To start to understand Cambodia and appreciate the delicacy of the situation, you have to look at its history. Pol Pot (Saloth Sar), a former school teacher, led what was then called Democratic Kampuchea. The majority of people in the world recognise Cambodia as an underdeveloped country just like any other, what they often don’t realise are the atrocities that Cambodians experienced in the 70s, when the Khmer Rouge was at it’s height of savagery.
Tuol Sleng (S-21), was a high school that was turned into a secret prison for torturing, interrogating, and depriving those who were accused of illegal activities and accused of being traitors…..most of whom were completely innocent …..but made confessions because they wanted the torture to stop….and it did…by being sent for execution! The Khmer Rouge acted like savage animals with no conscience…..most of the soldiers were children under 15…..incomprehensible. The Khmer Rouge had turned the peaceful and beautiful Cheung Ek village into the infamous killing fields….we’re men, women and children were killed in the most abhorrent ways.
In the years that the Khmer Rouge was in power (around 5 years), almost 1/3 of the country’s men, women, children were killed. Many were tortured for long periods of time, sometimes for more than 3 years. For years there was mass-murder in progress and the world didn’t even know about it until it was almost too late. Much of what happened was depicted in the movie “The Killing Fields.” (Vince and I saw this at the local cinema, The Empire, run by Kevin, a Yorkshireman on the evening of 15th Jan)
The Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979, in which an estimated 1.7 million people lost their lives (approximately 21% of the country’s population), was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. The Khmer Rouge, combined extremist ideology, ethnic animosity, and a disregard for human life to carry murder on a massive scale.
Vince and I visited S21, Toul Sleng on 15th Jan, we had an English speaking guide who took us through and it was very confronting. Of over 20,000 prisoners only 7 men and 4 children survived on the day the Vietnamese Army over through the Khmer Rouge on Phnom Penh….we got to meet one of the survivors ….Mr Chum Mey, a mechanic, who was singled out to repair the typewriters that his torturers used to record their forced confessions. We bought his book and DVD, both of which he signed and offered to pose for a photo. We had seen his cell on the tour and we felt quite humble and honoured to meet a man who had survived against such odds.
We visited the Killing Fields on 16th Jan….and although sad and somber….it didn’t have the same shock impact upon me that S21 had….there were no frills….Block A cells still have torture implements in them along with the basic bed and a toilet box with a photo on the wall of a victim in the room. Block B had classrooms that were divided up into smaller cells….brick on ground level, wood on the second level and the top floor was one big room housing up to 50 prisoners who were all kept silent.
There are several rooms in block C with displays of photos of victims when they first arrived and were counted and then after they were tortured or died. This was very sad viewing and included women and children….even babies!
D block houses a museum of torture implements along with very graphic paintings of how these were used. The paintings were done by a survivor, Bou Meng, who has wriiten a book about his experience.
Both experiences were very moving, and although not pleasant, I think Westerners should see the horror of what Cambodians had to endure. A warning though it’s not for the faint hearted….I had nightmares about it!