The Horror of Cambodia's Recent History


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January 13th 2009
Published: January 27th 2009
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Tuesday 13th January
Today we decided it was time to try and learn something about the evil things that happened to Cambodian people during the time of the Khmer Rouge so with much trepidation we headed off to the Genocide Museum at Tuol Sleng. We walked for 20 minutes to it through streets thronged with Cambodians engaged in everyday life - men hammering away in workshops, elderly ladies buying fruit at the market and girls having their nails done on the kerbside. Tuol Sleng is a former school that was used as a detention and torture centre known as S21 during the 3 years that the Khmer Rouge regime were in total power from 1975-1978. Of the approx 17,000 that passed through its doors less than 12 survived. It is moving beyond words. The authorities were incredibly systematic. They photographed each detainee before and sometimes after torture. The actual adjustable metal chair on which they were photographed is still there as an exhibit. The buildings have been left much as they were found. There are stark cells containing only a metal bedframe and the shackles that held the detainees were held whilst interrogated and tortured. Each of these cells now has a large photo taken by the KR of a victim strapped to the bed. Other cells have been turned into photo galleries showing some of the thousands of photos of the victims taken when they arrived. I knew that this place would be upsetting but when, after the photos of adults, I saw photos of innocent bewildered children, some possibly as young as five and knowing what happened to them - I was overwhelmed by grief and just couldn't help myself - I just had to go out into the yard and sit by myself in the bright sunshine and I unashamedly cried. Such hideous evil - how could someone do that to a child or any other human being. Jen gave me five minutes then came out and I regained some self control. I felt duty bound to see the rest of the prison. Some of the former school classrooms were divided up into small individual cells. These still exist. It is compelling and somehow cathartic to read the testimonies of survivors or more often their relatives. In some cases the confessions extracted are the only testament to the victims. The instruments of torture are on horrific display. One survivor has painted pictures of some of the appalling things that happened here. The former schools exercise bars were used as gallows. Once victims confessions were complete they were taken to the Killing Fields outside town where they were shot, bludgeoned or hacked to death. Some skulls are on display showing how the particular individuals died. S21 was just one of many such prisons and execution sites across the country. Since the events there, there has been a thorough attempt to document what happened and record how many died and where. The country is littered with mass graves. The exhibits explain the warped philosophy of the KR leaders. Ironically they killed any intellectuals but were intellectuals themselves. They tried to destroy the concept of family as well as banning concepts such as money. They were not only evil but incompetent. Many starved because the collectivised farms were so inefficient and they had killed the health professionals so that disease was rampant. As in all tyrannies they also turned on themselves so that many of the leadership were executed. Perhaps the most horrific thing is that many of the high up perpetrators of the evil who survived, escaped punishment - incredibly some continued until quite recently to hold powerful positions having defected to the winning side when they saw how things were turning out. I was appalled to read that one former KR regime member is now Cambodia's highest ranking monk ! Another former KR leader's son is currently deputy governor of a region. Thankfully at least some of the old regime are currently in jail pending a special court investigation but it keeps getting delayed and many of the old regime have died or will die before they are brought to justice. Some of these former KR leaders deny that they knew of the existence of centres such as S21 which is laughable.
We had intended going out to the Killing Fields themselves today but decided we needed a bit of time to contemplate before going straight there from S21. After the horrors we returned to normal everyday experiences enjoying a meal of French savoury pancakes and then later a tasty Indian meal just opposite our hotel.
This was an exceptional day - one I will never forget. It seems a bit self indulgent to weep for people you never knew, but surely it is only common humanity to empathise with their appalling fate.

Wednesday 14th

An unusual Indian breakfast of tasty paratha. Jen had a mango lassi and I two strong cups of Khmer coffee. We had the usual negotiations with several tuk-tuk drivers (one had cooling water pouring from his engine - he assured us it was okay but we declined his offer of transporting us). Agreed a fee of $5 for the return trip to the Killing Fields 15km out of town. We headed out through the incredibly busy streets. We came on an incredibly life affirming scene after yesterdays horrors. Instead of a lollipop man outside schools, the teacher blows a whistle and the children link hands on each side to form a human chain on each side to form a tunnel through which the even younger children passed. The children were about 9 years old or younger and very smiley and friendly shouting out 'Hello' to us. It is fascinating to see the variety of goods being transported by moped. We saw tailors dummies, huge packs of crisp like things, TV's and numerous families of Mum or Granny plus three kids on a single moped.
The road gets quieter outside town as we approached the Killing Fields which are set in a former orchard by a small lake. The first impression is the beauty of what is now a kind of memorial park to the victims. A simple stupa near the entrance is a memorial to the dead. It contains the skulls of many of those disinterred from the mass graves. It is far more dignified that the Killing Caves that we visited near Battambang a few days ago. Of course what happened here was unspeakable and is described on various information boards. People were delivered here in trucks and usually killed straight away by bludgeoning. hacking or shooting and put in mass pits but at peak times they were sometimes held for a short time here in buildings now demolished. For some reason the horror seems less evident here compared with S21 even with the very obvious excavated pits. One thing that struck me was the incredible number of beautiful butterflies which presumably are the descendants of those about in 1975-8. Perhaps it was the last thing some of the murdered saw. I hope it gave them some fleeting solace after all the hideous things they had seen and endured. A lasting reminder of what happened here is the fragments of clothing that appear as the paths wear down. It is a solemn place but very respectful and strangely comforting after S21. I wonder if it is simply that the faces of those that died here are not on display so it is easier to mentally disengage from thinking of them as real people.
We headed back to downtown Phnom Penh. It is odd but once you adapt to the hustle and bustle it really grows on you as a city. We strolled out to the Central Market again and then down to the Riverside. We found an internet café with really good speed. We couldn't resist another sundowner at the Foreign Correspondents Club. It was far busier than our previous visit but we managed to secure balcony side stools overlooking the river. We picked a tuk-tuk driver who was young and a bit more reticent than the pushy others. He sped us effortlessly back to the Narin II.



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