Graphic images and stories of Cambodia’s history during the Khmer Rouge will be discussed in this post. I don’t claim to know everything and I certainly don’t mean to be offensive with the things I say or pictures I post. Cambodia underwent an extremist and communist hardship when The Communist Party of Kampuchea, led by Pol Pot came into power in 1975. His reign lasted almost 4 years before the Khmer Rouge escaped to the west. Pol Pit died in 1998 awaiting trials for the horrible crimes he and the Khmer Rouge committed on the people of Cambodia and any foreigners unfortunately trapped in the country at that time. A terrible genocide which lasted for three years, eight months and 20 days claimed the lives of three million people- 40% of the Cambodian population.
Not only were lives taken, but families were ripped apart from each other, prisoners were tortured, people were over worked, starved and left to die in the country sides of Cambodia.
Pol Pot believed in Marxism, and above all Cambodian nationalism and wanted to lead a society starting from “year zero.” Essentially, he wanted to wipe the slate clean. He got rid of currency, education, and the residents of cities were completely evacuated to the country sides to work for their food and for the Khmer Rouge. Residents from the cities had no clue how to farm or build their own houses and farmers were either too scared to help them or were fighting for their own lives although Pol Pot treated farmers much better and believed they were the future.
Children were trained and brainwashed to turn against their own people and join the Khmer Rouge. After being ripped from your families and having to do anything for survival, what would you do?
Today we visited S-21 which is a high school in Phnom Penh turned prison during the Khmer Rouge. The “S” stands for Security and 21 is a military code that was used for the prison. This prison housed mostly politicians, journalists, people believed to be spies and really any high profile individuals. There’s four buildings, each building has three stories. Building A were the private cells, usually containing a bed to which the prisoners were chained 24hours a day, and a chair and desk for interrogation.
Building C had a similar purpose, but cells were made out of slapped together bricks and clay- prisoners were also shackled by ankle. This is the building that housed one of the few living survivors of S-21.
The last building held the many torture devices used during interrogation at S-21. Including a device to hold your hands in place while interrogators used pliers to rip off prisoners finger nails, a large coffin-like box they would fill with water and dunk prisoners until unconscious, and tools used for lashing and electrocution.
An estimated 20,000 prisoners, men, women and children came through S-21 and only seven people walked out alive.
Many prisoners gave into the interrogation and ended up confessing lies because they thought it would result in their release. Sadly, every person interrogated was taken to the Killing Fields and brutally murdered. By some glimmer of hope, four young children (9years, 7years, 4years and 4 months old) hid in a large pile of clothes once the prison was evacuate for three days until Cambodia was liberated in 1979. They snuck out at night for food, and unfortunately the infant did not survive. Two of the three boys have come back to the prison to share their stories and be a reminder of the pain and struggle the country has been through; also to act as educators of the past atrocities.
Our guide was extremely informative and shared a story about how her mother was 14 when the Khmer Rouge came into effect. At first the people were hopeful and triumphant for the new party in power, they had been going through hardship after bombings by the United States due to run-off from the Vietnam War (Vietnam shares a border with Cambodia). She explained her mother saw people die in front of her as they marched for days from Phnom Penh to a rural village. After Cambodia was liberated, people were still affected, with their lives in ruins. The current generation, almost 40 years later, continues to struggle as Cambodia tries recover and develop as a country.
Our next stop was the Killing Fields, about a thirty minute drive from the prison. Imagine a thirty minute drive, in the back of a truck, blind folded, usually naked, holding onto any hope you had left.
They were then pulled off the truck to kneel before mass graves where soldiers would kill them using blunt force trauma. Bullets were too expensive and not to be wasted. Soldiers used bamboo sticks, garden hoes and anything else to hit the back of prisoners necks before they fell into the mass grave where their stomachs would be cut open and DDT would be poured on the bodies to ensure death and hide the decaying smell. Loud Khmer music was played throughout the grounds to hide or muffle the screams from any passerby’; people were none the wiser of what was going on behind closed gates.
In the middle of the site stands a large stupa with thousands of skulls and bones to commemorate those excavated from the Killing Fields.
We had our own audio tours so we could walk the grounds at our own pace and hear stories from survivors of the Khmer Rouge. There were quite a few hut type buildings that are memorials of mass graves that have been excavated. Sadly, one of the last mass graves was for women and children. By children, I mean babies, which were basically murdered for sport. A common practice was hitting babies against a large tree near the grave and then letting the bodies fall in. When people first came across the grave, there was still blood, hair and flesh embedded in the tree.
The stupa is a significant piece to the commemoration of the bodies left behind.
There’s no chance of imaging what these people went through, but there’s always a chance to educate yourselves and ensure nothing as radical ever happens to civilians again. I hope this has been informative and eye-opening.
Many people in my group exclaimed they never learned anything about the genocide and how they felt ashamed about the lack of knowledge they had on the subject. I consider myself lucky to have had any knowledge at all thanks to my amazing high school teacher. I’m grateful to have had such a strong female role model who went outside the box and outside the curriculum to do her students justice by teaching them about the world.
Never stop learning, kids, it’s crazy what your brain can hold onto.