To fully understand life one needs to understand the good, as well as the bad and the ugly. To fully comprehend the Cambodian psyche, one needs to walk the sacred walkways of Angkor Wat but also understand the Khmer Rouge, and the dent it has made on an entire nation and its people, still stark and painful 28 years after its demise. No Cambodian can be said to be yet entirely free of the madness and brutality of that era. Every single family has had one or more members that died in it. There is a vacantness in the Cambodian spirit which still rattles emptily the echoes of those years, making you doubt humanity itself.
When the Ultra Communist Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) led by Pol Pot marched into Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, few people could have anticipated the hell that was to follow. The goal of the regime was to transform Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant dominated agrarian cooperative. Within days of the Khmer Rouge coming into power, the entire population of the capital city and provincial towns, including the sick and the elderly, were forced to march out to the countryside and undertake slave labour in mobile work teams for 12 to 15 hours each day. Disobedience of any kind often brought immediate execution. The advent of the Khmer Rouge rule was declared Year Zero. Currency was abolished and postal services were halted. Except for one fortnightly flight to Beijing (China was providing funding and advisers to the Khmer Rouge) the country was cut off completely from the outside world.
Pol Pot, Brother No. 1 in the Khmer Rouge regime, was the architect of the psychotic regime that he led between 1975 and 1979, and his policies piled misery, pain and death on millions of Cambodians. Born as Saloth Sar in 1925, he won a scholarship to Paris and spent several years there, where he is also believed to have developed his radical Marxist thought, later to change into the politics of extreme Maoist agrarianism. He was not to emerge, however, as the public face of the revolution until the end of 1976. In the eyes of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was not a unified movement but a series of factions in the social system that needed to be cleansed. He granted almost no interviews to foreign media and was seen only on propaganda movies produced by the government television.
It is still not known exactly how many Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during the three years, eight months and 21 days of its rule, though ongoing research and investigations estimate the figure to be around two million.
Hundreds of thousands of people were executed by the Khmer Rouge leadership, while hundreds of thousands more died of deprivation and disease. Meals consisted of nothing more than watery rice porridge twice a day. Disease stalked the work camps, dysentery and malaria killing whole families. Complete loyalty was expected towards Angkar—the organization—and those who did not agree were sought out and destroyed. Any discrepancy in the forced uniformity of the lives of the people of Democratic Kampuchea, as Cambodia was then known, was dealt with torture and eventual death. A simple extra meal more than another’s could cost you your life.
In May 1976, Tuol Svay Prey High School in Phnom Penh was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). This soon became the largest prison and interrogation center in the country. All the classrooms were converted into prison cells and the windows enclosed by iron bars and covered with tangled barbed wire to prevent possible escape by the prisoners. Inmates were systematically tortured with lashes of electric wire or electric shocks, sometimes over a period of months, to extract confessions, after which they were executed at the Choeung Ek killing fields. The Khmer Rouge was meticulous in keeping records. Every prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after torture, and detailed biographies recorded. Other branches of S-21 were located elsewhere in the country.
The prisoners were kept in their respective cells and shackled with chains fixed to the walls or the concrete floors. They were stripped to their underwear, slept directly on the floor, and had to defecate into small iron buckets and urinate into small plastic buckets kept in their cells. They were required to ask for permission from the guards for every action, or else they were beaten or received 20 to 60 strokes with a whip as punishment.
The inmates were bathed by being rounded up into a collective room where a tube of running water was placed through the window to splash water on them for a short time. Bathing was irregular, allowed only once every two or three days, and sometimes once a fortnight. Unhygienic living conditions caused the prisoners to become infected with diseases. There was no medical treatment available.
The number of workers in the S-21 complex at Tuol Sleng totalled 1,720. Most of the workers were under confinement themselves at the prison. Children ranging from 10 to 15 years of age were trained and selected by the Khmer Rouge regime to work as the center’s guards.
Much in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum has been left in the state it was when the Khmer Rouge abandoned it in 1979. The museum displays include room after room of distressing black and white photographs; nearly all of the men, women and children pictured were later killed. During early 1977, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day. When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh on 7 January, 1979 there were only seven prisoners alive at S-21. Fourteen others had been tortured to death as the Vietnamese forces closed in on the city. Photographs of their gruesome deaths are on display in the rooms where their decomposing corpses were found. Their graves are nearby in the courtyard.
The visit to the Genocide Museum was not an easy one. It is difficult to stomach the ugliness and the sheer depravity that human nature can sink to. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t get angry. All I could feel was the hollowness of those eyes, staring out from the rows of photographs in the rooms, seeping within me. There has been a rather futile attempt in recent years to bring justice to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. But all in vain. Many leaders of the past regime now have senior posts within the current government. Those arrested were allowed to die before they could be questioned despite medical help being available. The powers behind those times are still in power. And the fact is no one really cares enough about the tears of two million people who were tortured and brutally murdered for only one fault of theirs. That they had been alive to start with. And so those screams are being muffled and put to rest by all of humanity once again.
From the Genocide Museum I drove on to the Choeung Ek killing fields on the outskirts of the city. A most apt name for that is exactly what took place in these orchards during the Khmer Rouge rule. Between 1975 and 1978 about 17,000 men, women, and children who had been detained and tortured at S-21 were transported here blindfolded and bound for execution. The prisoners were often bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious bullets. The remains of 8,985 people were unearthed in 1980 from the mass graves in this one time longan orchard; 43 of the 129 communal graves here have been left untouched.
Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are scattered around the uncovered pits. More than 8,000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memorial Stupa which was put up in 1988. Key sites in the fields include the Magic Tree where a loud-speaker was hung to mute victims’ moans, the Killing Tree used to kill victims’ children, and numerous mass graves including the largest one where 450 bodies were buried and another where 166 headless bodies were interred.
A small shrine in front of the Memorial Center requests your prayers for the departed souls. I kneel down and pray as well. But I also pray that days like those are never seen by any nation, race, or creed again.