WARNING: This post is not easy reading and contains some graphic descriptions.
On 17th April 1975, following five years of civil war, the Khmer Rouge army of Pol Pot liberated Phnom Penh and marched into the city to cheering crowds and waving flags. He promised the people a new vision and a new Cambodia.
Within 4 days most of the towns and cities across the country were deserted.
The Khmer Rouge, previously known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea (or CPK), set up a government which they called ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ (DK). Whilst they didn’t directly identify themselves as communists, they held extreme communist beliefs, and within hours of taking power had started to implement their far reaching socialist programmes. The people given most power were the rural, illiterate Cambodians who had fought alongside the Khmer Rouge during the civil war.
City dwellers were forcibly moved into rural areas, and put to work on the land. These former city dwellers were known as ‘new people’ and were particularly badly treated. The Khmer Rouge also put in place measures to control all information, they restricted free speech, forbade all religious activities and controlled access to food and information.
Intellectuals, merchants, bureaucrats, members of religious groups and anyone suspected of disagreeing with the party (which became known as Anker, which translates as ‘the organisation’) were killed. Millions of others were relocated, sent into forced labour, starved and tortured. Even wearing spectacles singled you out as an ‘academic’. Paradoxically, Pol Pol and his clique were all well educated, clearly the rules that applied to the people didn’t apply to the party elite (one of them can clearly be seen in old photographs wearing spectacles).
Later, DK’s ideology became openly racist. Ethnic minorities in Cambodia were hunted down and expelled or massacred. Party members accused of treason were hunted down and ‘removed’ and anyone suspected of any kind of cooperation with the state’s enemies suffered and countless thousands were killed.
In Phnom Penh there was a school named Tuol Svay Prey High School in the southern reaches of the city. In 1975 it was taken over by Pol Pot’s security services and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). This soon became the centre in Cambodia for detention, torture and ultimately execution.
Today it is known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a memorial to those who perished and testament to the terrible crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
Everybody who entered S-21 was photographed, like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records. Sometimes they were photographed again after they had been tortured. Around the museum now are countless photographs of men and women, boys and girls, from a few years old to the elderly. In order to prevent any ‘revenge’ attacks, the families of those arrested, spanning multiple generations, were also detained. The one thing that virtually all of these people have in common is that they were ultimately executed. Only a handful of detainees ever walked out of S-21 alive.
Classrooms were turned into detention cells. Some mass cells had shackles chained to the floor, used to shackle the ankles of prisoners. Other classrooms were divided into single cells, either with rough wooden or brick walls, again with chains to shackle prisoners, often 2 in a cell no more than 6 feet by 2-3 feet wide. Other rooms were used as torture rooms some with iron beds used to chain prisoners to, some with other torture implements such as water boarding racks. Outside, apparatus once used by children for PE and exercise were used for torture, prisoners being tied upside down and hauled up until they blacked out. They were then revived by dumping their heads in vats of foul water containing excrement and other disgusting substances and the cycle continued.
All this to force prisoners into making false statements indicating their ‘guilt’. They had to admit allegiance to the CIA or the KGB, organisations that many of these people had never heard of, or other crimes that could include religious practices, treason, or a multitude of other things. Confessions were kept, and each prisoner had their own ‘biography’, some of which ran to hundreds of pages.
Prisoners were kept alive until they had ‘confessed’ to the satisfaction of the cadres (the Khmer Rouge activists and workers). There were even medics to make sure they didn’t die under torture. Then they were bound and blindfolded and taken from S-21 in vans, transported fifteen kilometres outside the city to a place called Choeng Ek, where they were executed.
Choeng Ek is the place now known as the Killing Fields.
Vans would arrive at night. At first two or three times a month. Later they would arrive daily. Prisoners would be taken from the van, and in the early days they would be taken out to the edge of a large pit and then bludgeoned to death with bamboo sticks or old farming tools such as hoes and shovels. They did this as bullets were expensive and they were short of ammunition. Sometimes they would cut their throats (with the saw like edge of sugar palm leaf stems) to stop them screaming. They also played revolutionary music from speakers hanging in a tree to drown the sounds of the the gruesome goings on so that the sounds could not be heard by other prisoners or any locals within earshot.
Later, as the number grew, there were too many people to execute in a single night, so they were detained in a dark shed with no windows until the next day when they would be taken to their deaths. At the peak, up to 100 prisoners a day were taken from S-21 to Choeng Ek for execution.
