This was always going to be a tough day, but a necessary one. Every visitor to Cambodia denounces the capital Phnom Penh as a dirty city that has no redeeming features other than the necessity of visiting the two most well known relics of its brutal history: the Killing Fields and the notorious torture prison Tuong Sleng or S21. For what it’s worth, I found the city to be perfectly decent although by no means a wonderful place. There are decent cafes, restaurants and good hostels. Nevertheless, I was really only here for one reason and that was a painful one.
During Communism’s sweep through Indochina, Cambodia was wracked by a civil war lasting from 1967 to 1975, between the pro-US installed government and the North Vietnamese assisted Khmer Rouge, the Communist party of Cambodia. During this time, between three and four hundred thousand people were killed in the fighting and various massacres. In 1970, a wave of violence overtook the country and the anger was centred on the country’s ethnic Vietnamese population, with hundreds if not thousands killed. This severed both the South Vietnamese and the North Vietnamese/Vietcong from supporting Cambodia, leaving it in the cold. In 1975, Pol Pot’s army arrived in the centre of Phnom Penh and the civil war was over. It was only just the beginning of the true horror that awaited the nation.
Within days, the Khmer Rouge had expelled the entire populations of every city in Cambodia, or what it called the Democratic Republic Of Kampuchea. Everyone, be it man, woman or child, was forced to work in the fields to magically triple rice production. Predictably, this led to famine almost straight away. Families were divided and sent to collective farms many miles away from their homes with no idea of what would happen when they arrived. Many never saw their families again. Dissenters disappeared. Anyone caught stealing was killed on the spot. The weak were disposed of. Intellectuals were suspect, as was anyone who spoke a foreign language or wore glasses. Anyone suspected to be thinking counter revolutionary thoughts or even daring to ask questions vanished along with their families. Where did they go?
S21 was a school. When Phnom Penh was cleared out, it was refitted as a prison where suspected counter-revolutionaries would be “questioned”. This was, even then, a thinly veiled euphemism for torture. The person would be brought to the prison and photographed. Thousands of these photos are displayed throughout the complex, giving you some idea of the scale of what went on here. Most prisoners look confused. Why were they there? They didn’t do anything. Some are clearly terrified. Others, defiant.
Once registered, they would be locked in a tiny choking cell and shackled to the floor. There would be no room to move. There would be barely any food, and that would be rice porridge or watery gruel. They would endure for months if necessary.
Questioning took place in the old class rooms where blood stains are still ingrained in to the tiles and grouting. Where children once learned, people were chained to iron bedsteads and beaten with farm equipment until they confessed their crimes. Maybe they were strong enough to deny even then. For these, their fingernails were torn out while alcohol was poured on the wounds. Their teeth would be pulled out. They would be water boarded. They would have bones broken. They would be electrocuted. They would be hanged until the brink of death. They would be burned with hot metal. Confess.
Difficult prisoners would be skinned alive.
If they didn’t confess, they died. If they confessed, they died. If you were accused, then you were guilty. There was no way that the state, the Angkar, would be wrong. There was no way out from S21 except to the killing fields.
Prisoners would have their heads covered by sacking and bundled in to a truck that made the journey to what was once a quiet and peaceful orchard and Chinese grave yard south of the city. Once there, they would be unloaded and asked to confirm their name on a register. Once completed, they had just signed their death warrant. Most prisoners were executed within hours, while others lingered for days before the end. Deep pits were dug out and victims led to the edge. There they were killed and dumped in to the hole. The manner of their death would always be brutal. A bayonet piercing the skull. Beaten with a spade or a hoe. Machetes. Wooden cudgels. A sugar palm stands near the pits; Its serrated leaves were used to cut throats. Those who didn’t die were left to bleed their last on to their friends, family members and countrymen before being buried by more corpses and lye to hasten death. No guns were used as bullets were too expensive and the gunshot too loud. Revolutionary songs were played from a tree to drown the screams of the dying. A generator was used to power the speaker system, the prisoners expiring with diesel fumes and rotting corpses in their nostrils, screams and machinery in their ears.
There is a Chankiri tree that was used to smash the skulls of infants. Nearby, several hundred bodies of children younger than two have been excavated alongside their mothers.
There is a pit of four hundred Khmer Rouge soldiers without heads.
I stood on a white root. It was a shin bone. Teeth are harvested every time it rains. The coloured rags that enrobed the dead come to the surface along with their contents.
Each step along the path that leads you around the Killing Fields is paved with further horrors that are expanded upon by the excellent and tragic audio guide you are handed at the entrance. Personal experiences are handed to you while you look upon that which would have been their final sight before the end, had they been just a little less lucky.
The memorial fields are centred by a great Buddhist stupa containing more than six thousand skulls, gazing from their glass cases accusingly. The stupa is crowned with Hindu and Buddhist imagery, symbolising peace and harmony; many more than just normal Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. Nearly half of the Muslim Cham minority were wiped out, and two hundred thousand Cambodians of Chinese descent were killed since they were mostly merchants; something the Khmer Rouge despised.
This was just one of around 20,000 killing fields around Cambodia. Many of these are deep in the jungle and will never be excavated due to the difficulty of getting there and the threat of land mines that still litter the countryside. In four years, a quarter of Cambodia’s population were executed, died of disease or starved to death. It was not until the Vietnamese invaded that the madness was ended. It’s true that Vietnam’s invasion was more for their own expansionist purposes and as a response to Pol Pot’s bizarre provocation by invading Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island, but it was the international reaction that is most puzzling to me. The Khmer Rouge were defended by many western countries (including the US and the UK) and Vietnam chided for not respecting a sovereign nation. They retained a UN general assembly seat until 1985. Thailand welcomed the deposed Khmer Rouge government openly, fearing Vietnam’s momentum in the region. That they had overseen one of the bloodiest genocides since the Second World War was conveniently brushed aside. It’s sickening. Pol Pot lived until 1998, to the age of 72. He blamed the deaths of millions on traitors and the Vietnamese. He never took the blame himself, but then who could?
“To destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain”
“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake”
“The sick are victims of their own imagination”
These sayings of Pol Pot help to give an understanding of how he felt about the individuals of Cambodia. Death was to cleanse the country of anything that didn’t grow rice, and if you were unfortunate enough to be caught in the spotlight of the Angkar then it would be far more than your own life at stake. “To dig up the grass one must remove even the roots”. Behold, the enemies of the revolution.
The killing fields are a peaceful and haunting place today. Once a month, monks come to calm the spirits of the dead and during the afternoon a school nearby fills the air with the sounds of children. Each penned in death pit is surrounded by a bamboo fence, festooned with the cotton bracelets that can be found on the wrist of every backpacker. It’s a touching mark of respect that the curators have wisely not discouraged. Right now, it seems impossible that terrors such as happened here in Cambodia will every see the light of day again, but of course we know better. Humanity always manages.