On April 17, 1975, Cambodia emerged from five years of invasion, bombardment, and civil war when its capital, Phnom Penh, fell to the guerrilla armies known as the Khmer Rouge which had been besieging it since the beginning of the year. The city’s population included over one million refugees, driven from their homes in rural areas. During the course of the civil war, perhaps as many as half a million Cambodians had been killed. People in the cities, without knowing much about the Khmer Rouge, presumed that peace would be better than war and that Cambodians, working together, could reconstruct their country.
What happened next took everyone but the Khmer Rouge commanders, by surprise.
- excerpt from Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot
What did happen next was absolute hell on earth for the next three years, eight months, and twenty days as the Cambodian people were pulled from their homes, ripped apart from their families, sent to forced labour camps, tortured and executed. Estimates are that between 1.7 to 2.5 million Cambodians (approx 1 in 4) lost their lives during Pol Pot’s reign and the Khmer rule.
Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, wanted to transform Cambodia into a self-sufficient agrarian utopia, where the people no longer worked for themselves, but instead for Ankar (meaning The Organization). When the Khmer came into power in April 1975, all cities were evacuated and the former inhabitants, deemed capitalists and therefore enemies of the communist state, were transformed into peasants, working uncountable hours under horrific conditions. All private property was taken away. Communication from the outside world was eliminated. Family relationships destroyed. Religion abolished. People were incarcerated because they were teachers or lawyers. Tortured just for wearing glasses or being able to speak French. Executed because they had soft hands.
Bullets were rarely used.
Shawna and I spent the day immersed in the history of this horrifying holocaust. First we visited S-21 (the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum-a former high school turned prison), and then later that afternoon, travelled 16kms outside Phnom Penh to spend time at The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, aka The Killing Fields, housing the largest of three hundred killing fields which have been discovered within the country.
*WARNING: some of the photos below are a little more graphic in nature.
As we were walking through S-21 ghosts were there with us. Standing in the very room where thousands of prisoners were shackled, tortured and left to die we were left with a sense of disgust, sadness, and awe that this took place. In most cases those who did the killing, did so only to protect themselves. It was kill or be killed, and in the end nearly one third of those working in the prison met the same fate as those they murdered.
At the Killing Fields, we were provided with an audio tour upon entering the site. The voice and story-telling was haunting. As we followed the counter-clockwise loop around the memorial we heard the terrifying stories of those who survived the Khmer Rouge. We also passed by several mass graves, where victims’ bones, teeth and clothing still today comes to the surface after a rain.
The hardest part of this tour for me was standing in front of the Killing Tree, a large Chankiri trunk against which it plainly states, “executioners beat children.” As unbelievable as it sounds, they smashed the heads of the tiniest babies against the tree until they died. It is sickening.
We ended our day in front of the Buddhist’s Memorial Stupa, built to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children who were savagely murdered on these very grounds.
Grateful that we had the opportunity to learn more about what has taken place in Cambodia, yet equally horrified to bear witness to what humanity can do to each other, it was a very sombre day for us in Phnom Penh.