This is not going to be a pleasant blog to write or for you to read, however it is an important one. It has been brought to my attention that I could be using genocide in the wrong context here, however as one of the places covered in this blog is called the Genocide Museum we are going to stick with it.
Secret is probably not technically the correct term either, but the more I learned about this the more I felt I was uncovering something that had been kept quiet (and actually now that I am no longer in the country and trying to fact check for this blog I am finding it hard to find the facts so readily available in the country). Belonging to the generation that I do and growing up in the UK, the only genocide we ever learned about was the Holocaust. While I in no way want to trivialise the horror that was the Holocaust, the impression I got when learning about it was to make sure those atrocities never happened again, giving the impression that they hadn’t.
As an adult I have slowly started to realise that such gruesome treatments of fellow humans have repeated themselves in nature if not in technique and not only once, but many times. While I am sure the Gulags, Rwanda, Bosnia, not to mention what is happening in North Korea right now could fill many blogs; I would like to bring some awareness to what happened in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge as that is where we visited and saw the after effects which are still visible nearly forty years later.
I will admit that I had never heard of the Khmer Rouge or Pol Pot before we decided that we were going to include Cambodia in our travel itinerary. As with any other country I started to do my research and couldn’t believe what I found and that I didn’t know about it already. I read a book called First They Killed My Father, which has since been released as a film and in both formats it is as shocking and sad as the name suggests. This autobiography gave me my first insight into what happened in Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge were a communist party led by Pol Pot who ran a “Social Experiment” in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 in that time approximately two million people died, that was about one in four people. The entire population were also put in work camps, many were tortured, or forced to fight including children.
To even begin to comprehend what happened, I would suggest we need to look further back. During the American Vietnam war the Vietcong used routes through Laos and Cambodia in order to gain access to the south of Vietnam. As a response to this the US carpet bombed both countries causing devastation to those who lived there. I don’t know that much detail about Laos as unfortunately we didn’t make it there on this adventure, but Cambodia was never at war with the US and it was well known that the leader of Cambodia at that time (Lon Nol) was heavily dependant on US support for his rule.
The countryside is still to this day littered with Unexploded Ordnances (UXOs) which I will talk more about later. You can imagine how this bombing which lead to the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians while their leaders sought help from the very people bombing them would lead to discontent and unrest. The Khmer Rouge took advantage of this situation and gathered support for their cause, after a bloody civil war Lon Nol fled Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge entered the capital city Phnom Penh on the 17th of April 1975, where they were welcomed as heroes.
The evacuation of Phnom Penh began within hours of the Khmer Rouge entering, the entire city was emptied of all men, women and children. They were told they could return in three days, however this was not the case, anyone who the Kmer Rouge could prove worked for the previous government was killed and everyone else was sent to work camps if they didn’t die on the journey.
The idea behind the “Social Experiment” was to make Cambodia (or the Democratic Kampuchea as the Khmer Rouge renamed it) self sufficient; religion, medicine and technology were abolished and everyone had to worship the “Angkar” (which means the organisation) and later Pol Pot. People from rural agricultural villages became the “old people” while everyone else were labelled as “new people”. The “new people” were to be despised by all as the lowest possible form of life, they were not allowed possessions and among the many Khmer Rouge sayings was included “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” in reference to them. Everyone was to work in agriculture to support the country. However as the Khmer Rouge needed to continually buy arms they sent most of the food that was grown to China to pay for the provision of such. That together with the lack of resources meant that most people were starving.
As if sending everyone into forced labour with insufficient food to sustain them was not enough, people were taken, throughout this “Social Experiment”, tortured and killed. The “reason” could be anything from being allied to the previous government to excuses as ridiculous as wearing glasses or having soft hands.
I realise this has been a long introduction but I felt it was necessary to give context to the places we visited, the first of which I am going to talk about is where many of these people were taken; Security Prison 21 (S-21) which was converted from a high school and now houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Out of all of the places we visited on our entire trip in any country I have to say that I found the Genocide Museum the most upsetting. For this reason I didn’t take many photographs so there won’t be a lot to show here, but the website I have linked has images. I did take a few pictures as I felt the word should be spread and I really do believe education is the way to prevent horrors like this from happening again, although it did feel slightly disrespectful, like taking photos in a graveyard, strangely more so than in the killing fields which I will talk about later.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was once a high school, from the outside it doesn’t look like much, I hardly realised we had arrived when our tuk tuk driver stopped outside, and even once you pay and receive your audio guide things look fairly normal. The entrance leads you to what was once a playground but now contains a memorial to the bodies that were found here after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Although the streets outside are noisy and full of life, seeing this memorial on entry does bring an air of solemnity and the whole museum is quiet out of respect.
