It’s going to be a heavy one today – just warning you. Today was an interesting but deeply depressing day.
We were picked up at eight in the morning by the disconcertingly-named “Killing Fields Shuttle Bus”. It ferried us through the madness of rush hour Phnom Penh (as if there’s ever an hour when people aren’t in a rush here) to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Before I get into what we saw there, I’ll give you a quick history of what happened to Cambodia in the seventies so you can make sense of what I’m on about.
In the late sixties the Americans realised that a lot of Viet Cong troops were sneaking out of Vietnam and into the Cambodian jungle. Here they could hide out, regroup and reload, ready to launch attacks on South Vietnam. The US solution was to carpet bomb huge areas of Cambodia and Laos, in order to neutralise the threat that these communist guerillas posed. From 1969-1973 they dropped 2,756,941 tons of bombs on Cambodia. To put this into perspective, the combined total of bombs dropped by all of the allies in the Second World War was just over 2 million.
What happened next is complicated, but to cut a long story short, a communist organisation called the Communist Party of Kampuchea, or Khmer Rouge, began to grow and grow. With support from communist China and North Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge were able to become a major force to rival Cambodia’s government. Realising that they’d created a monster, the Americans started bombing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as well as the Viet Cong. Their tactics failed and in 1975 the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh and became the recognised government of Cambodia. As our mate Brian had explained a couple of days earlier at the Landmine Museum – the only people that the Cambodian feared more than the Khmer Rouge were the Americans. They were a nation caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, but no-one could have predicted what was to come.
Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge. In a top trumps game of “evilest dictators of the 20th century”, he’d probably come in at number three behind Hitler and Stalin. He was obsessed with what he saw as the glory days of Cambodian history when the great Khmer empire had existed, conquering much of South-East Asia and building the temples of Angkor. Pol Pot believed that the only way to return Cambodia to being the superpower that it once was was to start the country all over again, returning it to a simple peasant farming state. He declared 1975 the “Year Zero” and forced the entire population to live in forced labour camps in the countryside. Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and everywhere inbetween was emptied of it’s people. As part of this demented brand of communism Pol Pot also believed that anybody who was educated needed to be eradicated, as there could be nobody better than anybody else. Doctors, dentists, teachers were all executed. A whole generation of university graduates were wiped out. As the regime got more paranoid the purge got less discriminate and more insane, to the point that a person wearing glasses would be put to death. In 1979 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and removed the Khmer Rouge from power. In the four years that they were in power, the Khmer Rouge killed 2 million people – a quarter of the country’s population.
Tuol Sleng is a good example of what happened to the country as a whole. The buildings was converted from a primary school into a prison when Pol Pot came to power. Together with our fellow passengers we were taken on a tour of the four high-rise blocks that made up the prison. The first block we visited had contained high profile prisoners – mainly former members of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy whom Pol Pot had grown paranoid of. Each room in the block contained a rusty iron bed with shackles on it. On the wall of each room was a picture of the corpse of the inmate who had occupied it, photographed by the liberating Vietnamese soldiers in 1979. These prisoners had endured years of torture and neglect before being murdered by their fleeing guards when they knew that the game was up. The other three blocks contained similarly harrowing sights. In the old school classrooms crude brick cells had been built to house the prisoners – there was barely room to stand in each one, yet alone sit or lie down. The walls are plastered with photographs of the prisoners, taken by the Khmer Rouge to document their crime. Each haunted face stares directly into the camera, their features gaunt and undernourished. The final room contains a glass cabinet containing scores of skulls belonging to nameless victims.
Having visited Auschwitz in the past I had an idea in my head of what it would be like to come here. There were two things that surprised me about Tuol Sleng though – one was the amount of children who were recruited by the Khmer Rouge and actively took part in the torture and killing of the prisoners. From reading the information boards, it sounds like there was such a climate of fear and paranoia that the guards would carry out anything that was asked of them – however unspeakable – for fear that they would be accused of treason themselves. The second thing that hit me was that this genocide ended less than forty years ago. When I visited Auschwitz I hadn’t really heard about what happened in Cambodia – I was able to console myself with the belief that what happened in the Second World War would never happen again. When we visited Tuol Sleng it became clear that it could, and had.
As we walked towards the exit two stooped old men sat behind desks, signing copies of hardback books. Of the 17,000 prisoners who had passed through Tuol Sleng, just seven survived the liberation. Chum Mey and Bou Meng were two of the survivors, and have spent the thirty odd years since telling the world about what they went through. Both were kept alive because they had skills that were valuable to the Khmer Rouge guards, though all of their family perished in the purges. A German lad in our group asked Chum Mey “How can you keep coming back here every day?” He replied through a translator that he wanted people to know what had happened here. Both these men were in their mid-eighties and in my mind they’ve never escaped the prison. In the intervening years I imagine they’ve made a comfortable living out of selling their life story to tourists, but in order to do so they must return daily to the place that took their lives and their families away from them.
We got back onboard the bus and drove to The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Here we were given headphones and cassette players, walking around the fields and playing each track in correspondence with the numbered signs that were scattered about the place. The audio guide was composed and narrated by a man who had survived the Killing Fields. Just a few miles outside of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek was where the prisoners of Tuol Sleng were taken to be executed. At least 8,895 bodies have been discovered here, and every year during the wet season the rain exposes the skeletons of more victims.
The silence of the masses of tourists is oddly juxtaposed by the tweeting of birds and the cries of various other animals all around the site. Whilst what happened here is unthinkable, the flora and fauna of South-East Asia is so vivacious and abundant that even in a place like this it can give you a lift. Scattered around on the floor though, are little scraps of cloth of various colours – these are the remains of the blindfolds that the prisoners were made to wear before their execution. A huge tree is covered in ribbons, prayer flags and candles. This is the “Chankiri Tree,” which was used by the prison guards to beat children to death. The theory went that if the children of the victims were allowed to live, they would grow up and try to avenge the deaths of their parents.
A final haunting moment which I swear will stay with both of us forever, was provided by the audio guide. The narrator described the final moments before a prisoner’s execution. The executions were carried out under cover of darkness, with loud revolutionary music being played to drown out the sounds of the dying. In addition, a generator powering the lights and sound system would rumble in the background. A recording of this sound was played much louder than the rest of the tape had been, and in spite of the relentless sun, it sent a shiver down the spine and transported us both back to an era in recent history which should never have to be repeated.
As we hurtled back into the heart of Phnom Penh, we tried to picture the streets standing completely empty as they had done under the Khmer Rouge. It was impossible – the place is too full of life. In a country that’s undergone such recent trauma, the best recommendation that we could give Cambodia is that the countryside, the towns and the cities are full of people who carry on regardless, showing no signs of being detained by the past. Sadly the same can’t be said for the government – a corrupt and occasionally brutal regime dominated by a bloke called Hun Sen, who was a prominent member of the Khmer Rouge until Pol Pot turned against him. Until blokes like him are in the ground, it’s hard to see Cambodia making any real forward progress in the way that Thailand and Vietnam have.
That’s probably enough for today – I imagine I’ve thoroughly depressed you all. I think it’s important to remember though that although humanity is capable of the despicable, it’s also capable of the divine. In this trip Hollie and I have been fortunate enough to witness both ends of this spectrum.
Peace and love,
Tommy and Hollie x