Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Cambodia: Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields

'Imagine all the people living life in peace,
you may say am a dreamer, but am not the only one'
                                                 -John Lennon

Cambodia, the realm of the Gods has cast a spell on many a person who has ever set foot into this enchanting Kingdom. Famous for the spectacular temples of Angkor Wat, a temple that perhaps is only equaled by a few select spots on earth, such as Machu Picchu or Petra is majestic as it is breathtaking. As you explore the country you encounter the hustle and bustle of two great heavyweight cities; Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. To the south you encounter beautiful beaches and deserted Islands that can only be described as paradise. Places such as Kep and Kampot have an evocative French colonial atmosphere that makes you feel as if you are in a bygone age, with its sweeping boulevards and old French shops. In contrast to such beauty the country has a much darker and depressing history. As you delve deeper you descend into the hell of the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields, S-21 Security Prison and Torture Center, Civil War and Genocide that resulted in the murder of millions of innocent people in the late 1970s. Pol Pot and his psychopathic revolution devastated a country but did not destroy the indomitable spirit of the people. For a people who have been to hell and back, who live in a country that is one of the poorest in the world and is considered to be in worse shape than even the Congo, they are simply the most beautiful, inspiring and positively infectious people I have ever met. For me the real treasure of Cambodia is its people as you will see.
On the 27th October we arrived in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh and I was greeted with smiles and optimism from the people. This was in total contrast to how I was greeted when we first arrived in North Vietnam. As I was waiting on the side of the road during a pit stop in the middle of nowhere, some children came cycling past me as they were going home from school. I smiled and waved at the on coming traffic being polite and happy to see them. A young boy on the back of his friends bike looked at me and raised his hand up as if to wave back, but, instead as he slowly raised his hand up in front of his face, he gave me a rye smile, and a different gesture was returned in the shape of the big fat middle phalange. I had to laugh at my welcome to Vietnam, very Scouse indeed.

Phnom Penh is a very vibrant city that is set against the Tonle Sap River and is home to the Royal Palace. Here it is impossible to ignore the extremes that form this city; poverty and excess, past and present, charm and chaos. When we arrived it was a weekend of celebration for the people of Phnom Penh, it was a national holiday in honor of the Kings fathers birthday. We spent our first day rambling around the city and sampling some of Cambodia's culture. As you walk along the tight busy streets one thing hits you hard and that's the weather, it is intensely hot and humid and you sweat constantly, but, I am not complaining to much when you compare it to the bleak weather back home. During the night we ate some traditional food outside the night market; baby cow is the main attraction on the menu that everyone indulges in. It is cooked whole on a giant spite and served with some rice and spices and is all washed down with a big pitcher of Angkor beer for good measure.

Since a lot of the cities main attractions were shut due to the National Holiday, we were at a loss of what to do on our last day in the capital. As we left our hotel, a tuck tuck (taxi) driver approached us and he asked us do we want  to go on a tour of S-21 Genocide Museum and the killing Fields. I was instantly intrigued when he explained some of the history behind this grim but fascinating place from Cambodia's darker past. We decided to go on this full day tour, which was not planned and very spontaneous giving the trip an even more interesting feel. We set off to the infamous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former security office better known as S-21, the office set up on the orders of Pol Pot on April 17th 1975 for the detention, interrogation, inhumane torture, and killing of detainees
Tuol Sleng, former office S.21 was actually a school before it became a scene from hell
On the 17th April 1975 Pol Pot, brother number 1 in the Khmer Rouge regime marched into Phnom Penh and implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of society ever attempted; its goal was pure revolution, untainted by those that had gone before, to transform Cambodia into a peasant agricultural cooperative. Within days the entire population of cities and towns across the country were forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for up to 12-15 hours a day. Pol Pot's deranged idea was to develop an economic society that was based on the cultivation of rice that would be totally self sufficient. It promptly cut its ties with the outside world, abolished money and proclaimed the new rule as Year Zero. Anyone who showed disobedience or opposition was immediately executed; similarly intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, children, the sick, the elderly and many of their own party members and soldiers who symbolized the old way of life were murdered. People were deprived of basic human rights and disease and famine killed millions of people. In the eyes of Pol Pot the country had to be cleansed and for the next three years, eight months and twenty days the Khmer Rouge detached the Cambodian people from everything they held dear: their families, their food, their fields and their faith.

Behind the wire in S-21
It is a very strange and depressing feeling when you enter S-21 Security prison, its location defies believe; set in a school, surrounded by homes and shops within a leafy suburban setting makes it seem surreal and even more grotesque. And then you venture into the classrooms, once used as a place for learning, horrifically changed into prison cells and instruments of torture. The floors are blood stained, there are bullet holes in the walls, the tools of torture remain and the very classrooms still unchanged since they were liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979. Its hard to believe that children once played and 17,000 innocent people were imprisoned, either killed here or brought to the killing fields of Choeung Ek to be murdered. Out of these 17,000 people only 7 people survived the biggest detention center in the country.  

Prisoners were kept chained to the bed using iron clamps

Outside one of the classrooms

Inside a single wooden cell

An instrument of torture-A painting done by a survivor named Vann Nath
From S-21 we traveled the short distance to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, the same journey that the prisoners of S-21 would have traveled to be executed. The weather was hot and the sun was shinning bright; their was hustle and bustle on the streets and people were going about their business without a care in the world. It was hard to believe that we were on the same fateful trail that thousands of people were forced to make only thirty years ago. When they arrived in the middle of the night, they were often bludgeoned to death there and then to avoid wasting bullets. If there were to many prisoners to kill during the night they locked them up in holding sheds playing music from load speakers to hide the screams of the dying. They would meet their fate the next night. The remains of 8985 people, many of whom were blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves. Many of the mass graves have been left untouched and still today bits of clothing, bone and teeth fragments still appear on the ground as if ghosts from the past trying to escape their dark world. This was evident when we walked around many of the mass graves and we seen human fragments lying on top of the earth. We were given an audio guide to help us around the site which gave us accounts and insights from people who worked here and from survivors both describing horrifying stories. I found it very hard to understand how people were capable of such senseless brutality.  As we walked around the site, we walked on a path close to the lake which flows past the back of the site and I remember listening to a very emotional piece of music by Him Sophy called "A Memory from Darkness". Listening to this piece of music in a place that has so many horrifying memories but now seems so peaceful was a very moving experience. At the center of this somber place lies more than 8000 skulls all arranged by sex and age, that are visible behind clear class panels of the Memorial Stupa. The Stupa is a symbol of hope and defiance and stands in memory of all the innocent people who were murdered here so generations never forget what the darker side of human nature is capable of.

Mass graves of the Killing Fields

Clothing that keeps surfacing like ghosts of the past 

A Memory from Darkness

Thousands of skulls in order of age and gender fill the Memorial Stupa

Victims being transported from S.21 to The Killing Fields

The victims meet their fate

Victims were simply tossed unmercifully into mass graves
A Symbol of Hope: A single flower sits stoically on one of the mass graves

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