Thursday, July 4, 2013

Phnom Penh-The Killing Fields and S-21 Prison

My final day in Siem Reap I was able to attend church. It was in Cambodian, but the spirit speaks to you in any language. There were missionaries there who spoke English, one translated Sacrament meeting for me. The other, a girl from Puerto Rico, spoke with me for the whole last hour. She has only had Khmer* companions and really wanted to speak English with someone.

The mini-bus ride to Phnom Penh was longer than anticipated. I ended up rolling in around 8 pm, hungry and disoriented. The company I went through dropped us off at their offices near the central market, so I can check that off my list. I ended finding a tuk-tuk driver who called my hotel to find out where it is. The streets in Siem Reap are all numbered, but the house numbers make no sense. I was on a street last night that went 190 to 130 to 176 to 90. No sense whatsoever.

I ended up hiring the tuk tuk driver for the next day, to take me to the Cheung Ek and Tuol Sleng. He started at $30, but I talked him down to $18 (which included the ride to the hotel). I'm sure I could have paid even less (because he came down immediately), but it wasn't really worth it to haggle and I'd budgeted $20 anyway. I'm not really one to haggle for someone else's livelihood.

Warning: The following paragraphs contain frank discussions about the genocide in Cambodia, as well as pictures that may be considered graphic.

We started the next morning early, with a trip to the Cheung Ek killing fields, about 15 km outside of Phnom Penh. If you are unfamiliar with modern Cambodian history, here's a brief primer:

From 1863 to 1953, Cambodia was a part of French Indochine. During World War II, they were occupied by the Japanese army. In 1953, they finally regained their independence and became a sovereign kingdom.

In March 1970, General Lon Nol staged a coup and established the Republic of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge (Khmer is the ethnicity of 98% of Cambodian residents and Rouge means red, or communist), led by radical socialist Pol Pot, fought against Lon Nol. This time is considered the Cambodian civil war. April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge army captured Phnom Penh and declared the country be renamed Democratic Kampuchea.

Pol Pot implemented an insane version of communism and social engineering. His troops forced the evacuation of the cities into the countryside. Farms were collectivized and all citizens were forced to work in the fields, dig ditches, and live the socialist dream of collectivization. Anyone who had ties to the former leadership, was an intellectual, spoke any language other than Khmer, was educated, had soft hands, had long hair, and basically looked like they might disagree with Pol Pot was executed. Out of 8 million Cambodians, an estimated 1.5 million to 3 million were either executed or starved to death. Pol Pots plan to free themselves from outside forces relied on tripling rice output. Workers were forced to work from Dawn until midnight, with only food in the afternoon.

The outside world remained largely unaware of what was happening in Cambodia during this time. The government was very closed off, and the people had no way of communicating with outside sources. In 1978, Vietnam freed the country and occupied them for the next 10 years. In 1993, Cambodia finally regained their freedom, becoming a kingdom again. Of course, it hasn't been all puppies and rainbows since then, but life never is.
Pol Pot was very suspicious of everyone during his rule. Even his officers and fellow leaders weren't exempt from his delusions.

He set up several "killing fields", where all dissidents were brought to be executed. They would arrive late at night, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs. They were knelt down at the edge of the burial pit. There was a generator feeding the light and revolutionary music playing over loudspeakers. The real purpose was to help mask the noise of the dying. Bullets were too expensive, so executions were done with anything that was handy. A piece of bamboo pole, a knife, the head of a hoe, a machete, a shovel. Victims were buried in pits, DDT was spread over them to hide the stench of decay.

Cheung Ek was one of these killing fields.

When it was excavated, there were over 100 burial mounds. 86 were fully excavated.

In 1988, they built a memorial stupa at the center of the site. It contains the skulls and other bones of the  victims.

It was possibly one of the most horrifying places I have visited. Even now, remembering it, I'm overcome with the feelings of absolute disgust and pain for the victims who died there. It was so recent, so near to the collective memory of this country. Anyone over the age of 30 knows someone who was killed, or had family that is affected by the Khmer Rouge.

I was completely overcome at points, on the verge of tears. Looking at the remaining mounds of victims. Listening to the audio tour, which included survivor stories. Standing next to a tree where babies were smashed to death.

Following this, I went to Tuol Sleng, also called the S-21 Prison.

Originally a high school, Tuol Sleng was simply one of the prisons used to interrogate and torture suspected deviants. Of the thousands of prisoners, only 7 survived. Most were sent to be executed at the nearby Cheung Ek.

I hired a tour guide to show me around. She had lived through the Khmer Rouge. She had scars on her leg from being beaten with bamboo poles. She suffers even now because of 10 years of hard labor and starvation.

The purpose of Tuol Sleng was not to house prisoners, it was to extract confessions. The Khmer Rouge kept precise records of everything they did. Prisoners who had certain skills were preserved, such as the painter who painted a picture of Pol Pot. The typewriter repairman. The mechanic.

When the Vietnamese army invaded, there were still 14 prisoners being held, all of them were murdered before the officers fled. There is still blood on the ceilings. their torture beds (metal frames with shackles) stand in the same places as in the pictures that were taken that day.

The hardest part of Tuol Sleng was the tour guide. What do you say to someone who struggled through this? Where do they possibly start to rebuild themselves and their lives. A whole generation of Cambodians was lost. A whole generation forever damaged. That they are doing as well as they are, even with the problems they have, is a testament to the human spirit.

Because this was such a heavy day, I felt the need to cleanse my thoughts. So I went to a movie, Man of Steel. It helped.

Overall, I'm glad I was able to confront the Cambodian genocide head on. To feel this things and hear these stories, even though it was deeply disturbing.

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