It was raining and very dull when we woke up, which seemed appropriate for the day ahead as we were going to view a very dark period of Cambodian history. We were going to what has become known as the Killing Fields and on to the building known as S21.
The start to the day was interesting in that, due to major works taking place on the building, we had to take a tuk tuk ride to breakfast to another hotel. Here the meal we had ordered the previous day was delivered on a sort of airline tray, together with a whole baguette for each person! The first bread we have seen this journey and it certainly arrived in abundance. For the tea drinkers though it was not such a good experience!A first excellent cup of tea could not be followed with a second due to a major communication issue. As an old colleague of mine would have said, the young lady concerned was something of an ’empty vessel’. No amount of pointing, enunciating or acting out could get her to understand that a second cup was required! Eventually after management intervention a teapot was produced – but not before the cups themselves had been removed and the requirement for a replacement had been identified. Somehow breakfast seemed really hard work!
Back to the serious business of the day. Having done a little homework in preparation, we had already established these horrendous atrocities that we were to hear more about, happened in our lifetime and were so horrific that I found them difficult to assimilate. It took mans inhumanity to man to a new level.
Modern Cambodian history can only be described as tragic. By the mid 19th century the once mighty Khmer Empire was much weakened and dominated by Vietnam to the east and what was then Siam in the West. It was at this stage that the then king accepted the support of France. Cambodia became a French Protectrate and the French influence can still be seen in lay out of some parts of the city of Pnom Penh. All was reasonably quiet in the country until 1941. Then the war in Europe and the Indo Chinese wars impacted on the political situation and finally the Vietnam War, when the American Air Force started bombing the Cambodian border, ostensibly trying to eliminate the Viet Cong rebels hiding there. Or so Mr Nixon said. It was against this background that Pol Pot and his cronies came to power providing retaliation for the people living in fear of the US bombing which was killing thousands of the rural population. They operated under the banner of Cambodian Communism. They were to become known as the Khmer Rouge. It was 1975.
This date was to see the start of a period of unmitigated cruelty and terror. It is beyond belief that a man who himself had been born to a good family with a close association with the royal family, had been well educated, spent some time as a monk, had benefited from a scholarship to Paris and became a teacher could head an organisation that was responsible for the death of an estimated third of the population either killed outright, tortured, starved or worked to death.
The so called Killing Fields are an area just outside of Pnom Penh, previously a Chinese Cemetery. It was the place where prisoners of the Khmer Rouge regime prison known as S21 were taken to be killed. It is now a memorial to those who died there. There were another 196 prisons and 388 killing fields in other parts of Cambodia. This was the largest and has become the most famous. It serves as a chilling memorial to those who were caught up in the Pol Pot regime.
As you enter the area, a tall monument rises up in front of you.
At first you do not notice that it is full of the 8,985 skulls of the people murdered on the site. And then you realise what you are looking at.
The prisoners were taken to the area at night. They were then killed by having their throats cut with the serrated edge of a branch of the Super Palm tree, or being bludgeoned to death with axe handles or hoes to ‘avoid wasting bullets’.
The bones and clothes of those who were killed continue to rise to the surface of the ground when it rains. I found this one of the most poignant features of the site. Men, women, children and babies were all killed there, by boy soldiers as young as 12.
I have given much thought about what I should record of my visit to this and building S21. I think a few photographs will serve to capture the nature of the place.
First the drawings that tell the tale
Music was played over loudspeakers during the killings to drown out the noise.
One of the mass graves – only a few have been excavated.
Others can be seen …….
The killing tree where babies were battered to death, now covered with the acknowledgements of those who come to see and mourn.
The contents of the monuments…….
The cat nestled on an alter in the grounds seemed strangely comforting ………
We then travelled on to the Museum, the site of the prison called S21.
Although it is difficult to imagine, to many, death in the killing fields must have come as a relief after the horrific brutality of the interrogation in the building known as S21.
This was in fact an old school converted that the Khmer Rouge converted into an interrogation and torture machine to house those accused of conspiracy against the regime. ‘Confessions’ were gained by the most vicious and brutal means. Amazingly 7 people survived (one an artist) to give witness to what occurred in the prison. Corroboration, if it was needed, was provided by the regime itself in its careful record of all those detained there to demonstrate to Pol Pot that his will was being done. Ultimately the guards themselves were subject to the same fate as the prisoners they had guarded as distrust within the regime grew and they were considered to know too much. There is evidence that the young soldiers killed were beheaded and their severed heads were used to terrify those who were to replace them. Even those in the upper echelons of the organisation were later tortured into confessing to being members of the CIA or KGB.
I will leave the museum to talk for itself…….
The rules of the establishment……
The school building, just like any other……
A particularly haunting face…….
The cells, for men……..
A poster relating to the number of deaths, published after the activity of the Khmer Rouge was revealed, and then withdrawn as too horrific……
Journalists entered the prison three days after the Vietnamese arrived to liberate the City in 1979. By this time the Khmer Rouge had killed the last VIP prisoners being held there. The stench of these bodies led to the building being investigated. The soldiers, like Pol Pot had disappeared either into the jungle or to the Thai Border.
Only a few of the senior figures of the regime were ever arrested and tried. Many of them and the people who worked for them have reinvented themselves. The current Prime Minister was a member of the Khmer Rouge elite. Pol Pot himself remained at large for nearly 20 years, eventually dying in 1998.
Three of the survivors of the prison were at the Museum. All had been boys when they were released from the prison. One was even photographed when pictures were taken of the prison being liberated in 1979.
All were tortured and only survived due to various spurious circumstances. All are allowed to tell their stories and sell the books of their ordeal for charity. The artist among them painted some of the pictures in the Museum.
The whole morning was extremely disturbing and I will never forget the experience. I have limited my commentary on the sites because some of the information seemed too awful to repeat, but the memory of it will remain with me always, as will some of the faces……..
It seemed appropriate that the rain continued when we emerged from the museum. We arrived back at the hotel in somber mood.
After a brief visit to the market and a snack lunch we were launched into heavy traffic as we made our way to the airport. We were leaving for Laos.