The first building looks like a somewhat dilapidated building with a covered walkway leading to a number of rooms. On entering the rooms however you are faced with what used to be a cell. While the rooms had been cleaned the ground floor was left mostly as it had been found. The rooms were sparse with only a bed frame and occasionally a desk for forced confessions inside. There were often shackles either on the bed or the floor and some areas where the blood had stained the floor and walls so badly that it was still visible after the cleaning. Each room also had a photo inside mounted on the wall of what the room had looked like when discovered, in most photos there is a discarded body left; strewn on the bed or the floor, covered with blood and in some cases very few recognisable features.
People were kept in these cells in isolation, shackled to the beds while being tortured into signing false confessions. The vents in the rooms had all been boarded up to make them unbearably hot. The staff in the prison could end up on the other side of the bars if they did not get results from their techniques or if their torture led to death. Prisoners were provided with just enough medical care to survive until their confession.
There was a set of rules that prisoners must obey, I didn’t take a photo of them, however I was able to find them again on the Wikipedia page:
- You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
- Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
- Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
- You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
- Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
- While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
- Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
- Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
- If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
- If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
The first floor was similar however some of the rooms were larger, here there were lines of shackles and people were kept all together in rows in a manner that reminded me of the images that you see of slaves being taken to the Americas. One description that has stayed with me of these rooms was of the hygiene. Imagine with a room crammed full of people in hot humid conditions, who were not allowed out of their shackles even to go to the toilet. Once a week the prisoners would get the opportunity to clean, in which they would be ordered to strip themselves, before a hose was pointed through the windows at them. Some prisoners were drenched while others did not get any water over them at all, after the washing prisoners would have to use their clothes to try to dry the area on which they lived and slept.
On the third floor there was an education space which contained collated stories of survivors of the social experiment, although they had not necessarily been in the prison as only seventeen people survived that fate. Everyone’s story involved struggle and losing someone, many stories involved loosing everyone they loved and many more involved long term health effects resulting from that period. I will not try to re-tell any of these stories as I would not do them justice.
As we exited the first building our attention was drawn to a metal structure, there was an explanation next to the structure which said that originally it had been used by students to exercise in the playground, but the Khmer Rouge had employed it in their torture. Prisoners had their hands tied behind their back and were then suspended from the structure on a long cable, they were then lowered head first into large pots containing water until they almost drowned, raised so that they would not die and then lowered again. Remember prisoners would be punished further for crying out.
We continued onto the next building, which had all the open corridors covered with a barbed wire mesh. Apparently this was to stop prisoners who were being moved from their cells jumping. The prisoners knew they had no chance of escape other than death and the barbed wire took even that opportunity away from them.
Inside the building were hundreds of photos, the Khmer Rouge were very efficient at documenting their own atrocities and they took mug shots of every prisoner to enter the prison. I didn’t take any photos of them, I think if I remember rightly photography was not allowed in these rooms, but there are lots of images of these on the link I shared previously. This part of the museum upset me the most, it shows that these prisoners were real people, as you look into their eyes in the photographs. Some photographs show mothers holding babies, and while some have defiant expressions most are pleading or despairing.
There are stories of various people who were brought in and what happened to them, but the feeling of a lot of these are lost in the translation. There was one story however that was told by a native English speaker which was the reason I had to get myself outside of the building and stop listening for a moment. Even thinking of it now brings me close to tears. You must understand that it is not that this is the most touching story, only that the feeling is not lost in the translation and it opens the flood gates to all the other stories. The one story I am talking about is the testimony at the trial of the man who ran this prison by the brother of a man from New Zealand who was captured by the Khmer Rouge after he ran into trouble on his round the world sailing voyage and sought shelter in Cambodia. The emotion in his brother’s voice as he spoke was heart breaking, and while loosing a brother in this way is horrific, it is a fraction of what the Khmer people had to endure and that is what affected me so badly.
There were many other photos in this building including the guards who worked here and the scary thing about that was how young and normal they all looked. It was hard to believe that these were the people who created such misery, but it just goes to show you that looks can be deceiving and also what people will do to others to survive in such terrible circumstances.
