In January, Chase and I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, and I found it to be an incredibly moving experience. Visiting the S-21 prison and the killing fields in Phnom Penh evoked similar emotions.
Prior to our trip to Cambodia, I knew that the government had recently and crudely killed its own citizens (*shudder*). What I didn’t understand was why. Luke Walker from the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies wrote a brief synopsis that captures what we learned by wandering through the memorial sites in Phnom Penh and talking to our bike tour guides in Siem Reap:
“In order to achieve the ‘ideal’ communist model, the Khmer Rouge believed that all Cambodians must be made to work as laborer in one huge federation of collective farms; anyone in opposition to this system must be eliminated. This list of ‘potential opposition’ included, but was not limited to, intellectuals, educated people, professionals, monks, religious enthusiasts…[…]….Under threat of death, Cambodians nationwide were forced from their hometowns and villages. The ill, disabled, old and young who were incapable of making the journey to the collectivized farms and labor camps were killed on the spot. People who refused to leave were killed, along with any who appeared to be in opposition to the new regime. The people from entire cities were forcibly evacuated to the countryside. All political and civil rights of the citizen were abolished. Children were taken from their parents and placed in separate forced labor camps. Factories, schools, universities, hospitals, and all other private institutions were shut down; all their former owners and employees were murdered, along with their extended families. Religion was also banned: leading Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries were killed, and temples and churches were burned. While racist sentiments did exist within the Khmer Rouge, most of the killing was inspired by the extremist propaganda of a militant communist transformation. It was common for people to be shot for speaking a foreign language, wearing glasses, smiling, or crying. One Khmer slogan best illuminates Pol Pot’s ideology: ‘To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.’ ” (Walker, source)
As recently as the late 1970s, there was such hatred, such an apathy toward the lives of others. Kursten and I did some quick math. If the genocide ended around 1978, this means that anyone we encountered that appeared to be over the age of 35 had lived through this nightmare. The survivors were in front of us–living, breathing, working to re-establish themselves after their loved ones were murdered, their education system destroyed, their economy overturned, and the forward movement of society halted (remember, all professionals, doctors, educated people were “removed” from society). Imagine that. Imagine rebuilding.
The first stop on our memorial tour was the S-21 (Tuol Sleng) prison. Previously a school, the Khmer Rouge turned it into a top-secret prison, where they kept and tortured high-ranking officials suspected of treason.
Most people didn’t know the charges behind their arrest, but their whole family would be captured and the officials would be tortured until they confessed to whatever the Khmer Rouge said that they had allegedly done. After they confessed (under duress or not), they were killed. An estimated 14,000-20,000 people were kept here and the Documentation Center of Cambodia estimates that only ~200 survived or were released.
One of the most haunting things is that you can still see the chalkboards with remnants of old lessons on the walls of some of the prison cells. Next to remnants of torture instruments.
Our second stop on the tour was Choeung Ek, a killing field and mass grave of the victims of the Khmer Rouge. People were driven out in trucks, most of them from the S-21 prison, and were usually killed upon arrival. They were hewn to pieces or brutally beaten before being tossed into large pits in the ground, mass graves.
The Khmer Rouge didn’t even have the mercy to shoot them–ammunition was too precious of a commodity–and they were crudely killed with spades or sharpened bamboo sticks. They bashed the children’s heads against trees.
There is a free audioguide that comes with the admission price of $2 that helps take you back to the fields in the 1970s. The guide does a good job of illustrating the primitive methodologies that the Khmer Rouge employed and has some chilling audio recollections of some of the survivors.
There is a commemorative stupa set up in the center of the site. The skulls of the thousands that died here are on display to all who walk by, a reminder of the recent past, ensuring that it is not forgotten.
Of possible interest:
Dale of Cambodia, an up-and-coming documentary