It is impossible to visit Cambodia without acknowledging one of the most horrific acts of human kind carried out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge back in the relatively recent late 70s. The story was fairly similar to other dictators of the time; leader of the Communist Party in Cambodia overthrows the government and attempts to implement his own brand of Communist state. Anyone who doesn’t agree will be murdered. Anyone who asks questions will be murdered. Some people who don’t do anything will also be murdered.
Pol Pot’s vision included sending everyone away from the cities to work in the fields in order to create a classless society. Being educated was seen as a threat and so many doctors and academics were particularly targeted with some being forced to confess to being spies for the CIA or KGB even though they had no idea what these were. Education was also banned and so it became that the school of district 21 (known as Tuol Sleng) in the capital Phnom Penh became one of the most gruesome prisons in history.
We visited Tuol Sleng which became a museum in 1980, and walked through the classrooms that became prison cells. There are photos in many of the cells showing the bodies of victims so you can actually make out exactly where on the floor they would have laid.
In the middle of the school yard is the exercise equipment which became the torture device where victims were hoisted into the air by their wrists which were tied behind their backs. Behind this you will see the graves of 11 unidentified people who were found dead in the prison once it was liberated.
There were only 7 people who survived the prison, 3 of which are still alive today and at the end of the tour you can even meet them! To be honest though, this felt a little odd, after hearing about all the terrible atrocities that these people had to endure, to go and make small talk with them. What do you say!?
Though many died in the prison, for the majority, this was just a half way station to a much worse fate as they were taken to Choeung Ek, known as the Killing Fields, around 15km south of the city. We visited the Killing Fields a few days later after deciding that the prison was enough death for one day and paid our Tuk Tuk $12 to take us to this horrendous tourist attraction. An audio guide leads you round the site no bigger than a few acres and tells you how prisoners were brought in trucks and led to the edge of a mass grave where their head would be smashed in from behind and their limp body would fall into the pit dug before them. Bullets were expensive so farming instruments were used instead.
There was even a tree which was used to smash people (including infants) against before throwing them in the grave.
Of the 120 or so mass graves that were dug only 86 were excavated with the rest being left in peace. As the earth shifts fragments of bone and clothing are constantly being brought to the surface and you can visibly see clothing and bones sticking up through the earth. The staff at the site clear these every few months.
What was most shocking however is that this site was only one of 343 killing fields dotted across the country housing a staggering 19,440 mass graves. By the end of his reign it is estimated that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge had killed up to 3 million people in a country with a population of only 8 million.
There is a lot of discussion at both places we visited around the people who actually carried out the killings. Were they all guilty of mass murder or are they victims of the Khmer Rouge themselves. Often very young and in fear of their own lives it can be too simplistic to hold them in the same light as Pol Pot himself, who staggeringly, never went to trial and continued to live until 1998 under house arrest when he passed away aged 72. The night he died was on the same day it was announced he would be turned over to face international trial. The body was cremated and never inspected (despite requests) and it is rumoured that he either committed suicide or was poisoned. The coincidence of his death and announcement of his trial seems a bit far fetched to me but we will never know.
In the centre of Choeung Ek now stands a monument filled with thousands of skulls found in the surrounding areas;
The outside is in the form of a Buddhist Stupa which shows 2 mythical creatures which when shown together symbolise peace, something the people of Cambodia no doubt hope to maintain through the memory of their more tragic years.