The Phoenix bird of the Khmer people

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Asia » Cambodia » South » Phnom Penh
December 7th 2012
Published: December 7th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY


From the outside, there is nothing that indicates the horror of this place
Warning: The photo's are graphic and may not be suitable for minors and fainthearted people!!!!

We have now reached Cambodia, a country we know very little about. Ankor Wat and Pol Pot are probably the two things that we can mention.
Our first stop was the capital Phnom Penh. Here you’ll find two testimonies of the terror regime of the Khmer Rouge. This blog is about this sad chapter in Cambodian history.

Khmer Rouge “ruled” Cambodia from 1975 till 1979. There are probably many causes as how they got into power. If you are interested in history, you will find plenty of stuff regarding that on the internet. In Phnom Penh you’ll find two monuments that really take you on an emotional ride. Feelings like sadness, hate, aggression and no joy whatsoever. The two monuments are S21 (Toul Sleng) and the killing fields (Choeung Ek).

I (C) started out visiting S21 on my own. It would probably have been a little too much for Inge. S21 used to be something as innocent as a high school until April 17 th. 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over the buildings. They turned the former high school into
An interrogation roomAn interrogation roomAn interrogation room

The photo on the wall shows a body that was found decomposed by Vietnamese troops. It made me sick, to be in these rooms.
a detention center, a torture center, an interrogation center and an execution center (in the beginning). It was closed down in 1979, when Vietnamese troops had fought down the Khmer Rouge. It is estimated that around 20.000 people lost their lives during the 4 years. Most were executed in the killing fields after confessing to fictional crimes. They made up the crimes after being subdued to heavy torture. For example quite a few confessed to have been spies for the CIA or the KGB, even though they didn’t even know the meaning of these letters. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in documenting everything. All prisoners were photographed and their “confessions” written down and archived.

To walk around in these buildings on my own knowing about the terrible things that happened was a sickening experience. To see the naked torture room with just a steel bed and chains was just to cry over. It almost feels like the screams are still in the walls. To walk through the common rooms, where the prisoners were chained together was also sickening. The individual cells were about 0.8 meter times 1.8 meter in size. To walk down the stairs in the prison buildings
S21 victimsS21 victimsS21 victims

Why did these people have to suffer and die?
gave me a shivering feeling. Closing my eyes and imagining how it must have been to be an inmate walking down these same stairs. You would either be on your way to torture or your execution. The most moving was something as innocent as portrait photos of the prisoners. You are one big question mark regarding to why these people should be treated like this. If I had been a resident in Cambodia at this time, I would probably have been put to prison since I both wear glasses and have an education.

To my knowledge only 7 prisoners managed to survive their stay. They only survived since they had some skills that were of use to the Khmer Rouge. They could be painters or typewriter mechanics. I met two of the survivors. They are now working at the museum and sells books about their experiences. Apparently they have forgived their tortures, as they also can be seen as victims of the regime. The leader of S21, Duch, has been sentenced to prison for life.

Why is it important for a tourist to visit this museum? Is it a form of macabre curiosity or a fascination by evil?
Instruments of tortureInstruments of tortureInstruments of torture

They did know about waterboarding back then. Incredibly that some countries find it ok to use as of today.
A little like watching a horror movie. We have given some thought to this and reached a conclusion, that there are two main reasons to visit memorials like S21, Auschwitz and the killing fields. Firstly you actually get an unpleasant physical reaction in your stomach when you put your feet on the actually scene of the crime. This is an uncomfortable but necessary feeling to guarantee, that you will fight 100% against any repetition of crimes like these. Secondly it is important to show your respect to the victims of the crimes. They shall never be forgotten.

Is a visit to S21 recommendable? It is not a place for everyone, but nevertheless an important chapter in the history of Cambodia.

The second monument we visited was the killing fields. The place is located about 15 kilometers south of the center. It used to be an old Chinese graveyard, but the Khmer Rouge turned it into a place of mass executions. There have been localized more than 300 killing fields spread over Cambodia. This was just one of them, where around 9000 bodies have been recovered. As S21 this is also a visit that really gets to you. You
Individual cellsIndividual cellsIndividual cells

