Sunday, March 6, 2011

Phnom Penh and the Horrors of the Khmer Rouge

** Warning **  The following post is rated 18A and is for mature audiences.  Reader discretion is advised.

Alright, before you read this I should note that we really enjoyed our time in Phnom Penh.  It is a beautiful and modern city.  We only spent one day there and it was dominated by tours of prisons and death camps so that is going to be the main subject of this post.  If you don't want to hear about torture and see pictures of dead people's heads, maybe skip down to Robyn's post which is a lot more lighthearted.

We started our day with a tuk-tuk ride to the killing fields.  Nice way to start a morning.  Perhaps I should mention why the killing fields exist.  Some history:

For thousands of years, Cambodian people, the Khmers, have been a powerful and advanced civilization.  United under powerful kings, some of the most impressive structures in the world have been created here culminating in the world famous Angkor Wat.  That structure alone required the labor of 300,000 men and 8,000 elephants.  In recent history, they have suffered war with numerous prospective conquerors, the Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, etc, but have held their own pretty well.  Up until 1969 they had the most modern medical facilities in Southeast Asia.  All of that changed in the 70's.  Due to some political corruption and some complications induced be the Vietnamese-American war, a political party called the Khmer Rouge was able to come to power.  They were an anti-American idealist party and gained many followers during the Vietnam war when America secretly carpet bombed much of Cambodia killing countless civilians.

On the day the Khmer Rouge came to power, they marched into the capital city, Phnom Penh, with weapons drawn and forced all citizens to leave their homes.  The people were brought to rural areas and put in forced labor camps where they worked 10-15 hours/day everyday and often were fed only two meals a day of watered down rice porridge.  The idea was to build a currency-less agrarian society where loyalty to family, deities, or community was replaced by loyalty to the party.  Very 1984.  For three years, people worked and died in these camps.  Many were subject to random executions or had to see their family members die.  It is strange that with so many people working on farms that starvation was so rampant.

During this time, the Khmer Rouge created numerous prisons where they would torture and interrogate all types of people: peasants, factory workers, intellectuals, political members, suspects dissidents, and even Rouge members.

That about brings us up to speed.  So... we woke up and drove out to the killing fields.  Good morning Cambodia.  Here we saw where all types of people came to be executed after spending time at a prison where they would've have been tortured until confessing to crimes that they never committed.  For many of them, I imagine death came as a relief.

Methods of execution at the killing fields:  hoe to head, hammer and nail to head, head sawed of with palm tree leaf, plastic bag over the head, other types of bludgeoning, anything to kill people and save bullets.  In order to avoid the possibility of revenge, entire families were murdered.  **Don't read this**  Babies were murdered by being held by their feet and swung against a tree.

Bodies were dumped into mass graves which have now largely been dug up for evidence.  Here's some lovely photos.

Victims of the Khmer Rouge.  Notice how many are missing teeth or have cracked skulls.

Victims' teeth.  Many fragments are revealed by the monsoon rains.

Mass graves
Our next significant stop was S-21, the main prison and torture center in Phnom Penh.  This site saw 20,000 prisoners pass through its doors, most ending up at the killing fields.  Of all those, only 7 survived.  Pictures of the victims have been posted all over the walls of the former cells.  In many cases, you could see a mug shot and then another photo after the person had been tortured to death.  The whole thing was so brutal and we learned that most of the interrogators working there were young recruits, boys from age 10 to 18, most younger than 15.  When the site was finally shut down, the authorities found 14 rotting corpses chained to bed frames.  We walked through the rooms.  The furniture had been left inside:  bed frame, metal box used as a bedpan, metal braces to secure the victim to the bed, various instruments of torture.  The only thing added to each room was a photo of its victim, exactly as he was found.  You could see pools of blood beneath each bed and in some photos, large sections the victim's flesh had been removed. 

In other rooms, photos and paintings depicted the various methods of torture:  tearing flesh with red-hot tongs, dunking under water, hanging upside down, beatings, and so many more.

Bed that held a rotting, tortured corpse when it was discovered

S-21.  A high school turned torture prison.

For our tour of S-21, we hired a guide.  She was a mild-mannered middle aged woman who spoke acceptable english and knew the history of the site thoroughly.  We were well into the tour when we found out that she had first hand experience of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.  She lived in Phnom Penh when the party came to power and was taken to a forced labor camp where she watched her father and daughter die of starvation.   Her husband was killed by the party as was her brother and his five children.  Everyone was starving during this time and one day, she and a friend happened upon a cow that had died and was being eaten by maggots.  Desperate, they took some of the skin, cooked it, and ate it.  Their supervisor found out about that and sentenced her to dig a 50 m long trench by herself with a hoe in one day, an impossible task.  This was a typical punishment and was guaranteed to result in failure.  Failure usually meant execution.  Our guide told us that she worked until dark, until the skin on her palms was literally shredded off.  She had dug 30 m.  Fortunately for her, the supervisor recognized her hard work and let her live.

It was pretty amazing to hear this woman's story.  This tragedy happened so recently that it affects everyone.

We are piecing together the histories of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.  Each country has gone through so much and everything is connected.  The Vietnam-American war changed life for everybody in this part of the world and I feel like there is a lot of value in learning about it.

OK.  Doom and gloom.  I promise, no more doom and gloom for at least a couple of days.  Today we toured some amazing temples and had a really wonderful time but I'll save all that for tomorrow.

David J Parker

1 comment:

  1. Wow David. This is amazing and tragic. A life changing experience I'd imagine.
    I'll never forget the smell of the old torture chambers in england.