We want to make you aware that the photographs and words in this blog post contain descriptions of the genocide sites in Cambodia.
3 years, 8 months and 20 days.
That is how much time it takes to almost destroy a country and its people. To take them to the point where they have nothing left. Not even hope.
From 1975 to 1979 Cambodia fell under the rule of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge. Led by a man called Saloth Sar, but more infamously known by the alias Pol Pot (a nicknamed based on the fact he was though to have Political Potential), it set about one of the most extreme attempts at social engineering ever attempted, which included the removal of all intellectuals and the creation of a socialist agrarian society of the purist kind.
The population of Cambodia at the start of the Khmer Rouge leadership is estimated to be approximately 8 million. By the time the country was liberated in 1979 by Vietnamese forces it is believed that up to 3 million Cambodians had died during their reign.
Pol Pot believed that city dwellers and educated people (which could mean something as simple as wearing spectacles) were detrimental to society. Currency, commerce, education, medical treatment, religion and cities were all abandoned and the population forced to move to rural areas to work in agriculture. The people were made to work for 14 hours a day on two bowls of rice a day, as Cambodia closed it borders to the world.
Hard labour, poor nutrition, harsh conditions and lack of medical treatment resulted in deaths of huge swaths of the populous. And they were the ones that went along with what his ideology was trying to achieve. They, it could be argued, were the lucky ones.
Phnom Penh is home to two ‘attractions’ that help shed light on what happened to the people that weren’t so lucky. The Tuol Seng Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (also known as The Killing Fields) are two palpably sobering experiences which we did think long and hard about whether we wanted to see them or not.
Tuol Song Museum is the former home of S-21, or Security Prison 21. During the Khmer Rouge time was the largest of all the nearly 300 prisons the government created across the country. They were where anyone that was felt to oppose or potentially be a threat to the administration was sent. Pol Pot believed it was “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy”.
Based in the Tuol Svey High School (no longer needed as education was deemed unnecessary) it played host to some 20,000 ‘guests’ during the period of Khmer Rouge rule, and only 7 of these survived to tell the tale.
With up to a 1000 people at time crammed into the tiny cells that had been constructed within the walls of the former class rooms, they were subject to an unbelievable range of torture and abuse before being sent on to Choeung Ek.
The museum is a haunting place. Walking through the rooms of cells, reading the forced confessions they eventually gave, finding out that the barbed-wire on the buildings was to prevent people from committing suicide before the guards had finished with them, and finally seeing the walls filled with the faces upon faces of those that passed through staring back at you (the management of the facility kept meticulous records). It is not something that you can clear from your mind easily.
Whilst people did die here at the hands of the torturers it was not the intention. In fact if a guard inadvertently killed three prisoners during torture, they themselves would be executed. After ‘processing’ at S-21, prisoners were loaded into trucks at night and taken on the 15km journey outside the city to the fields at Choeung Ek for ‘liquidation’.
The memorial site that is now located at the ‘killing field’ location is one of the most impactful tourist attractions either of us have ever visited. In truth, there is not that much to actually see anymore. The people tore down most of the buildings and structures that were present when the regime was finally toppled, but what remains is unbelievably moving.
You are given an audio guide once you have paid your entrance fee, and the soothing soulful voice of a survivor from the Khmer Rouge rule takes you though what happened here. Over 8,000 people lost their lives in the field at this location, buried in mass graves scattered round the site.
People were executed at night, with a generator and speaker system playing pro-regime songs to mask the sounds from nearby dwellings. This was no merciful process though as the regime thought the cost of a bullet was too high, and the guards instead resorted to the use of a range of common or garden tools with which to bludgeon or stab their victims to death with.
Pol Pot had made a statement that “to remove grass, you must remove the roots”. This meant that it was not only were the people that were considered an enemy or threat to the state that were killed, but their entire family because he feared that otherwise they may come back to seek revenge. This meant that men, women and children were brought to this place. The ‘Killing Tree’, used to end the lives of young children, is probably the most repulsive aspect of the whole despicable process.
In the centre of the area now stands an imposing structure known as a Stuper, a traditional Cambodian place in which the remains of the dead are housed. This is the largest in the country, and contains the skulls of the people that lost their lives here. It is a distressing place to spend some time as scientists have studied the remains and they are organsied by gender and age, and there are also signs to show how you can identify the method used for the execution.
You leave wondering how people could do this to other human beings, never mind their own people, and we cannot get some of the sights and stories we have read out of our heads. The rest of the day and some of the following days are spent discussing what we saw and read, and what impact that would have upon a society.
3 years, 8 months and 20 days.
A period of time that sadly will define Cambodia in the eyes of some the world. It is a period of time that has had an immense impact on the country and its people. It is a period of time that even after spending a day visiting these two exceptional locations in Phnom Penh dedicated to telling the story your brain cannot still fully comprehend and understand what happened to these people.
Perhaps for that, we should be grateful.