20th February 2012
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
This is a post born of death, agony and murder and I've done my damndest to make it a hard read, I don't want you satisfied...
In contrast to other border crossings I've made while here in Asia....*cough Vietnam cough*.....my arrival in the kingdom of Cambodia was thankfully relatively hassle free. Leaving Saigon on a midnight bus destined for the capital of Phnom Penh, I prepared myself for the final country in this now three-month South East Asia adventure - a formidable loop that I'm spiralling through with alarming rapidity. Upon arrival in this intimidating metropolis, I had thankfully been able to recruit some new friends from the coach and so together we managed to find ourselves at the charming Eighty8 hostel which with it's outstandingly friendly staff and central location was an absolute steal at $7 a night. Finding myself in the company of two Australian girls, Mel and Becky and the Norwegian Caroline, we decided to crack on with our Cambodian adventure and commandeered a tuk tuk to go and see the infamous killing fields following a brief pit-stop at Tuol Sleng, the former S-21 office of the sadistic Khmer Rouge. Before this day I knew very little about the atrocities that took place throughout this country in the late 1970's but by the end of our tour around these miserable locations, I certainly knew a great deal more about those murderous times and felt infinitely more depressed and drained as a result. In my recurring role as history teacher within this blog, I think this post will be a lot more readable if I give a brief summary of what actually happened in Cambodia between the years of 1975-1979; a dark period marked by genocide under the direction of Saloth Sar - the tyrant subsequently known as Pol Pot. Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge, a political group that was born from radical communism and managed to attain great misguided support amongst the Cambodian people during the American bombings of eastern Cambodia between 1969-73; bombings which were initiated when the Viet Cong fled Vietnam to seek refuge in Cambodia. In addition to this turmoil King Sihanouk, the 'King-Father of Cambodia', who had held numerous positions in a variety of political offices was deposed in 1970 by General Lon Mol and Prince Sisowath Matak and for the purpose of my explanation here, the key thing to understand is that the combination of this political act and the American bombings initiated a state of supreme chaos within the country thereby creating a very unstable and vulnerable political climate. A vulnerability that was seized upon by the Khmer Rouge and in 1975, under the misinformed cheers of the Cambodian people (who believed peace was to follow), they marched into Phnom Penh to install a new regime that would later be known for it's brutality and murderous actions. Once in power Pol Pot immediately began to act on his deranged designs to create a Socialist Utopia within Cambodia in the form of an agrarian collective - communal agricultural farming. The entire population of the capital Phnom Penh was removed to the countryside where they were forcibly made to act as peasants working on the land. Those who were not chosen for such a life were exterminated, and what was the process of selection for this sadistic elimination process I hear you ask? Well, any indication of intelligence seemed to be the deciding factor as the Khmer Rouge wanted to remove any possible opposition to their rule. Doctors, intellectuals, lawyers, writers, even people who wore glasses (as that was apparently a sure sign of intelligence) were all killed including their families to avoid possible revenge attempts in later life. This reign of terror lasted for four long years until this deranged group were finally removed by invading Vietnamese forces in 1979. Unfortunately it was four years too late and during the time they were in power, between one and three million Cambodians perished at the hands of their fellow countrymen.
