Warning: This post covers some disturbing topics
Today was one of those days that I’m sure will stay with me for a long time. Today was the day we learned about the horrors of the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge Regime.
The Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 until the Vietnamese Army punished them out of power in 1979, however for at least a decade more the Khmer Rouge held different areas in Cambodia, especially remote jungle regions. The Khmer Rouge wanted to reset the country back to year zero, so farming was all that was important. Teachers, doctors, nurses, accountants, educated people were all enemies of the Cambodian state during this period. Communication was cut, large cities emptied of people, currency was banned, temple destroyed or emptied. There is a photo of the Phnom Penh citizens welcoming the Khmer Rouge liberators, they could know that a few months later they would be starving in the country if they were lucky, if they were unlucky they faced torture and a slow death.
Before we learnt all of this we went on a Cyclo tour of the city, you can see there is much foreign investment going on now and grand buildings going up, especially the new Parliament building. I also noticed that the population is very young, most people seem to be under 30 and very few people over 50 seemed to be around, I later learned why at S-21 prison and the Killing Fields.
Our Cyclo tour ended at the former S-21 Prison now the Tuol Sleng Museum. A one point this former prison was a school, on entry you can see why with the large courtyard and buildings. Originally built by the USA Government as a gift it was to become on of the many places of horror inflicted by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 onwards. This was the place that teachers and other elites were sent to under the belief they were being sent back to the city and their former lives. Over 15,000 people pasted through this place, tortured and killed, only 11 people are know for sure to have survived, four starving children and seven adults who survived only because they run out of bullets killing the last fourteen prisoners.
Across the museum you see records of what happened. Photos were taken off prisoners as they arrived and later after they were killed. The after photos were needed as proof that the guards had done their job otherwise they would end up in the prison as inmates. You can still find small teaching quotes in the cells.
There were three survives working at the museum, one of the children survivors – Norng Chanphal, and two of the adults survivors Chum Mey and Bou Meng. Chum Mey survived because he could fix typewriters and Bou Meng because he could paint Chairman Pol Pot for flyers. Listening to Norng’s words being translated and understanding his story, how he lost his mother when he was nine and seeing her dead body and then having having to explain it his 4 year old younger brother was incredibly moving. The communist Vietnamese Army save these children lives but looking in Norng Chanphal’s eyes I’m not sure he feels like a survivor.
We left the S-21 Prison in somber reflection to visit the Choeng Ek Memorial known as the Kmher Rouge Killing Field, one of close to 400 killing fields across the country. Once they found they had too many prisoners to execute at the S-21 prison the founded this place on an old Chinese cemetery away from the farmers. The prisoners being move here were told they were to being released after a short time working in the fields, usually this meant they were digging there on graves. The Khmer Rouge believed to ‘cut the grass you had to pull the roots as well’ that meant wives, children, and babies had to be killed. There is a very disturbing tree on which babies and young children were smashed into for that purpose. They didn’t use bullets to kill, or at least not often, they saved the bullets and bashed and hacked the adult victims to death.
Appropriately 8,000 human remains have been found in this area but it is estimated there are close to 14,000 remains. They keep finding more mass graves all the time. There is a memorial that houses most of the skulls, we paid our respects, said a prayer to the universe for those who have fallen and a hope that humans will step up from being so horrific and cruel for a political cause. You could lose hope easily seeing this place.
A 40 minute ride back to the city and we settled for lunch at a restaurants that helps train and school local children. A positive organisation to help people, I think we needed to be reminded of the good in this world at this point. Lunch was good as well.
From this point the group split up between those going to the shooting range and those exploring Phnom Penh at little more. I was in the shooting range group which given the morning I wasn’t as keen on but I’d decided a week ago on this activity. I’m a gun control person, not anti-gun, however I was keen to fire one and see what was all about and this is something that is not really possible in Australia.
For $10 USD for a private transportation and another $50 USD I found myself at an Army Firing Range with one cartridge of ammo for an M16. There were five of us at this activity and I went first starting with single fire and then moving one semi automatic. This is one powerful gun which heats up very fast. On single shot mode I match to hit the poster but not always the man drawn on it, on semi automatic I’m not sure I got that close. On some levels this was a lot of fun but thinking back I can’t believe that some countries allow these weapons to be owned by non-military individuals.
Getting back to Phnom Penh proved to be a big problem and thoughts of going back to the hotel before dinner had to be ditched and instead we headed straight for the banks of the Tonlé Sap River for our sunset cruise. The cruise gave us at great opportinuties to relax and reflect as we watched the sunset of Phnom Penh. A couple of beers made the day seem a lot better and the mornings events feel like it was yesterday, however I won’t forget regardless of the highly enjoyable afternoon.