Warning – this may be a tough read, I’ll try to make the next a little lighter…
We took a bus from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It took about 7 hours and we were met with the usual scam of taking us to nowhere close to where we needed to be then getting harassed by about twenty Tuk Tuk drivers who would overcharge to take us to where we had just drove past. We just walked away from the scammers and found one a little further away, after a little bargaining we still paid $3.50 for a 10 minute Tuk Tuk ride.
We only planned to stay two days in Phnom Penh before heading down south, we had heard it wasn’t that great for travellers, and it wasn’t, it was really expensive, but we needed the full day for visiting the museums dedicated to remembering the national horror that the Khmer Rouge oversaw here from 1975-1979.
The first was the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, or the Killing Fields as it is known, this is just one of the hundreds of killing fields used all around the country by the Khmer Rouge to murder innocent people and bury them in open mass graves.
The Khmer Rouge genocide was effectively a social engineering driven genocide, headed by the evil Pol Pot in which he wanted to remove any form of education, intelligence, money, religion, culture and anything else that didn’t fit his (their) ideals from the entire country, to create a nation of peasants. In four years, the Khmer Rouge killed 2-3 million people out of a population of 8 million, and still to this day nobody knows definitively how many people were killed and the Cambodian people still have no idea as to why it happened. The regime took innocent, uneducated young people and turned them in to murderers, anybody who didn’t obey the rules of the government or had any link to other cultures, countries or previous governments or had any form of education were killed.
To see this up close was absolutely horrifying and you can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like and still be like for the people of this amazing country. Around the killing fields, we listened to the audio tour which quite brutally described what took place here; prisoners would be transported here by trucks every day, and because bullets were expensive, they would be executed by beatings with any tool that could be found. Each person was then dumped in big open graves, chemicals were then poured on top to stop the stench and kill anybody who was still alive.
The bones of the people who were killed here are shown in the memorial stupa and the marks of how they were killed can be clearly seen, huge holes can be seen in people’s skulls where they were beaten to death with a hammer or shovel.
One of the most horrifying sections of the museum was the Killing Tree, babies and children were beaten to death against this tree before being dumped in mass graves, when the Khmer Rouge were overtaken, the people who found this killing field found fragments of skulls and flesh still in this tree.
The memorial stupa, shows the bones of the thousands of people who were murdered here for no reason, forensic analysis has shown who they were and how they died, but there are still hundreds of other killing fields around the country with millions more innocent people buried in.
If that wasn’t hard enough to see, the next stop was to see the prison, Tuol Sleng, where the people were held before being killed. Over 15,000 people went in to this prison and only 11 survived on the day the Vietnamese invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. It was a school before the Khmer Rouge took over, at which point they evacuated Phnom Penh and turned this school in to a prison along with hundreds more around the country.
A couple of the survivors still go to the museum to raise awareness of the atrocities that were committed here, how they still return to this place every day I will never know, the whole area just renders you speechless. People were held here and tortured repeatedly until the admitted to a crime that they had never committed, at which point they would be killed.
There were photos inside the cells that the Vietnamese took on the day they entered Tuol Sleng, showing what they found when they arrived, which was many dead bodies of people chained up in cells, tortured and killed in inhumane ways. There are also photos taken by the government around the museum of each person that came here and almost every one of them were killed.
Bou Meng is one of the few survivors of this dreadful place still alive, it was incredible to meet him but at the same time we felt contradicted on whether it was a good thing that he returned to his nightmare over and over again, an un-winnable mental battle.
Of course, after seeing these museums, which we are so glad we did, because we learnt so much and there needs to be much more education around the world of this and other genocide, we were never going to think of Phnom Penh as a city we loved. It was busy, expensive and the hostel was awful, so we were glad to move on to the coast and get some separation from what we had just learned about, something I think the Cambodian people can never have, as it is still so fresh in the minds of the people here.
In the time we got to spend talking to the locals here you could still sense such anger and pain at the fact that there was still no answers to why this despicable act of genocide took place and why it took so long for it to come to an end. It is something, because of it being so recent, that still affects every single person in the country, everybody has family members who were killed, or which they never saw again and don’t know what happened to them.
For anybody who wants to know more about this, please read the book called ‘First They Killed My Father‘ by Loung Ung. The book was written by a girl who was 5 years old when it started and explains more about what happened, from her point of view.