Warning: Contains graphic descriptions of Khmer Rouge atrocities.
Nothing more needs to be said by way of a title. I’d wanted to visit Cambodia for a while due to its present- The amazingly hospitable people and fantastic countryside. However, no trip to Cambodia is either complete or correct without learning about its past. The horrendous atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the name of a misguided and maniacal philosophy of life, whereby intellectuals, learning and endeavour become part of a sinful plot to derail the agrarian utopia.
I had originally planned to just spend one night in Phnom Penh before going to my volunteer placement, thereby just visiting the Tuol Sleng prison museum in town, however as luck would have it my placement had no bed space until the following night so I stayed on in Phnom Penh. I’m glad I did.
The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) are a short distance outside modern Phnom Penh. The trustees have done a fantastic job in creating a meaningful, solemn and informative visitor centre including a powerful audio tour around the grounds, ending in the memorial stupa containing the skulls of more than 5000 victims.
“Enemies of the state” who were captured were interned at Tuol Sleng prison, a macabre converted school, for torture and interrogation until their inevitable confessions before being taken to the Killing Fields overnight in trucks. What happened next was covered in painful detail on the tour.
I had taken a tuk tuk from the guesthouse with 2 guests from the Czech Republic but we all spilt up upon entering the centre in order to be alone in our thoughts. The audio tour is narrated by a survivor of the atrocities and is excellent. It includes extra testimonies from survivors at each point of the tour which help to bring the horror to life.
Continuing around the Killing Fields, the tour explained the position of various buildings which were destroyed in anger after the eventual overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. The true pain of the site is in the gaps- The realisation of what had happened there, the excavated mounds where so many victims had been exhumed. The sites of mass graves.
Bones and teeth frequently make their way to the surface with the effect of the monsoon rains. I saw some myself, a sobering and slightly macabre reminder of the true horror of the place. The rangers walk the site frequently and collect them.
Continuing around the site, it was nice to look out into the present-day tranquil Cambodian countryside.
Soon again though, the next horrific station presented itself, and possibly the worst and most impactive one of the whole site. This was the tree against which small babies and children were bludgeoned to death by the guards, sometimes in front of their parents. Today it is decorated with colourful bands left by visitors, back then the first people to find out the awful truth of the site recall it being festooned with flesh and bone.
One corner of the site has been walled off, containing further mass graves with an estimated huge head count. The trustees of the site have made the decision that, for now, they should remain undisturbed.
The huge memorial stupa at the site contains the skulls of thousands of victims of every age. It is permitted to, and I initially took photographs of the skulls however instantly regretted having done so, and have deleted the photographs out of respect.
Something about it all still seemed remote though. It’s possibly a function of human nature that we only truly recognise the suffering of “our own” people, a sad fact reflected in the extensive news coverage of the recent terrorist atrocity in Paris and very little mention of ongoing bombings in Lebanon and elsewhere. All remote, until I came upon one of the final stops on the audio guide where the loudspeakers were hung. The loudspeakers which blasted out patriotic music, mixed with the sound of generators all intending to drown out the screams of the victims being murdered by bludgeoning, or through having their throats cut. Machetes were used initially however as a cost saving measure in later years they simply used the sharpened edges of palm leaves. Utterly barbaric and something that will really stick with me.
After a quick lunch at a local cafe we carried on to the museum in town, a benign-looking school which became one of many centres of terror, torture and execution. The pictures speak for themselves, however my most powerful memory is of the dozens of photographs displayed around the site depicting the thousands of victims. Mass murder it may have been, however the regime documented everything to the Nth degree to ensure that there were neither escapees nor survivors. Every single victim of Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek was photographed upon their arrival, and those who simply succumbed to hunger, pain or torture were photographed upon their death. A macabre, detailed compendium of human suffering. the fear and dread in their faces painfully apparent.
The memorial centre serves an important function, to educate the world at large about the potential effects of unrestrained radicalism or totalitarianism. I was interested too to read about the Swedish group who visited Cambodia during the period of Khmer Rouge barbarity and whom were shown around and declared that there was nothing wrong. I reflected upon how this affected the escapees who did try to tell their stories back then, and reflected upon my visit to North Korea. Whilst I don’t feel guilt for doing so, and my account of the visit was both balanced and honest, it made me think hard about the morals of visiting such places.
There are no easy answers. One would hope that the learning and developments of the last 40 years might have laid conditions for preventing another mass genocide on the scale of Cambodia, however unfortunately experience seems to have little effect on the global human consciousness… We never seem to learn!
The Khmer Rouge time continunes to have a devastating effect on Cambodia. A generation of doctors, teachers, pharmacists, engineers and everyone else vital for the maintenance of strong society was wiped away. After the Khmer Rouge, the American armed forces exacerbated the situation with years of carpet bombing, leaving a deadly legacy of landmines and unexploded ordnance throughout the country. The struggle to reverse this continues in the form of NGO projects, charity work and support from overseas. In my next blog post, I’ll talk about my fortnight working with rural children on one such project.