Cambodia is the most fascinating country I have visited so far on this trip. It holds such a cruel recent history that is hard to believe when you see how cheerful Khmer people are, how full of life and positive in whatever situation they are in. They simply look happy all time. And it is a terrific quality.
I will briefly sum up this country’s brutal past for those of you who are not aware of it, or simply don’t remember:
While the Indochina war was taking place in Vietnam and Laos in the late 1960s, Cambodia managed to remain neutral for the initial years. However, the lack of a stable government and military, together with the US bombings where the Vietnamese communists hid in its eastern parts, made Cambodia much more vulnerable. Eventually, after years of civil war, in 1975 the Khmer Rouge (headed by Pol Pot) took power and established Democratic Kampuchea. From 1975 to 1979, a genocide took place, and millions of people were brutally killed through hard labour, starvation and torture. The exact number of the victims is still unknown, as it seems everyone has different ideas: from 1 quarter to 1 third of the population is the most popular take, however our Cambodian guide claimed as much as half of its people died during that period.
The why is also unknown.
When in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, I visited the two most important memorial sites of the country: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (former office S-21) and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, or Killing Fields.
I waited a few days after my visit to these two sites before writing about them, thinking that it would have been ‘easier’ to put down in words what you feel while walking in a former mass grave and torture center. However now, looking back, I have the exact same feelings of grievance and hopelessness in human kind as I did then.
Tuol Sleng was a primary and high school until the former Security Office 21 was set up there in 1975, after which date it was used for many years for ‘detention, interrogation, inhuman torture, and killing after confession from the detainees were received and documented’. Of the thousands of people that went through its doors, both civilians and political prisoners, only seven survived.
The buildings were covered in barbed wire to prevent the prisoners committing suicide, and the former classrooms converted into 0.8 x 2 m individual cells while others were used as torture chambers. In the museum there is a wide collection of the prisoners photographs and their ‘confessions’, mostly made up after continuing accusations.
The crimes? Knowing another language. Being litterate. Wearing glasses. Accused of plotting against the Khmer Rouge.
A new era was started, the Year Zero set up, as according to Pol Pot it was time to rebuild the society, which had to be made only by peasants and workers. People were forced to move out their homes in the cities into the villages, often losing the rest of the family in so doing and starting manual jobs with no skills.
Who survived through the 2 – 7 months imprisonment in Tuol Sleng, was brought to Choeung Ek, or Killing Fields, where he or she was massacred regardless of sex and age.
It is an incredible walk where I was led with the aid of an audio tour through what was once in that place. Mass graves are delined and bones and clothes are still coming up from the soil through time.
Mass Grave of 166 victims with no head.
One is particularly striking.
Here there were found over 100 bodies of children and women, most of whom were naked. Next to it, a tree used to beat children to death.
It is said that Duch, the man in charge of S21 who denied he knew about these crimes, was taken to this very spot and when he saw the tree fell down into his knees and cried in desperation, admitting his accusations.
To think that these brutalities happened as little as thirty years ago, at a time when the western countries were rising against their governments and obtained fundamental individual freedoms, it is hard to believe. At school we study history with the aim of its atrocities not to be repeated, and yet, genocides continued after the holocaust and continue still now. There is no awareness of them, we hear stories in the news and yet remain apathetic until it affects us directly.
But most of all, it is appaling that the people who caused such sufferings in Cambodia were never charged until 2007 – living their life to the fullest until old, including Pol Pot who stayed in the government for years after and died in his sleep in 1998. The Khmer Rouge were also given a seat in the United Nations.
What is it that leads men and women to commit such cruelties against their own people? I don’t believe it’s madness nor ignorance, or it would’t be backed by so many others. What then?
Here is a few slogans of the Khmer Rouge propaganda that, to me, speak for themselves. There are more on Pol Pot’s Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar (Henry Locard, 2004).
“To destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain.”
“You can arrest someone by mistake; never release him by mistake.”
“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.”
“Better to arrest ten innocent people by mistake than free a single guilty party.”
“He who protests is an enemy; he who opposes is a corpse.”
“If you have a disease of the old society, take a dose of Lenin as medication.”
I do urge you to read more on this, as my summary is incredibly underestimating and general to give a proper idea on what happened. You can find more information on Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program, Khmer Rouge Tribunal, and Cambodia Tribunal Monitor websites. I am currently reading Voices From S-21 (David Chandler, 1999), which gives an incredible insight.