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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!