Before going to Cambodia I, like many others, was naive and uneducated about the massive genocide the country suffered only 40 short years ago.
By starting in Koh Rong, I didn’t really feel any of the effects of what happened, nor was I aware how bad it truly was (I had done bits of research here and there). Reality really hit upon arrival into Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city.
I was on a mini bus and confused as to where we were because the driver had told us that we were nearing our destination, yet I saw no buildings or indications of a city. All I saw, on either side, were HUGE blocks of factory buildings. I mean, each one must have been a mile long, no exaggeration. We were passing through at about 5pm, which appeared to be when shifts were over. I’ve never seen anything like this… women, lined up in cattle trucks. I’d say, at least, 5 rows with 10 women in each row (back to front). It wasn’t until later I realized all those factories were sweat shops and they were hauling women out of there. Even on arrival, Phnom Penh didn’t look like a typical city. There were mostly small, run down, buildings with a random block filled with giant high rise complexes. Very strange.
The next day was an emotional day, to say the least. In order to fully explain it, though, I will have to go back in time those 40 years.
As I said before, Cambodia suffered a tragic genocide. This was at the hands of the Khmer Rouge (communist extremists led by Pol Pot) in the years 1975-1979. At the time, other countries claimed to not have known what was going on, and therefore, did not go to Cambodia’s aid. On a very basic level of explanation, the Khmer Rouge’s goal was to bring Cambodia back to “year zero”, where no class systems existed (he wanted everyone to work in the fields and contribute). According to Pol Pot, cities were a place built by “intellectuals” and were too modern, they went against everything he wanted… which was, a base people.
On April 17, 1979 the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital city of Phnom Penh informing the people they needed to pack up their belongings, abandon the city, and flee to the country side, because “the Americans were going to bomb the city”. They were also informed they’d be allowed back in 3 days time. To us this sounds quite fishy, but to the citizens, at that time, it was 100% believable given the war with Vietnam and its overlap into Cambodia. America was feared, and the Khmer Rouge used that to their advantage (not to mention many people had already fled to the city from the country as a result of U.S bombings). People left the city willingly and, almost, happily (those who didn’t were executed). Unfortunately, it was all lies and they were walking right into a trap. There were no american bomb threats at that time. The people of Phnom Penh walked for days, with little food or water, to the countryside, only to find out they would not be allowed back into their city, the Khmer Rouge now owned everything, and they would be forced to work in the rice fields as pesents. The Khmer Rouge believed everything belonged to “Angkor” (meaning ‘the organization’). Property owners were no longer property owners. Everything was Angkors’. Even if a piece of fruit was picked it was considered stealing and the perpetrator could be punished or, more likely, executed. The Cambodians were expected to produce 3 times the amount of normal rice production in unideal growing conditions… an impossible task. If they didn’t meet the quota, punishment ensued.
We visited the killing fields about 15km outside the city limits of Phnom Penh (1 of over 300 throughout the country). This is where they sent “intellectuals” to be killed. Men, women, and children (babies too) who were doctors, professors, engineers, etc. and families of those. Pol Pot had a motto that read something like “if you pull the weed make sure to take the whole root”. Meaning, if one member of the family was “guilty” take the whole family so they can’t take revenge later.
They give you a headset and audio tour guide along with a few leaflets when you enter, making it possible to go at your own pace. Along with all the tour stops on the audio guide, they include first hand accounts of people, making it even more powerful. As we walked into the fields, the sun was out and birds were chirping. It was peaceful. Hard to believe only a few decades prior mass killings were carried out in that exact spot. The path I walked had been walked by thousand before me. But, as I was walking to view history, they were walking to their certain death… at the hands of fellow Cambodians.
S-21 Prison: Previously a High School
After the evacuation of Phnom Penh this, once beautiful, high school was turned into a gruesome torture facility. It’s main goal being to extract information our of people relating to the CIA or KGB (former Russian security agency). Even though most persons imprisoned here had no connection to either group, they were tortured until a suitable confession was given… then killed.
S-21 was our second stop. Like the killing fields, they provided an audio guide to guide us through the grounds and all 4 buildings (cell blocks). After the killing fields I didn’t think it could get much worse. I was mistaken. Prolonged torture, in this situation, seemed the worse of 2 evils. Throughout the tour I found myself complaining about being hot and hungry… then I imagined being both those things but scared, imprisoned, tortured, and unsure of my fate. I cannot begin to know the struggles those prisoners were subjected to. The museum did a good, but horrifying, job at giving us a perspective into what they experienced.
A story that stuck out to me was that of 2 yachtsmen (1 British and 1 from New Zealand) who, while pursuing their dram of sailing around the world, unknowingly sailed into Cambodian waters. They were captured and sent to S-21 for questioning (and torture) because they were believed to be spies. Through testimony given at the National Convention (justice trials to convict Duch, Comrade who gave the orders at S-21, ), by Kerry Hamill’s brother, “he kept his sense of humor through it all”. When asked over and over and over who he worked for, or who he was affiliated with, Kerry would say things like Colonel Saunders of KFC and make references to western pop culture the Cambodians did not understand. He had nothing to tell them and they wanted something, so thats what he gave. As fate would have it, they were both executed only shortly before the collapse of the khmer Rouge.
By the end of the genocide, in 1979, 1 in 4 Cambodians had been killed. Imagine, 1 out of every 4 people you know were killed… entire families wiped out. A population devastated.
**this is a very VERY brief history of what happened, explained in my own words. Even after researching, visiting the memorials, and watching documentaries, the whole thing is hard for me to understand. How could an entire Genocide happen without anybody coming to their aid? Why was this not in my history books right next the Holocaust?**