Today has been heavy. Just a friendly prewarning that this blog contains some harrowing tales of a dark and dismal time; I almost didn’t take photos today. I even had second thoughts about writing this at all. But travelling is not all sun and fun, so it seemed false to leave this out. If you find it too tough to take I’ll make no judgements; I found today tough to take too.
For our first full day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia capital, we decided to do the city tour I’m sure every traveller who passes through undertakes. It follows the last footsteps of some of the Khmer Rouge’s victims.
The sky was a beautiful shade of blue this morning and my mood just as clear. Mean (rhymes with Leanne), our tuktuk driver for the day, picked us up at 9am and we made our way across the city to our first stop; the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, otherwise known as S21. (Tip: if you’re planning to visit here I really recommend getting a guide. We didn’t, wanting instead to get one at the killing fields, but there you receive a free audio tour which does all the work of a guide and more. There’s plenty to read at S21, but many of the guides are former victims of the regime (not the prison) and will give you a far better insight into the history.)
Today we learned that in 1975 the Khmer Rouge took back the city of Phnom Penh. Many locals welcomed them with cheers and flags, an elation which would prove to be short lived. Within 36 hours of the siege the city was practically a ghost town, as hundreds of thousands of inhabitants had been made to leave their homes and relocate to the countryside. They were told it was for their own good as the Americans were planning to bomb the city, but in reality it was all part of Pol Pot’s plan to cleanse the country and start afresh. He named his goal Year Zero.
As with every dictator in history, Pol Pot seems to have been a paranoid megalomaniac. You have to be a special kind of sick to wipe out a nation. In his short time in power (less than 4 years), it’s estimated 2-3million Cambodians died; that’s a quarter of the population, 1 in 4 people. Many of those first spent time in S21.
S21 is housed in a former high school, with buildings and rooms not unlike St Joseph’s in Bangkok, where I worked in 2012. Standing in the middle of the courtyard it was easy to imagine the walls filled with laughter, children running to greet friends or escape at the end of the school day. The bars used for exercise and play still stand in the yard, though they have since been used for much bleaker purposes than PE.
Here professionals, artisans, people with soft hands, those speaking foreign languages, people wearing glasses, anyone who showed slight hint of intellect, and their families were detained and killed. They were considered enemies of the state. It’s estimated 14,000 people went in to S21 between 1975 and 1979. Each one had their height, biography and photograph recorded on arrival. These haunting photos are on display in every room. Only 7 survived.
Of the 7, 2 are still living and both dedicate their time to telling their stories to people who visit the prison. I spent some time with Chum Mey, whose skills with mechanics saved him as he was able to fix the typewriter used to document the prisoners. The other survivor was spared due to his artistic skills, as he was able to copy a picture as well as the original. They said they both were just lucky; there were many nights like the one when 3 names were called, and the 3 men shackled to Chum were taken to their death. Had 4 names been called it would have been him.
Each building is home to 3 floors. In 1, block d, the bottom floor consisted of several brick cells, with doorways so narrow I had to turn sideways. Each cell was about double the width of my shoulders, and I would have struggled to stretch out. Some, like cell 22 where Chum Mey was housed, had windows, others were slightly bigger. These were hastily built cells created in former classrooms, no one cared about architecture or uniformity. On the next floor the cells were, unbelievably, smaller again, and the doorways between each room basically narrow slits in the brick. Unlike the brick cells where the walls did not reach the ceiling, here the dark wood created a gloom which really closed in on you. The wood and damp created a potent smell, which must have been nothing compared to the one which existed when prisoners were forced to use old cartridge boxes as makeshift toilets. It was too much for me; I asked someone else walking through alone if I could walk with him, just to have some company. He was from France, and I think we were both relying on high school lessons to create a stunted conversation. It was needed though. That wasn’t the kind of room in which to be alone.
From Tuol Sleng we took the long, bumpy road to Choeung Ek killing fields. One of several in the country. Once the turnover at Tuol Sleng got too high, the Khmer Rouge would bring people to this remote place to die in order to avoid suspicion in Phnom Penh.
They arrived at dusk by truck, handcuffed and blindfolded, before being led individually to a pit where a bamboo stick, hoe or machete was used to kill them. At the start 3-4 trucks would arrive every few months, then every few weeks. Eventually trucks arrived every day, around 300 people each time. Deaths always occurred in the evenings. In some cases throats were cut using the stem of a palm leaf. Have you ever felt how razor sharp those are? I hadn’t until today.
As with the killing caves, it’s hard to imagine a place now so peaceful was once so the opposite. Around 15,000 people were found buried in the mass graves here. The shallow graves were thought to have originally been 5m deep, but time and weather have brought many of the remains to the surface. This still happens, especially in the rainy season. Those who work here call them ‘the restless dead’.
As you walk around you are encouraged to keep an eye out for remains, and not to disturb the peace of those who have past. Coloured cloth is often seen working its way to the surface, and the bones follow not long after.
When faced with the confused and desperate faces captured at S21, to the bones and cloth of the killing fields (remember they may be one and the same) it’s all too easy to forget that the majority of the victims of this period didn’t die in this way. Most of those displaced city dwellers I mentioned earlier starved. In the fields they were made to wear identical uniforms (black clothes with red scarfs to symbolise communism), and use traditional farming methods with no modern technology. There was no currency, not enough food, and many worked at least a 14 hour day. If I took you away from your home and made you do hard physical labour with no training and barely any nutrients, how long would your spirit and body survive? I have a new found respect for every older Cambodian I see around this city. Everyone I have met since entering this country has been so kind, I can’t believe what they went through not even a generation ago.