One of the most chilling spots on the site is a large tree, now a mass of brightly coloured prayer bands, against which the heads of babies and children were smashed until they died at which point they were thrown into the nearby pit with their mothers.
There are many sad stories of individuals who passed through S-21. Stories of foreigners caught up in it all, couples who died due to their love for each other and stories of families being parted, never knowing the fate of their parents, siblings or children.
When the Vietnamese army marched into Phnom Penh on 7th January 1979 to overthrow the regime, hearing the sound of gunfire the Khmer Rouge cadres killed the last 14 prisoners and left them chained to their beds for the soldiers to find.
Just 7 people left S-21 alive. These were prisoners who had some special talent (use); artists, photographers, mechanics etc. Two young boys, brothers, survived by hiding under piles of clothes.
In total it is believed that over 17,000 people were buried in one of 129 communal graves. Pieces of clothing, fragments of bone, teeth and other remains still work their way to the surface in the rain and weather and can sometimes be seen amongst the grass and tree roots.
8985 of the victims have been exhumed from 43 of the graves and the skulls of over 8,000 of those victims are now displayed in a large memorial stupa built on the site in 1988. It’s a sombre place to visit and it lodges an image in your head that is difficult to shift.
That is not all the story though. Across Cambodia there are hundreds of other ‘killing fields’ sites where similar atrocities were carried out, and 20,000 communal graves that have so far been found and analysed. During their period in power, in less than four years, the Khmer Rouge murdered, worked to death, or killed by starvation close to 1.7 million people. Some people think this may be a conservative estimate and that the true figure may be closer to 2.2 million. Taking even the conservative estimate, Cambodia lost almost a quarter of its people in that short time.
There cannot be a single family in this country untouched by these horrors. A tuktuk driver we had one day told us that his mother was one of 8 siblings. She was the only one to survive….
The country has been through a lot but now its getting back on its feet and it’s a testament to its people that they are now able to smile once more.
The Lonely Planet Guide to Cambodia says that Tuol Sleng is a depressing place to visit. It’s certainly a very sombre place and incredibly thought provoking. Visiting both Tuol Sleng and Choeng Ek have given me a much better understanding not only of Cambodia, but of the impossibly cruel things human beings can do to each other. It makes you realise how relatively easy it was, and possibly still is, for madmen like Pol Pol (and many others) to get to a position of power and control.
At the end of the audio guide at Tuol Sleng the narrator makes the point that the museum is here not only as a memorial to those lost, but also to make sure that we do not forget the terrible crimes that were carried out here and to ensure the world never allows anything like it to happen again.
His challenge for each visitor was to take that message away, share it and to keep those memories alive.
This is our small contribution to that cause.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the outside world still didn’t believe the full picture of what had happened. A group of Swedish delegates had been invited into Cambodia during the Pol Pot era and had been convinced that there were no killings, no genocide and that all was fine across the land. As they were credible, the world believed the false story they had been fed. (Only one of these delegates has since come forward and admitted his mistake). Incredibly, the Khmer Rouge held a seat on the UN Council for 12 years after the fall of the regime.
Civil war raged in Cambodia for another 20 years.
Pol Pot escaped toward the Thai boarder. He lived in exile until he died of natural causes in 1998. During that time he still held an active role in Khmer Rouge and tried to rebuild his Khmer Rouge forces.
A war crimes trial commenced in 2006 to hold those responsible for the genocide to account.
The first to be brought to trial was Comrade Duch, Commandant of S-21. He admitted responsibility to over 17,000 deaths and was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012 for genocide. (His first sentence was reduced to 19 years which equates to about 10 hours per victim. This was increased to life on appeal.)
The second trial started with 4 defendants. One died and another was declared unfit to stand trial due to dementia. The remaining two (Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan) were finally convicted of genocide in 2017 and were sentenced, in Phnom Penh, to life imprisonment on 16th November 2018. The day before we arrived in Cambodia.
The trial has cost over $300 million to date and has come under extensive criticism due to its slowness (12 years to convict 3 people). It is not universally supported, and it is not expected that any more of the DK clique or party leaders will be brought to trial.
A number of the DK party defected after its fall in 1979 to other political groups. Some of these people now hold positions in the current administration including the current prime minister (who has been in office since 1985).
Incredibly, due to political sensitivity and the fact that some former Khmer Rouge members were still in the public eye, the genocide was not taught in Cambodian schools until 2007.