After I had had a break outside to calm down a bit, we moved on to the next building. Inside there were similar rooms, however these rooms had been divided into much smaller cells using bricks. The cells were designed such that the prisoners couldn’t lie out flat, so they had to sleep in a cramped position, they were not allowed to make any noise so shifting around within the cells would have been difficult and they were also not allowed to make any mess. Each cell had an ammo box which the prisoners were expected to use as a toilet and if they made any mess they were made to lick it up. To begin with the cells were numbered but as the social experiment continued and the guards became less and less educated they started to use tally marks as they did not understand the number symbols.
By the time we got to this third building it was getting pretty late in the day, and there was no one else around. It felt really quite scary to be in the room with all these empty cells where you knew there had been all this suffering. It also didn’t help when the lights suddenly went out while we were inside. I am not entirely sure why that happened as it was still half an hour before closing at that point, but we decided not to stick around.
The final building housed some of the torture instalments used in the prison. A lot of these instruments involved water in some way or another to make people face drowning on a regular bases. These varied from various mechanisms for submerging people within the water to waterboarding. This was probably for two reasons, firstly people would be less likely to die of wounds before their confessions were signed but also it would take less resources which the country was severely lacking in.
One of the survivors who was found at the liberation of the prison was an artist and this fourth building also included his impressions of life in the prison as well as other artist’s impressions based on first hand accounts and what had been found within the prison.
In the courtyard of the third and fourth building was a monument to all who had died within the prison. Quite appropriately while we were looking at this monument it started to rain.
I mentioned that only seventeen people survived but I also mentioned that people were kept alive in the prison and guards who caused death were punished. The next place I am going to talk about it where the prisoners were taken after they had signed their confessions. The Killing Fields.
Although this was where the prisoners were taken after their ordeal in Security Prison 21 we actually went there earlier in the day on the advice of our tuk tuk driver who said that there was due to be rain in the afternoon and the Killing Fields are outside, while the Genocide Museum is mostly indoors.
I must admit I did not find the Killing Fields quite as distressing as the Genocide Museum (I still found it very upsetting) because while people were brought there to die (often in very violent ways) some people may have found it as a release after their ordeal in S-21 and even if they didn’t at least it didn’t represent endless suffering.
The audio guide was really important at this site as unlike the genocide museum there would be very little left here to show what had happened. As we arrived we saw green grass and bright sunshine, but the audio guides helped us to understand what had happened here and paint a picture in out heads.
The audio guide explained to us that prisoners would be brought here from S-21. They would have been told that they were being transferred, whether they believed this or not is another question. The prisoners would arrive in the back of trucks which they would not be able to see out of and perhaps more importantly that others couldn’t see into. The journey from S-21 prison was about half an hour.
On arrival the prisoners were forced into a small hut, which was intentionally dark to prevent them from seeing one another. They were then individually checked against a list that the Khmer Rouge held to ensure that they had not missed someone.
Prisoners were then taken out in groups and killed above mass graves. The Khmer rouge were short on ammunition so most of the prisoners were beaten to death with whatever was available. Some of these killing instruments were on display in the adjoining museum to the killing fields.
The audio guide described how the last moments of a prisoner would have been, there were huge diesel generators to provide floodlights for the compound as all killing took place at night, if they could not get through all of the prisoners in one night they would be held until the following night. There was incredibly loud propaganda music playing to cover the screams of any of their victims. The audio guide played these sounds to give some kind of sense of their final moments, although I am not sure anything short of being in that situation yourself could do such a thing.
As a side note the propaganda music reminded me very much of clips I have heard of the propaganda music that is blasted across the demilitarised zone by north Korea that I have heard in YouTube videos and documentaries (I haven’t actually been there).
There were several sites of mass graves marked out, together with how many victims were in each together with various ditches of excavated mass graves. At the mass graves there were many many bracelets left in offering and remembrance to those who died. In some there was also money scattered.
There were wooden walkways around the site, and visitors were warned not to stray from these out of respect for those who were still buried there as despite all the excavation bits of bone or scraps of clothing are still sometimes found especially after it has rained.
There was also a display of the clothing that had been found over the years collected together in it’s own form of memorial.
Though most of these clothes were little more than rags by this point it was pointed out that some of them were children’s clothes and while most children here were treated the exact same way as the adults we were about to find out what happened to the really young children and babies.
