The vast majority of my posts are fun and freewheeling. This is not one of them. There’s some truly dark stuff ahead. My trip to Cambodia began in one of the most amazing places in the world. It ended in one of the most evil.
This is a school yard.
Or at least it was. The white tombs give a clue to what it became.
This is what one of the rooms of the school house looks like today.
This is what it looked like on January 7, 1979, the day that Vietnamese troops marched into Phnom Penh, ending the reign of the Khmer Rouge and the operation of Security Prison 21.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a Maoist outfit led by Pol Pot, captured Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. They intended to implement true communism. Everyone would be expected to put in the same amount of work in the fields. And everyone would receive the same amount of food. All property, including personal effects, was banned. In order to facilitate this new equality, the cities were emptied. Phnom Penh, a city of millions, became a ghost town over night.
The Khmer Rouge had a long list of enemies. The religious, the educated, the literate, those who wore glasses. For these people, they had a saying–“It is no gain to keep you. It is no loss to lose you.”
The Khmer Rouge were in power for less than four years. In that time, they murdered 3 million people, a quarter of the country’s population. 150 execution centers were set up to facilitate the Khmer Rouge’s goals. The prison known as S-21, located in the middle of the capital, housed nearly 20,000 prisoners over the course of its operation. Here are the ones who made it out.
Everyone else was murdered.
Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping. They photographed every one of the prisoners who entered S-21, and many of those photographs survive to this day. Here are some of the victims.
Many of the victims were tortured to death. Here’s a deep bucket, with shackles in the bottom. They would hold the victims upside down in the water and shackle their hands so they couldn’t escape.
Torture took place during long interrogations. The rules of those interrogations are written here, on this blackboard. This is what it says in English (roughly).
1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
If torture didn’t kill the prisoners, they’d find other ways. Note the bullet hole in the back of the skull.
Others were burned or skinned alive, some were electrocuted, and some died from experiments such as draining them of blood or removing their organs one at a time.
Most prisoners didn’t die at the school. They were taken to a scenic spot outside of town, the location of an old Chinese cemetery. Today, we call that place the Killing Fields.
This is a ceremonial stupa built at the site of the Killing Fields.
It contains tens of thousands of skulls.
The skulls are arranged by sex and age at the time of death. They bear the marks of their owners last moments of life. Because the Khmer Rouge wanted to conserve ammunition, the preferred method of execution involved blunt force trauma. Other times, prisoners were simply thrown into open pits and then buried alive.
When they were discovered, the Killing Fields were marked by mounds of dirt, sores on the earth caused by a buildup of gasses from decomposing bodies. Open pits remain.
The graves, however, were extensive and not all of them have been excavated. Thus, bones and scraps of clothing regularly wash up. The caretakers of the Killing Fields collect them at regular intervals and put them in the stupa. Until then, they are stored in boxes around the site.
Which means that as one walks around the area, bones and clothing sticking up from the ground are a regular sight.
Without a doubt, the most chilling part of the Killing Fields is this tree. It was here that Khmer soldiers bashed in the skulls of children before burying them in a mass grave nearby.
From another tree, they hung speakers that played revolutionary music so as to muffle the screams and cries of the victims as they were being murdered.
All and all, a rough day. One might wonder why anyone would bother visiting such terrible places. In my view, foreign travel can become a little bit like going to Disney World. Seeing all the fun things, and ignoring the bad. But it is hard to do that in Cambodia. You almost never see any old people there. No one over 70. There’s a reason. The Khmer Rouge killed them all.
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