Killing in the name

Trip Start Jun 12, 2011
Trip End Oct 22, 2012

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Monday, July 25, 2011

On our first visit to Phnom Penh we hired a remorque (tuk tuk) driver called Woody to take us to the infamous Tuol Sleng Museum otherwise known as S-21 Prison and the killing fields at Choeng Euk. On our arrival at S-21 the first thing that struck me was the recentness of it all.  Besides the barbed wire (put there to prevent prisoners committing suicide), S-21 from the outside just looks like an old school built in the 1960s, however on the inside it tells a totally different story.  Walking around the site is a truely sobering experience as it has been kept in tact as a memorial to the people who died there and so the reality of the atrocities are very apparent.  You can see the tiny brick and wooden cells that some of the more important prisoners were kept in, one to a cell.  We also saw the many instruments of torture and torture rooms which made Clare feel a bit sick even coming here even the second time around.  The rooms that would have been mass detention rooms holding in some cases up to 40 or 50 people per room all shackled together in groups are now full of many photographs of the prisoners both before and after they were killed.  You could see the fear in their eyes in the pictures and you could almost hear their voices and footsteps around the place.  The Khmer Rouge were meticulous about recording their prisoners just like the Nazis did in WW2.

Of the approximately 20,000 people who were kept there between 1975 and 1979 only 7 survived.  14 bodies were found at the prison when the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in 1979 and their bodies were buried in the grounds and their graves can be seen at the site.  Of those 7 (who survived only due to having skills that were useful to the Khmer Rouge) only 3 are now living the remaining mainly having died of old age.  We actually met one of them there, though I was a bit lost for words what to say to the man. 

We hired a guide to show us around so we could learn a bit more about the history.  She explained that both her father and brother were killed by the Khmer Rouge.  She was 7 at the time and was separated from her family and put to work in the fields.    She explained how some days she had to work up to 14 hours a day with little to eat or drink.  At that time many people died of starvation.  Talking to her made me realise the reality and that most people we would meet here would have been affected in some way by this atrocity.  The actual figures are debated but some estimate that 3 million people died during the genocide under Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979.

An extract off Clare's web site gives a bit more summary of what happened under Pol Pot:

"In 1975 under the command of Pol Pot, the Khymer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to empty it of all its inhabitants, and did so in 6 hours. This was the start of Pol Pots mission to create a peasant society, cut Cambodia off from the rest of the world and start again with Year Zero.

Pol Pot's Cambodia was a place where educated people went undercover in an attempt to escape execution, children weren't allowed to go to school, and no one was allowed to grow their own food, listen to music, love, or do anything that wasn't in line with Pol Pots ideal of peasant life."

Then we travelled 15 km out of Phnom Penh to the killing fields at Choeung Ek where around 17,000 of the prisoners held at S-21 were taken to be executed.  Walking around the mass graves is quite harrowing as clothes and bones of the victims can be seem protruding from the ground, washed up by flood waters.  Many graves have now been exhumed with 450 bodies being found in one alone.  The victims were generally bludgeoned to death to save precious bullets.  You really felt like you were at the site of a murder and it all seemed very real. 

At the killing fields there is a rememberance stupor where there are thousands of the victims skulls on display and other bones and clothes that were exhumed on display in a big glass tower as a memorial to those who died and a reminder for future generations not to allow this to happen again. 

The whole experience left me feeling a bit shocked to see the darker side of the human condition.
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