So with all this in mind we set off for the S-21 Tuol Seng interrogation centre which now serves as a Genocidal museum that documents a site designed by the Khmer Rouge for the detention, interrogation, inhuman torture and killing after confession of political prisoners and their families. Nearly 20,000 people are known to have entered Tuoul Seng, a former school, yet only six are known to have survived the brutality which existed within those barbed wire walls. As we walked around the site a severe sense of dread existed; an atmosphere of terror still tangible even though over thirty years have passed since it was last in use. Prisoners entered S-21 and were tortured until they confessed anything the Khmer Rouge wanted them to admit and once this was achieved they were shipped away to Choeung Ek - the killing fields which rest just outside of the city - where they were murdered and dumped into mass graves; left to rot in their own land. Reading the plaques on the wall shed some light on the history behind the place and it was interesting to read that many of the prisoners kept here were Khmer Rouge cadres - their own loyal supporters. The reason it seems that they started to turn on their own people was down to pure paranoia as they looked to blame anyone for Cambodia's woes as even the information minister Hu Nim and the deputy prime minister Vorn Vet, both loyal followers of the Khmer Rouge were detained, interrogated and sentenced to death at this prison. In their attempts to gain confessions from their detainees the wardens of S-21 knew no barriers to their depravity torturing their victims with battery powered electric shocks, searing hot metal prods, knives, whips, crowbars and partial hangings from the wooden frame which was once used for physical education in the Gymnasium of the former school. Walking through classrooms which had been converted into prison cells, splattered blood stains were highlighted on the walls and on the lower levels boards had been erected displaying photographs of the people who died in this veritable hell-on-earth. The vacant expressions of these poor souls indicated an acceptance that death would follow shortly. Stepping back outside into the glaring sunlight I felt drained by the images but it seemed that the depressive nature of the day was not to let up as we shuttled along in our tuk tuk to the killing fields; the site where the 'convicted' prisoners were sent to be murdered after their ordeal in S-21. As the tuk tuk turned off onto a dusty track we pulled up to the concrete gates of what was effectively the Asian version of Auschwitz. A harrowing and sobering two hour audio tour followed as we walked past huge depressions in the ground which were the last remains of the mass graves created to house the thousands upon thousands of lost souls that died at their edges. The crack of a hammer to the back of the head; the slice of a knife silencing screams of terror before tumbling into the pit to join the departed company. Distress and horror are inadequate words to describe my feelings about that awful place and taking it all in only roused questions within my mind of how humans beings can be so cruel to each other. Walking on I came upon a tree and heard that what I was looking at was known as the 'killing tree', a giant Chankiri tree where baby infants had their brains dashed before being dumped into a pit that had been dug at it's feet. The bones, the photographs and the graves were all shocking however there was one part of the audio tour which, for me at least, was the most harrowing of all. It was explained that to avoid arousing suspicion amongst civilians who lived near the site - all of this was largely done in secret - the Khmer Rouge used to power up massive diesel engines and broadcast music from tannoys to drown out the screams of the prisoners as they were executed. The audio guide then stopped and played a sample of what this must of sounded like. I stood at the edge of a vast grave and heard the metallic whir of a grating diesel engine fill my ears while a woman's voice warbled haunting lyrics over it. At this point I looked up at a clear blue sky above and was faced by the fierce eyes of a raging sun and realised that what I was hearing and seeing were the last things thousands of people would have experienced before passing on from their cruel lives.
The tour finished up by visiting the giant white stupa at the centre of the complex which houses hundreds of skulls which have been unearthed from shallow graves over the years but by this time I had seen and heard enough and was ready to leave. Climbing back onto the tuk tuk, we headed back into town under the reflective gaze of a sun that keeps shining on a place that symbolically, will forever rest in darkness.
|Location of the capital Phnom Penh in Cambodia.|
|The translated rules at S-21 for new prisoners...|
|The main courtyard of Tuol Sleng, S-21.|
|Leg shackles used to keep prisoners from moving while the warden stood above them brandishing their tools of torture.|
|The compound used to be a former school.|
|The site has been preserved, the barbed wire was erected to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by jumping down.|
|Beauty encased by barbed wire would have been the last sight for those who could not survive the torture.|
|The corridors which connected the torture cells together.|
|Entering Choeung Ek, The Killing Fields. This central stupa is now a memorial for all those who perished.|
|The skulls gaze out on their final resting place.|
|The mass graves. Over the years, the earth has subsided meaning the sides are now less pronounced. Due to the shifting earth, bones and teeth are regularly brought to the surface.|
|This is where I stood and listened to the final song of death.|
|The Magic Tree where the speakers were hung to drown out the screams of people dying.|