There was a tree decorated with bracelets, which might sound nice until you find out the history of that tree. In another attempt to save on ammunition these trees were used as instruments of execution for the younger children. The guards would take the infant by their feet and slam their head against the tree trunk before tossing the body into the mass grave next to their parents. The bracelets are there for the same reasons they are next to the mass grave sites.
There was a reservoir towards the back of the Killing Fields, showing the location’s original purpose, we were informed that there are bodies in there as well, however that the local population felt it was a more peaceful end to leave them there rather than exhume them as they had with the mass graves on land. This is also where we had the chance to hear personal accounts from those who had lived through the Khmer Rouge. These were similar stories of people loosing everyone they loved and in many cases being permanently injured themselves. One that stuck with me was of a woman who was raped and beaten to the edge of death by a group of Khmer Rouge soldiers and then shunned by the rest of her village, it was only after the “Social Experiment” was over, she moved villages and changed her name that she was able to have some semblance of a normal life.
At the end of the killing fields was the memorial to commemorate the estimated 10,000 people who lost their lives at this site. It is designed in the style of a Buddhist stupa, as the country is now returning to buddhism which was the dominant religion prior to the Khmer Rouge. The stupa has glass sides through which can be seen the skulls and bones of many of the killing fields victims. The skulls and other bones have been classified according to age, gender and even race and many of them have visible signs of the cause of death.
The holes in the skulls are not visible from outside the stupa, but after taking various steps to ensure you are being respectful, you can enter. We also bought a flower to leave as an offering. I am not religious myself but I believe in respecting other’s religions and I most definitely believe in respect for the dead.
Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. First the carpet bombing by the US then the Khmer Rouge both had a devastating effect on Cambodia, but both of these left their own legacies on the country. The liberation by the Vietnamese didn’t spell the end for the Cambodian suffering. I mentioned before the UXOs left behind by the carpet bombing, well add to that land mines laid by the child soldiers of the Khmer Rouge and it is almost as if the countryside itself is trying to kill people.
While we were still in Siem Reap we visited the landmine museum. The land mine museum was set up by Aki Ra who was a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge before defecting to the Vietnamese. During his time as a child soldier Aki Ra learned how to set land mines, it was taught to them as if it were a game and they also used it as a means of feeding themselves.
After the Khmer Rouge had been taken from power Aki Ra started using his knowledge of land mines to find and disarm mines by hand using improvised tools.
It became illegal to deactivate and remove mines without a licence as too many people who didn’t know what they were doing were attempting this. The components within a land mine or UXO are worth a lot of money so given the poverty of the Khmer people, they were willing to risk their lives to get them. Aki Ra got his licence which allows him to remove both land mines and UXOs but unfortunately it is a lot more expensive to remove the mines now. At some point while all this was happening Aki Ra’s collection of disarmed explosives was getting large and he started to charge tourists to come and see the collection.
Land mines are designed in such a way to maim rather than kill their victims as from the perspective of those laying the mines a wounded person means that not only would the person who came into contact with the mine be unable to continue fighting, but those who would have to carry that person as well. This has lead to a lot of civilians in Cambodia having limbs blown off meaning they are unable to work and there is no form of social care. Aki Ra noticed that a lot of children in the villages where he had been removing mines had fallen victim to them, and were now missing limbs, these children were often orphans or had been abandoned by their own families so he and his wife took them in.
Today the land mine museum has outgrown Aki Ra’s house, and after the passing of his wife he was no longer able to look after all those children on his own, so the museum we visited actually doubles as a relief facility for those who have been affected by land mines in some way.
The museum seeks to raise awareness and educate about land mines across the world, as well as governments who are blocking the irradiation of land mines (including the US). It’s main message is of education by displaying all the destructive forces that have been safely removed. Cambodia and many other countries are still littered with land mines and UXOs which still cause injury and death to many civilians.
However I believe that of all the places we visited and learned about the land mine museum was actually the most uplifting. It showed that no matter the atrocities that one country or even one person has been through there is still a desire to help one another, shown by the foundation for the children affected by land mines. It tries to educate tourists and make a difference.
There is most definitely a need to spread the message of what has happened and is still happening, to show what horror and atrocities can come of hate as well as what a little care for one another can help to mend. That is why despite how hard this blog was to write and how long it took me to write it, I felt it was something very important and possibly one of the most important things to come out of our journey.