Cambodia's Bloody Past..

Trip Start Mar 14, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Cambodia  , Krŏng Phnum Pénh,
Friday, September 3, 2010

Last night as we were heading back to our hostel a tuk-tuk driver stopped us and asked us if we would like a tour of his city. As this is what we were planning anyway for the next day, we negotiated a price of $14 for the whole day and a pickup of 7am.

We weren’t sure if he would show, until we descended the steps of our hostel bright and early and there he was already waiting for us. We were sure he could read our minds, he didn’t even ask us were we wanted to go he headed straight for a local bakery, no tourist prices here.

After breakfast our driver asked us were we wanted to go. “The Killing Fields.” It was not going to be a nice pleasant day, that’s for sure. It took a 14km drive past rice patty fields, swamps, and the scattered lives of the locals with small children running about with bare feet and torn clothes, before we finally arrived at the killing fields.

Upon arriving at our destination our driver told us to take our time and no to rush. He would be waiting in the shade underneath a nearby tree. We made our way into the killing fields, now a peaceful, very quiet part of the countryside. But it has not always been like this. Uncovered by the United Nations in 1992, the undulating hills covered the remains of men, women and children. All of whom were killed unjustly by the Khmer Rouge. A monument to the horrors now stands at the site containing over 8000 skulls of the victims exhumed from these fields. We wove our way amongst the mass graves, to an isolated tree. It was marked by a sign, “The Baby Bashing Tree.” The Khmer Rouge felt this was a justified form of execution, why waste a bullet. Not all the remains have been exhumed. We passed one pit that had been cordoned off with the remains of clothes and some bone fragments still visible in the soil. We were told when it floods during the monsoon each year, more remains surface. To know so many bodies may still lie below your feet in unmarked graves, made for an uncomfortable feeling. A population of 7 million obliterated through depression and starvation to 2 million. Madness. The museums on site were full of local school children learning about the past that should never be repeated.

After a confronting morning we asked our tuk-tuk driver to head to Tuol Sleng or S-21, a prison that was used under the Khmer Rouge’s rule, an infamous place. Before the Khmer Rouge it was a secondary school called Toul Svay Prey High School. Today you can see the haunting remnants of a school that had been turned into a centre for fear. Under Pol Pot the classrooms had been transformed into cramped prison cells and torture chambers. The people unfortunate enough to be sent to S-21 knew that there time would soon be up.

In building A, the ground floor rooms which were used for torture have been left almost untouched. Inside each tiny chamber there is one lone cast iron bed with the chains still attached that held the final victims in place. Above the bed on the chambers wall, is a mounted picture clearly depicting the horrifying reality of the death of the regimes final victims. The last 14 people killed by the Khmer Rouge were still found chained to these beds by the liberating Vietnamese forces. The floor tiles still stained from blood of the Pol Pot years. Of the thousands of people who entered S-21 only 7 people left alive.

In another building of the now museum, there are rooms covered by thousands of pictures of the victims of the regime. The Khmer Rouge had documented it all. Thousands of faces all with fear in their eyes. Young and old faces. Rich and poor faces. The educated and the uneducated. It didn’t matter who you were if the regime thought you were against them, you were seen as an enemy, and sent to S-21 and certain death. All this happened behind barbed wire in the city centre.

What struck us was a narrative from survivors of this period who said that what they really lost was trust. They couldn’t trust their neighbours, or family members or anyone. The Khmer Rouge used the Communist tactic of hiring locals to spy on each other. This just resulted in people taking out their petty grievances and jealousies which resulted in innocent people ending up at S-21. Innocence didn’t matter. The Regime was right. If they interrogated you, you were guilty and through torture a confession was forced. This system resulted in thousands of people being denounced as a result of torture.

The prison commander of S-21 was a former school teacher. He used red ink on confessions to decide who was worthy of more torture or who should be taken to the killing fields. He is now one of four of the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial.

But the question still remains, why did the USA back Pol Pot? Why did no one help? Why did no one come? For more than 15 years starvation, genocide and oppression dominated Cambodia.

So when we read the words “Never again” following the genocide in WWII we realise those are empty words. If Cambodia doesn’t count as again. Rwanda doesn’t count as again………. Empty words.

We left S-21 feeling the full weight of the world.

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