Friday, 11 October 2013

The Darker Side of Cambodia's Past: The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Before deciding to visit Indochina, Rob and I are both willing to admit that we lived in almost total ignorance about recent history in the region. While we both had some basic knowledge about the Vietnam War, and have subsequently learnt more throughout our time in Vietnam, we had very little knowledge about the impact this had on Cambodia and the internal politics that led to the Cambodian Genocide of the 1970s.

If like us, you know little about this area of history and are planning on visiting Cambodia, we would both strongly recommend that you do some research into the Civil War, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the genocide before visiting. We did this and it made our trips to Choeung Ek and Tuol Slong infinitely more disturbing but also much more rewarding. 

We opted to visit the Killing Fields first on the recommendation of Lucky. The site is about 15km from central Phnom Penh and took about half an hour to reach. As a side note, there is a small dusty village you pass through on the way to Choeung Ek which offers a good glimpse of local life outside of the city with dead chickens being transported by motorbike, men selling 100s of balloons and rice paddies and cow fields in the distance. Here some local children decided to hitch a ride on our tuk tuk...

Before talking about the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng, we just wanted to explain that there won't be any more photos accompanying this blog because while photography was allowed at both sights, the graphic nature of the exhibits and the history of the sites made us both feel that it was inappropriate to take photographs. 

When we reached Choeung Ek, we paid the 6$ admission fee (which goes towards the organisation who preserve the site) and received a map and an audio tour which had various numbers corresponding to different areas. This was invaluable as without this there wasn't much in the way of visual guides. The audio guide was narrated by a survivor of the genocide and explained the history of the Khmer Rouge as well as giving detailed information on Cheoung Ek. 

The introduction of the audio guide explained who the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot were. Essentially, in the same way as other communist dictators, Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge (or Red Cambodians) was described as a paranoid lunatic. He had visions for a self-sufficient country with personal property, money and education being illegal and all citizens working on collective farms. The entire country suffered as a result with strict rationing when unrealistic crop production quotas could not be met. When Pol Pot's vision proved to be unrealistic he became determined that this was as a result of sabotage and treason. He sought to purge the country of anyone who opposed him and in particular the 'bourgeoise' suffered- people who had lived in cities, anyone who could read or write, monks, professionals and even those who wore glasses were suspected under the new regime. 

The audio guide then went on to explain that the 'purge' was carried out through torture and execution and the role that this site played in this, was that it was a camp where tens of thousands of people were brought to be executed. This is one of a large number of 'Killing Fields' which are located around the country and it is estimated that over a million people died at these sites. The total number of people who died during the course of the four year genocide is estimated to be anything up to 2.5million, which is nearly a third of the population at the time which was around 8 million. 

Walking around the Killing Fields was a harrowing and sombre experience. The first stopping point is the areas of detainment and execution where a plaque is placed explaining the procedure carried out to archive each of the arrivals. The Khmer Rouge were scrupulous in their record keeping and each new detainee was allocated a number, photographed and their execution was recorded on an official document. The buildings which had originally been there had been torn down upon the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 by local peasants in anger and because they had needed the wood for fuel. 

The next, horrific sight was the mass graves which are dotted across the fields. There were multiple graves which contained up to 1000 bodies in each. The information provided by the audio guide at this point was difficult to hear as it described the way that bullets were too expensive so most people were forced to kneel over a pit and were bludgeoned to death at the back of their necks with agricultural tools. Some people were still alive when they were pushed into the graves and their bodies were covered in chemicals. When it rains, parts of these bodies- ragged clothing, nails, teeth and bone fragments rise from the mud and caretakers collect them every few weeks and these are placed into various memorials around the site which you can view on your visit.

Each of the graves had different people in- one was for supposedly traitorous Khmer Rouge soldiers, one contained only male bodies and perhaps most unbelievable of all were the two graves which contained beheaded corpses and the bodies of naked women who had been buried with their murdered babies in order to follow the Khmer Rouge slogan of 'no gain in keeping, no loss of weeding out' which justified murdering whole families when one member was under suspicion. Near to this grave was the tree which was used to execute these infants, where they were held by their ankles and swung against the trunk. On this tree there are numerous colourful ribbons as a memorial to those who lost their lives here. 

As part of the audio guide, you can also hear other witnesses accounts of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and this really makes you appreciate the scale of the losses incurred by Cambodian people. It is still in the living memories of most citizens. The final place you reach as part of the audio tour is the Memorial Stupor which is in the centre of the field. This contains the skulls of victims who have been exhumed from the ground and each level is categorised by gender and age. On every skull there is a mark where you can see a weapons point of impact. 

Following a reflective ride back to Phnom Penh, we needed a break before visiting the Genocide museum. Lucky took us to a local restaurant and sat and ate with us where we found out more about him and life in Cambodia. Unfortunately just as we were about to leave, the rain started and it was impossible to leave because it was so heavy that all the roads flooded. After waiting for about an hour with still no sign of relief, we decided to brave it and made the short journey to Tuol Sleng, more commonly known as S-21 (hats off to Lucky for managing to get us there).

The ground floor of the museum was completely flooded so unfortunately we couldn't spend as much time here as we would have liked. To give a bit of background, S-21 is a prison which was created by the a Khmer Rouge. The building had originally been a high school but was converted to a prison when education was outlawed under the Pol Pot regime. The prison has been kept exactly how it was found by the Vietnamese when they successfully removed the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh. 

The grim and eerie courtyard is surrounded by four buildings each with three floors. Within this courtyard there are 14 graves which hold the bodies which were found in 1979 when the prison was discovered. Inside the buildings, there are individual cells which were divided by either wood or brick and surrounded by barbed wire. In most of the cells there is a solitary window and a bed with chains in the middle of the room. Each person was kept alone and tied to the bed where torture including electic shocks and severe bearings were inflicted. The implements used and the beds themselves have been kept exactly as they were in 1979. 

There are numerous exhibitions around the museum with articles such as pictures of each inmate, weapons which were used by the guards and a wooden crate which was used as a confinement device. There were also detailed descriptions of life at Tuol Sleng featuring daily (unbelievably poor) diet, forms of torture and an account of Duch who was responsible for the prison and who is the only significant member of the Khmer Rouge to have been successfully convicted for crimes against humanity. He is also the only member who has ever admitted responsibility or shown remorse for the atrocities committed. There are only 7 known survivors of Tuol Sleng prison and their accounts of time spent here are written on various posters throughout the museum. 

With the rain and flooding further encroaching, we unfortunately had to leave after this. We braved the monsoon in our tuk tuk once more. While the day was incredibly draining, it was also highly interesting and highlighted an essential part of Cambodian History which it is necessary to understand. 

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