By the time we reached our second week in Cambodia, we’d begun to absolutely love the people here. So kind, so friendly, so happy to talk to you. It’s unimaginable that only 40 years ago a communist revolutionary stole his own people’s freedom and their lives.
The Khmer Rouge
40 years ago Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia and in the space of only three years their brutal rule had resulted in the death of one in every four Cambodians. His own people, who had done nothing wrong.
Pol Pot envisioned a ‘purified’ farming society, where all foreign influence was wiped out, city life was banned, religion was outlawed – only dedication to the Khmer Rouge was allowed. His troops marched into Phnom Penh and cleared out the city, telling people to return to their people’s villages. 2 million people were forced to leave Phnom Penh and return to the countryside to begin the ‘true’ Cambodian life as a farmer. As many as 20,000 died of starvation along the way.
If you didn’t fit in to Pol Pot’s warped vision of the new farming nation, you were sent to the prison camps, where you’d be tortured until you confessed to being a member of the CIA, to being a spy, to crimes against the Khmer Rouge, to anything just to stop the pain.
Then, once you’d signed your confession with broken fingers, you were sent to the Killing Fields to die. If you had children, you’d be forced to watch as your baby was held by his feet and smashed against a tree, and only then would they kill you too. You see, Pol Pot believed that to remove the rot you had to kill the whole tree, roots and all. That meant that if you were accused of crimes against the state, your whole family had to die. They wanted no one alive to take revenge.
You could be arrested for having a university degree, for living in a city, for having too much money. For being a doctor, a lawyer, a monk. You could be tortured for having soft hands, or for wearing glasses, for writing letters. No one was safe. 3 million innocent people died. The rest of the world did nothing.
S-21 Genocide Museum
In 1975, Tuol Svay high school in Phnom Penh was taken by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into Security Prison 21. It became a place of unimaginable suffering, of torture and death. When the Vietnamese forces came to liberate Phnom Penh in 1979, the prison guards burned all the records they could find and killed the remaining prisoners before escaping. Their twisted bodies were found strapped to beds or crumpled in corners of their cells.
The site is now a genocide museum, documenting the awful truth of life in the prison. We couldn’t come to Cambodia without visiting this place – if would seem wrong to enjoy everything Cambodia has to offer without understanding the history and the suffering of it’s people.
We walked around the museum with our audio guides plugged in, listening to the stories as we stood in rooms scrubbed clean, looking at photos of hundreds of faces of people long gone – the prisoners of S-21. Many of those faces were of children. If they’d survived, they would only have been in their 50s or 60s now. None survived.
We all moved through the museum individually, it’s something to take in alone, not a group activity. After a few hours moving through the prison blocks we sat in silence, all of us thinking about what we’d just seen and heard and trying to put it into context, trying to understand that each and every one of the happy, smiling Cambodian people we’d met would have had family members killed. It was only 40 years ago – many would have experienced the Pol Pot years themselves.
Imagine everyone you know. Imagine 1 in 4 of them dying within three years. We might think we have it bad sometimes, but if this doesn’t give you some perspective then I don’t know what will.
The Killing Fields
In the afternoon we went to the killing fields where we had another audio guide and split up again to listen to the history of the place. Now, it’s a place of complete peace, which contrasts hugely with it’s previous life.
You can still see grass-carpeted dips in the land – these were once mass graves. Now they’re covered in thousands of butterflies, fluttering in the sunshine. I’ve never seen so many in one place, it’s almost surreal. You see the tree that babies were flung against. When this place was discovered, the tree was covered in blood and brains. It’s now covered in bright ribbons and prayers.
There’s a large lake that you’re requested to walk around as you listen to the stories of the Cambodian people who lived through the Khmer Rouge years. As you walk around it’s completely silent. No one talks.
The last stop on the audio tour is a huge pagoda in the centre of the complex. It is filled to the top with bones. Skulls at the bottom, layers and layers of them. Then large bones, then small ones. These are the people who were exhumed from the mass graves and relocated to the pagoda with many prayers and blessings said in their honour. Bones still come to the surface of the soil every now and again. They’re collected by the wardens of the place and respectfully relocated.
I don’t know what else to say about these places. Only that they’re heart-breaking, but they’re so important. If you go to Cambodia, take a day out of your lovely holiday and spend time here because you need to understand.