S-21 and the killing fields of Cambodia were marked in my travel guide as a ‘must see’ but until I was there, I had no understanding of what happened. With reverence, I write this post in memory of the lost.
On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rogue, ruled by Pol Pot, defeated the U.S.-backed Cambodian leadership. The already war-torn country had been bombed by the U.S. for the past 8 years in what was called the secret war, and people celebrated the new leadership. But it was short-lived. Within days of taking power the cities were all but deserted as people were forced to leave their homes and possessions to work 16 hours a day in field labour camps. The Khmer Rouge wanted Cambodia returned to a peasant state. Phones were silent and borders were closed. Teachers, doctors, Buddhist monks, anyone displaying any signs of intelligence were captured, tortured into signing false confessions of espionage, and executed. Soft hands and wearing glasses would get you killed. Pol Pot ruled with secrecy, hatred, fear, and violence for a fanatical utopian vision of a pure, classless society.
S-21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was one of 200 prisons where people suffered dehumanizing interrogations and torture by the Khmer Rouge. A former high school, it was converted from a place of laughter and learning to a place of unimaginable atrocities. Between 14,000 and 20,000 people were held there. There are 12 confirmed survivors.Prisoners who didn’t die from torture were blindfolded, bound and taken to Cheoux Ek. Once a peaceful farmers meadow, it became a killing field. Peoples heads were smashed in with hatchets or other tools, and thier necks were slit with with palm fronds because bullets were not to be wasted. They were then thrown into a pit, sometimes still alive, with countless others. If a parent was executed, the whole family was executed so no-one was left to take revenge. Music was played to drown out the screams. Today, after a heavy rain, bones continue to be unearthed. The Stupa, at the centre of the memorial site, holds the skulls of thousands of the victims where people come to honour the dead and search for thier loved ones. There are over 300 killing fields in Cambodia.
In 1979 Vietnamese troops with a Cambodian contingent overthrew Pol Pot. In the four years that the Khmer Rouge were in power, roughly 2,000,000 people, in a population of just over 8,000,000 died under the brutal regime. Despite all the evidence, Pol Pot continued to represent Cambodia in the UN for 12 years after he was thrown from power. It was not until 2009 that the first Khmer Rouge high official was taken to trial. 2009!
The world has turned its eyes away through some of the twentieth centuries worst genocides; Armenia, the holocaust, Ruanda, the list goes on. Blurred by tears but with eyes open, I touched the faces of the lost through the glass. I have to believe that we can learn from the past. I will remember.