Thus began the forced exodus of the entire population of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge had entered
the city defeating the Lon Nol government. Before the Khmer Rouge entered the city Phnom Penh had been a thriving cosmopolitan capital of a newly independent country. Loung Ung reccounts the experiences of childhood under the Khmer Rouge, the daughter of a government worker, growing up in Phnom Penh in a middle class family, well educated. Her story of survival and loss is a harrowing one shared by so many in Cambodia.
Visiting anywhere in Cambodia it is impossible not to be reminded daily of the problems of the recent past. Amputees are everywhere, many victims of the millions of land-mines that were planted during the Khmer Rouge years. More than twenty five years on and they're still not cleared.
I also visited the killing fields, the area where the Khmer Rouge executed people just outside of Phnom Penh. Today, just a rough area of waste land, pitted and scarred, areas of bare earth reveal human teeth, bones and scraps of clothing. The area had an strange atmosphere, knowing of so much tragedy and seeing a collection of 9000 skulls in a Stupa - but being surprised by the beauty of the hundreds of butterflies that glide and
flutter around the flowers that have sprung up on the graves of thousands. This is a metaphor for Cambodia as a whole, so much beauty, friendliness and potential, covering a terrible past just inches below the surface.
Authors note: Sorry for the delay in this entry... I have severe blog lag currently.
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