The capital Phnom Penh was my final stop in Cambodia and my most memorable. I spent time catching up with friends, drinking wine and exploring (both the city and local cuisines). However, this isn’t what made it unforgettable. Here I learnt the full extent of the brutal history that this country endured only 40 years ago. It also gave me a new found respect and an even bigger heartfelt love for a country I had already grown so attached to.
This post won’t feature any images, as I didn’t feel it was right to photograph the horrors the Khmer people suffered. Instead I will try my hardest to explain what I learnt and saw. I hope by the end it will move you as much as it did me.
I will begin by providing some context, as before I arrived I wasn’t even aware these events happened. I don’t think it’s ignorance, but more a lack of education. It’s one of the reasons I love travelling, you can never truly understand a country until you stop and take the time to listen to the stories of the people in them.
17th April 1975
In April 1975 military forces of the new Cambodian government Khmer Rouge (later found to be led by communist Pol Pot) were cheered into the streets of cities including the capital, Phnom Penh. Even though by brutal force they had elected themselves into power, through fear of further US bombings (as this was around the Vietnam war) they convinced the local people that they were the saviours of Cambodia. Announcing that Phnom Penh was a target for US forces, people were forced out of their homes and sent in thousands to the countryside, with a promise they would return home in a few days. It wasn’t after weeks of walking, with sadly many family and friends dying on the way due to exhaustion and starvation, they finally arrived at the rural villages and began to realise the full extent of the Khmer Rouge’s lies.
The Khmer Rouge’s real intention was to ‘cleanse’ Cambodia and make it self-sufficient by abolishing class, anything foreign, education, individuality, money, clothing other than the provided black trousers and shirt, religion and even Khmer culture, transforming the country into an agrarian society. This new regime, referred to as ‘Year One,’ also meant people were stripped of their basic human rights, even hosting discussions, affection to family members and laughing were forbidden. Instead, they were expected to work 12 hour days on the rice fields, with most living off one bowl of rice soup, as they were only allowed to eat what they were given. However, if they were educated, talented, wore glasses, had soft hands, mixed race, part of any of the prior military or government, spoke another language (the list goes on), they were either sentenced to death or to S-21 prison.
S-21: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
There’s a coldness and sadness that hits you when you first step into S-21. Before the events in 1975, the prison was once a secondary school. Now it’s hard to imagine the grounds full of laughing kids instead of the haunting screams of the victims who were sickeningly tortured there.
The five buildings, overlooking a grassy courtyard, became facilities for Kaing Guek Eav (or Duch) and his men to interrogate those ‘against’ the Khmer Rouge, with the sole intention of getting (false) ‘confessions’ of rebellion against the party and in most cases an alliance to the CIA or KGB. The methods of torture were barbaric including electrocution, hot metal prods, knives and the use of school equipment such as a large wooden gymnastics frame to hang up and execute prisoners. When they weren’t being interrogated they were placed in single and group cells with the cruelest of inhuman conditions.
Walking through the buildings and rooms I listened to the history of S-21 and the stories of the people imprisoned there. What I found the hardest, was seeing photographs of 6,000 terrified faces of the 12,000 victims. These chilling images were taken whilst each prisoner was processed. Unbelievably it wasn’t just adults, but children and even babies. So many innocent people caught up in Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, Son Sen and Khiev Sam Phan’s disgusting ideologies.
Sadly the pain didn’t stop there as once the confessions of being a traitor were collected and sent to Pol Pot’s inner circle, the victims were sent to one of the hundreds of Killing Fields across Cambodia, where over one million people were murdered.
The Killing Fields in Cheung Ek
In a farming village outside of Phnom Penh called Cheung Ek, the evil of the Khmer Rouge is still visible today. As you walk through the grounds of this mass grave, you can still see remnants of bones and clothing, which act as a reminder of the unbelievable horrors that took place there.
Victims were brought by truck to this Killing Field in darkness, where they were registered and then shoved into a building. It was in small groups that they were taken to pre dug graves. With their hands tied behind their backs kneeled before their captors, they were beaten with tools such as axes, hoes, sticks, knives, whatever that could be found instead of bullets, which were too expensive. How someone could so cruelly kill other humans I will never understand.
There was a lot to take it and I don’t think you’ll fully understand unless you visit. But one thing that really stuck with me was a beautifully decorated tree, which I assumed families of the deceased had designed. I wish I was right as the tree was actually decorated to honour babies and infants who were murdered at its mercy. It still makes me feel sick thinking about this. There were no white flags as the Khmer Rouge saw even innocent kids, who could potentially avenge their families, as threats to their future.
The most chilling part of the tour was the monument at the end. This beautifully decorated Buddhist stupa, was built to not only honour the dead, but also as a resting place for these victims. From bottom to top there are thousands of skulls and bones. I think now maybe you can understand why I didn’t take any photos.
In 1979 the Vietnamese finally liberated Cambodia from Khmer Rouge’s evil reign. With Pol Pot and his leaders fleeing into the jungle, it took many years before the people of Cambodia received any form of justice. Unfortunately Pot continued his role as leader of the Khmer Rouge, rebuilding his life as a teacher, even having grandchildren, until he was found in 1998, dying under suspicious circumstances during house arrest. Since then all of Pot’s leaders have been reprimanded with Nuon Chea (the Prime Minister and Pot’s second in command), Khieu Samphan and Duch still alive and rotting in prison until their deaths.
This was by far one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century, with a quarter of the population being murdered. Everyone I met had lost someone during this awful time, with majority still not knowing what happened to their loved ones. Many spent years waiting in hope that one day they would return. Even those who survived are still haunted by the terrifying memories. I don’t think they will ever fully recover or find justice for the events that unfolded over those horrendous four years. However despite this they are still the kindest, generous and warmest of people I have ever met.
I know this is a long post but I really hope you took the time to read to the end. This is obviously my interpretation of the events, so if you do want to know more, there are plenty of biographies from people who survived. Personally I would recommend reading ‘At First They Killed My Father’, which is the story of a little girl. As hard as learning about the genocide may seem, I still believe it’s important to understand not only out of respect for those who died and survived, but also in a hope it will never happen again.