Dark Is The Night

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Bracelets given by visitors as a sign of respect for the dead.

Today we went through a tragically sombre enlightenment into Cambodia’s gruesome history. If, like I was, you are not fully aware of the terrors that have taken place here in the 70’s then prepare to be shocked. As a horrific example of the extent of human evil, the years 1975-79 under the rule of Pol Pot could rival the holocaust.

Pol Pot (born Saloth Sar) led the communist revolutionary party called the ‘Khmer Rouge’ who, after thoroughly sowing seeds of forced support for their regime in the countryside, took over Phnom Penh in April 1975, with Pot initiating his dictatorship and the concept of ‘Year Zero’: evacuating the entire city on the pretence of suspected American bombings. These evacuations were actually to push the population further into ‘Khmer Rouge’ territory and to help to stamp out capitalist habits. The people were then made to work in collective farms or forced labour projects inevitably resulting in malnutrition, disease and widespread death. Pot even claimed that only one or two million of the eight million population were actually needed to build his ‘agrarian communist utopia’. As for the others: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”

He initiated a mass genocide of any potential or conceived threats to the regime – stretching as far as all the educated individuals such as doctors, teachers and lawyers. All of their families were included (even babies and infants) for fear they may seek revenge themselves for the loss of their loved ones. In order to achieve his ‘utopia’ of a pure Khmer race he also banned religion and purged Buddhist monks, Christians, Muslims, disabled people, people in contact with western countries and any Chinese, Laotians, Vietnamese or ‘impure’ Khmers.

Some were put into the S-21 camp here in Phnom Penh where they were subject to obscenely inhuman torture in order to extract, largely false confessions. The camp is now know is the ‘Tuol Sleng’ Genocide museum where you can view the camp pretty much as it was left, with its miniscule cells and torture implements. The site was actually built initially as a secondary school which further heightens the sadistic nature of the use to which it was put.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Some of the many photographs of people kept in the 'prison'

Some of the many photographs of people kept in the ‘prison’

Barbedwire to prevent prisoners from attempting suicide to avoid further torture.

Barbedwire to prevent prisoners from attempting suicide to avoid further torture.

We were taken ten minutes out of the city to one of the ‘Killing fields’ sites. The ‘Choeung Ek’ genocidal centre is much like a Cambodian equivalent to Auschwitz. It was here that vast numbers of people were brought to be temporarily imprisoned then taken out in large numbers to be killed each night. Bullets were deemed too expensive to be wasted on the prisoners so they were instead brutally beaten to death kneeling on the edge of the mass graves with hammers, hatchets, axes or even with the serrated edge of a type of palm tree branch. Music meanwhile was played on loudspeaker to drown out the screams.

Skulls in the 'Memorial Stupa'.

Skulls in the ‘Memorial Stupa’.

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The Memorial Stupa displays the skulls, bones and clothes of some of the victims which have been excavated and presented on levels in this building for remembrance.

Walking around the site was a very sickening experience. We walked past graves labelled as ‘Grave of 100 women and children’ or ‘166 headless bodies’. Collections of skulls and bones had been excavated and presented in boxes or in the memorial monument.

Indochinese traditional 'house for the spirits'.

Indochinese traditional ‘house for the spirits’.

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre bracelets

The birdsong and sounds of children playing in the nearby school only heightened the eerie sense of the incomprehensible loss. There are 20,000 mass graves in sites like this one across Cambodia. The total death toll is said to be up to 3 MILLION out of a population of 8 million.  As Nassim Taleb points out in his book on uncertainty ‘The Black Swan,’ at this point it ceases to be a story or something we can relate to and merely becomes a statistic.

Apologies for this thoroughly morbid post – I’m simply sharing what I’ve learnt today. Unfortunately I have a feeling that this is going to be the thing that imprints itself the most in my mind from my brief stay in Cambodia.

In an attempt to lighten the mood I’ll carry on with a little more info about Phnom Pehn. It’s a remarkably easy city to navigate around. Highlights include the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and Wat Phnom temple – you can find plenty of  beautiful temples and monasteries dotted throughout the city.

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For lunch I decided not to join my group in one of the many westernised cafés along the river front and headed instead to the buzzing local food markets in the back streets.

Phnom Pehn Food Market

As I’m on a budget, I’ve mostly been eating fried noodles with an egg and vegetables – served at most of the street stalls. Today I had a local Khmer rice noodle soup with a really bizarre plate of ‘salad’ to accompany it and some sort of dried ground fish sprinkled on top. Not too bad!

Khmer Food Phnom Pehn

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9 thoughts on “Dark Is The Night

  1. Thanks for sharing. It sounds quite harrowing but having been to the Camps in Poland, I understand the need to go there. It’s almost disrespectful to not visit these places and to ignore the history.

  2. And through it all Cambodia and Cambodians remain some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever met. Remarkable considering the Khmer Rouge was not their only problem during those dark times. I can’t stop visiting and only love it more each time I venture back.

  3. Powerful post. A world full of light & darkness in which the human spirit endures.
    Thanks for dropping by & visiting my blog, most appreciated.

  4. I’m so glad you gave a summation of the genocide Cambodia experienced. Thank you. It was hideous, yet remains fairly obscured by American school history lessons. Thank you. Cambodia is an extraordinary country to visit and learn about.

  5. Congratulations on an excellent post. I wish more people would talk about these tragedies. In 1971 my husband spent 10 frightening days in Cambodia, lying in a ditch, collecting intelligence on the Viet Cong. No matter how people felt about the war everyone pretty much tuned out the horrible era after the Vietnam war was over. After the war, the truly unimaginable outrages began. Thanks again for sharing this with many who don’t know this story.

  6. There should be no room for hate, yet it keeps coming back. And brave individuals drive it from the places it has taken root. Put a bracelet on the post and remember.

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