These cells were tiny and the prisoners were chained to the floor.
just feel like crying out loud. Why did this happen? How could it happen? Since bullets were in short supply, the prisoners were beaten to death. One by one they were escorted to a mass grave. They were made to kneel and received a hit in their head or on their neck. This was accompanied by the sound of music and a diesel engine running the generator. The music should kill the sounds of screams, so no outsiders should know about what was happening. Maybe the death was a relief for many after their torture in S21. Today the area looks very peaceful. It is calm, green and with a small lake. However, in the wet season teeth, bones and cloth is stilled washed out of the earth as a grim reminder of the bad history of this place. Something as innocent as a tree was used to killed infants. The executioner took them by their legs and smashed their heads into the tree until death. It is said that Duch cracked down at this tree, when he was taken here during his trial. How can you punish a man like him? No punishment can ever be hard enough for
Barbed wireBarbed wireBarbed wire

The purpose of the barbed wire was to prevent prisoners jumping of the building and committing suicide. I don't understand the logic.
the crimes he is responsible for. No apology is sufficient.

The killing fields and S21 shows man from the worst perspective. In our view this genocide must belong to the worst in the history. About a fourth of the Cambodian population lost their lives in this short period.

You ask yourselves how Pol Pot could live in freedom until the age of 81? Thereafter he lived one year in house arrest. How could the Khmer Rouge keep their seat in the UN until 1993? In our view this is a scandal. We haven’t been able to find the Danish standpoint on this. But it was supported by countries like USA, Germany, France, UK and China. The Swedish politicians showed some courage and voted against (after pressure from the population). We salute our Swedish friends. Probably the support was because of it was very hard to support a government supported by the Vietnamese at that time. However, this is a big load of bullshit. The crimes of the Khmer Rouge were so serious, that any political game has to be put aside. Where is idealism? This is another very bad chapter in the history of politics. Maybe the outside
Barbed wire fenceBarbed wire fenceBarbed wire fence

Barbed wire kind of symbols the breach of human rights. In s21 you'll find plenty.
world was not aware what was going on in Cambodia in these years, but as soon as we were enlightened there is nothing that can justify even the slightest support to this regime. It makes us furious. We would wish there was an international organization, that could take care of all governments that persecutes innocent people. A such organization should have military back-up from all the world. Unfortunately the UN seems to be something of a coffee club with far too many political interests. Political and financial interest must never go ahead human decency. So choose your politicians with high ethics (if you can find one).

As a notabene forensics found the remains of 7 western people in the killing fields. So we didn’t go free of the terrors of the Khmer Rouge either.

I (C) like the concept of the optimal game theory (tit for tat). Translated into Khmer Rouge language: “You kill one of us, we nail one of you. If you behave nicely, we’ll behave nicely”. I even think of the old testament saying an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It is somehow more efficient than turning the other cheek. It
The killing fieldsThe killing fieldsThe killing fields

The memorial of the killing fields
also makes me think about the friendly but somewhat naïve hippie types who believe in peace and sitting together singing and smoking funny tobacco. I believe, that a country needs some heavy firepower to counteract if people with bad ideas shows up. Maybe even interfere in other countries, where genocide is taking place.

By the way we find it very hard to comprehend why it took so long before the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were prosecuted. Why could Pol Pot just be in a house arrest? We also give some thought to how long down in the hierarchy people should be prosecuted. Is the executioner just a tool of the people in power and thereby innocent? If he denies to do his job, he will be killed. Is that an excuse? If he denies, his family will be killed. Is that a reasonable excuse? We don’t have the answers, but the leaders responsible have to be punished in the hardest possible way.

Writing about this dark chapter in the history of Cambodia, it is reassuring to meet the people. The Cambodians are friendly people who definitely are rising from the ashes. We hope that the discovery of

When you get closer to the memorial you will see thousands of skulls. The remains of the innocent.
oil in the sea will benefit the whole population of Cambodia.

In honor of the people killed during the Khmer Rouge years.

Additional photos below
Photos: 10, Displayed: 10


A treeA tree
A tree

Can a tree loose its innocence. This tree was used to kill infants by smashing their heads into the tree until death.

7th December 2012

Hi Manta, My hat off to you for taking your precious time to visit my beloved country. I've been living in Minnesota, US since 1981 after I had to stow away from Sihanoukville Port in 1980. Lost most of my family members in the 70s. The S21 center is not very far from where i grew up. It seems yesterday! Again, enjoy your time in Cambodia! Theary Minnesota, USA
9th December 2012

Hi Theary Kem, I am sorry to hear about your loss of family. Our visits to S21 and the killing fields really took us on an emotional ride (downwards). I hope things like these will never happen again, although that is probably naive. We like Cambodia as it is now. Even many people are relatively poor they seem to be happy and not the least friendly people. We have just visited Angkor Wat which is truly amazing. Thanks for reading our blog. Cheers Christian

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