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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For The Widows In Paradise

The deeply rooted belief in the supernatural in Papua New Guinea is astounding. Sanguma (witchcraft) and sorcery are very much ingrained into society. Many people think that they are the same but they’re not. Sorcery is predominantly practiced in the coastal areas and is defined as the “ritual employment of substances, objects and spells for malevolent purposes.” It is a technique which can be learnt. ‘Sorcerers’ can also be seen as healers. Sanguma on the other hand is defined as an internal force that resides within the human psyche and inflicts harm or death on others. Sanguma witches are believed to possess an ‘animal like’ spirit: they roam around at night sometimes in human form, sometimes in animal form, searching for human flesh, corpses and faeces to eat. Lovely. Sanguma is seen as one of the major causes of sickness and death in the highlands: the people don’t ask what caused the death but instead who. Every morning on the drive to school I pass a stall selling coffins with their own individual windows. Verena tells me this is so that the family can watch the facial expression of the corpse. If the expression changes when a particular person approaches then that person is pin-pointed as the cause of the death. The reason for burying loved ones in your gardens is so that the spirits can guard you from the sanguma!

Some characteristics by which witches are identified:

–          Old or untidy people

–          The weak and defenceless

–          Widows

–          Those who have a great appetite for meat

–          Those who show insufficient grief at funerals

–          Those who are found in unusual places at unusual times

–          Those who isolate themselves

–          Those who have personal conflicts or grudges against others

–          Women or people with valuable properties with no grown up sons to protect them

–          Children of previously suspected witches

Accusations are taken very seriously. Supposed witches can be tied up and thrown over cliffs or into rivers; locked in their houses and burnt alive; severely wounded and buried alive in pit toilets; brutally tortured and hung on trees with fire below; tied and dragged behind moving vehicles; gradual torture over the course of several day;, burnt with hot iron rods or – the relatively pleasant alternative: killed instantly with axes or bush knives.  Houses of the accused are burnt down and livestock are eaten.

Some of the related murders are never reported to the authorities because of fear of retaliation. Even if a case is reported, the police do very little as they either believe in Sanguma themselves or lack the manpower and equipment! It’s like stepping back into the middle ages!

Point Of Disgust

I can’t believe it. I literally can’t believe it. Words cannot describe how angry I am right now.

I was planning on doing a trek over to ‘bushmando’ village this morning with Pogio so I fed Kai and took him over to Pogio’s house for his sons (Alfonso and Terry) to look after whilst we were gone. I was gone for a few hours. Ahhh! I should never have left him with them!

Pogio had a village meeting to attend, so I walked back with his two young daughters through the jungle. I explained to them that I would come up to their house first to collect my ‘cus cus’ (possum). We arrived at the house and said hello. I asked how the Possum was doing. Alfonso casually replied “Oh we jus’ about to put em in pot now”.

I thought he was joking; I even laughed for a split second before I realised that he was being serious. My poor little, hideously ironically named, Nokaikai went through all that stress and torment just to get killed, skinned and eaten. I still can’t believe that this has just happened.

I think they thought that they were doing me a favour, saving me the trouble of cooking it myself. I’m a vegetarian you fools.

Walking back from bushmando – blissfully unaware that my beloved pet was being prepped for supper.

Now I’ve just got this bloody mouse for company which is relentlessly eating what little clothing I have left.

Live and Let Die

No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.
Euripides

We’ve been pretty surrounded by death over the last few days. There have been a couple of pretty hideous road accidents involving PMVs full of people crashing into each other and crushing the passengers. It’s not really surprising as the drivers here are lunatics. Perhaps because the accessibility of driving is still relatively new here, there seems to be absolutely no concept of road safety – they drive at up to 80mph just beeping horns to tell the villagers on the road to get out of the way. The elderly couple up the road have their son, killed by a truck on the road, buried in their garden; It’s a tradition here for loved ones to be buried in their family’s garden. One of Margaret’s nieces died of malaria a few days ago so the whole clan has been in a process of mourning. People don’t hold back when they cry here, they just let it out as a wail or shriek. The funeral was today. It’s traditional for the grieving family members to wipe mud over their faces and clothes. Really very moving to see how close the ‘unit’ of the clan is. I thought it would be inappropriate for me to attend the funeral so opted for going to church with Pogio instead.

On a slightly lighter note, the car journey up to the Baptist church in the nearby ‘bushmando’ village was ridiculous. The road consisted of wet mud tracks up and down incredibly steep hills which Pogio just careered up and down without any hesitation. The car was slipping and sliding everywhere and there were eight people in the back. I was genuinely terrified! It seemed as if he had no control over the direction the car moved in whatsoever! At one particularly steep rise I actually got out of the car to walk up – my excuse being to ‘take photos’.  I decided to walk back home!

Part of the road up to the village

P.B Nokaikai (Kai for short) is doing great he’s been eating paw paw and some of my delicious passion fruits 🙂