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Wednesday 10 Jul 2013
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A harrowing visit to understand Cambodia's tragic past

Cambodia has a complex history. For over 80 years, it was part of French Indochine. WWII pushed the French out and Cambodia declared itself independent in 1953 under King Sihanouk. The late 1960s saw the Viet Cong using Cambodia as a rat run for supplies, prompting heavy bombardment by the Americans. By 1970, King Sihanouk was overthrown in a military coup so allied himself in exile with the Khmer Rouge, a Cambodian revolutionary movement. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh and everything changed.

The Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever to transform Cambodia – renamed Democratic Kampuchea – into a giant peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative, untainted by anything that had come before. Within days, the entire populations of Phnom Penh and provincial towns, including the sick, elderly and infirm, were forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day. Intellectuals were systematically wiped out – having glasses or speaking a foreign language was reason enough to be killed. The country became a slave labour camp under the leadership of Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot.

Although the Khmer Rouge regime lasted little over three years, it was devastating. The entire infrastructure of the country was destroyed, along with the knowledge to rebuild it. Estimates vary, but it is believed that between 1.5 and 2 million Cambodians - men, women and children - were either worked to death in the fields, succumbed to diseases in the labour camps, or simply murdered by Pol Pot's regime. Unbelievably, the West not only failed to realise what was happening, but were so blinkered by the events of the Cold War that when Vietnam liberated Phnom Penh and drove the Khmer Rouge out, they refused to recognise the new government and continued to deal with Pol Pot in exile, with a Khmer Rouge representative taking Cambodia's seat in the UN until 1991. The early 1990s finally brought about an end to the civil war and the UN stepped in to help transition the country back to a democracy. Pol Pot eventually died in Thailand without ever being brought to justice for his crimes. Only now are the key leaders of his regime being held accountable in on-going war crimes trials. The leader of the infamous S.21 torture prison is the only one to have admitted his part in the atrocities and apologised for his actions.

Tuol Sleng, better known as S.21, is a former high school in Phnom Penh that became the flagship of Pol Pot's torture prisons. Anybody perceived to be an enemy of the regime was brought here and tortured for days or even weeks until they confessed. The school has been preserved more or less as it was found as a stark reminder of what happened and why it cannot be allowed to happen again.

In one building, the torture rooms have been preserved with metal bed frames in the centre of the room and harsh black and white photographs on the wall show the bodies that were found there. The bodies may have gone, but the stains on the floor speak volumes.  In another building, the ground floor rooms have been divide up by rough brick walls into individual cells barely big enough for a person to lie down in. Prisoners were shackled with iron bars to stop them moving around. Upstairs, similar cells have been made with wooden partitions. Other rooms were used as group holding cells where up to 30 prisoners were shackled to iron rods so they could do nothing but lie there, while guards used various tactics to prevent them sleeping for days at a time. Out in the courtyard, the former exercise bars were converted into gallows or torture devices to dangle prisoners until they passed out.
The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of every person who passed through their cells. Throughout the museum, rows and rows of these photographs are displayed in memory of the more than 20,000 victims. It is quite chilling to walk past all their faces staring out across the years. Most heartbreaking was the number of children in the photographs.
There is no doubt about the impact of the museum. Nobody could possibly visit without being affected and we all walked around in our own time, lost in the emotion of the place. What the museum lacked was enough information to explain about who the Khmer Rouge were and why so many people were tortured here. We were also unclear about what had happened to the leaders after the Khmer Rouge was overthrown and why war crimes trials were only now underway. I bought a book put together by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which is now used as a school textbook to teach the new generations about the atrocities of the past. Hopefully it will help me understand a little more too.
We all left feeling quite shell shocked. Man's capacity for harming others never ceases to amaze and appall me. Following in the footsteps of the prisoners at S.21 we headed out to the Killing Fields Genocide Museum.  Once they had confessed, as they invariably did under such brutal torture, to whatever charges had been laid against them, prisoners were told they were being released but were instead transported under cover of darkness to a former orchard at Choeung Ek on the outskirts os the city.  Here they were sytematically beaten to death - rather than waste precious bullets - and dumped into mass grave pits. The noise was covered up by speakers blaring out revoloutionary songs. 
Today, the tranquil green meadows and trees form a beautiful juxtaposition to the horrors of what took place here. Despite the sunshine, I felt cold listening to the excellent audioguide.  It answered a lot of the questions we had from S.21 and gave us the background to the events. Some of the mass graves are now marked by depressions in the ground, while a few have been covered in a shelter with a low bamboo fence around them. One grave held the broken bodies of over 200 people. People had hung their friendship bracelets on the fence as a sign of respect and I was moved to do the same with three of my remaining cotton bracelets from the Basi ceremony at my first Laos homestay.
Further along the path I was moved to tears by another grave pit which had contained the naked bodies of women, children and babies. Next to this pit was a thick sturdy tree with a truly horrific history. The guards had held babies by the ankles and swung their heads against the tree to crack their skulls, before tossing them into the pit with their mothers. I hung another of my bracelets on the tree bark feeling like it was the smallest thing I could do to mark the loss of such innocent lives. Once again, I had to be grateful for the loving and sheltered childhood I experienced - knowing that some of these events took place within my own lifetime. I hope and pray that my three beautiful nephews are able to grow up in peace and protection and my heart goes out to the chidren of this world who are not so lucky.
The centrepiece of the Killing Fields is a tall memorial stupa containing the bones of over 8000 victims displayed in an 18-level glass casing. More bones surface after each rainfall and these are collected, cleaned and placed in memorial cases around the orchard. It is a truly heartbreaking place to visit, but absolutely must be visited by anyone coming to Phnom Penh.


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