Cambodia has been a war torn country and although it’s an extremely sad part of their history, it’s also so important to learn about so it doesn’t happen again. 50% of the population is under 25 years old, is sick of hearing about the war and doesn’t think it was as bad as it was. The older generation are desperate to tell their stories to make sure they don’t have the same fate. Sadly, we are seeing these things happen all over the world still today.
Over three years, eight months and twenty days it is estimated that almost two million or more people were killed by the Khmer Rouge. On April 17th, 1975, the radical Khmer Rouge defeated the American-backed army of Cambodian President Lon Nol. The Khmer Rouge with Gen Pol Pots regime embarked on what they called a social cleansing in an attempt to rid the country of its urban and educated classes and create a self-sufficient peasant society.
80% of the country was poor and they were fighting their brothers of the same culture and blood. They would find out what your occupation was and if you had soft hands that meant you worked in an office. They would even say there was going to be a bomb and if you jumped on your motorcycle to get away they knew you were of the upper class.
They were defeated on January 7th, 1979 by a Vietnamese invasion.
S-21 Toul Sleng Genocide Museum
The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum is a stark contrast of a beautiful sun soaked compound to a prison that housed the innocent Cambodian men, women and children who were tortured for no reason at all. What was once a high school became a living hell for over 12,000 prisoners. This was the Khmer Rouge interrogation center. Prisoners were brought here for questioning unlike the others who were sent straight to the killing fields.
In the museum, the eyes of the prisoners haunted me and will stay with me forever. Their faces seeming to echo the horror of the past. The prisoners were all numbered and had their picture taken so they couldn’t escape and so the Khmer Rouge knew they had captured all of the intelligent and rich people.
Because guns and bullets were expensive, prisoners were cut, stabbed and bludgeoned with pipes. The prison guards poured salt in their wounds. Why? No one knows the real answer. Prisoners were brought to Toul Sleng to be interrogated. The only answer to their questions that they accepted were that they were the CIA or KGB even though most of the prisoners didn’t even know what that meant.
Torture for the prisoners was once or twice every day and the prison guards turned areas of play for the school into instruments. The picture below will break your heart. Human urine and feces were collected and then emptied into the vat. When prisoners refused to confess their “crimes”, they were hung up with their hands behind their backs by ropes tied to the hooks, and then their heads were dipped into the vat.
There are only seven known survivors from Toul Sleng and we got to meet two of them and hear their heartbreaking stories of survival and sadness.
Mr. Chum Mey
Chum Mey was born to a poor family whose mother suffered from post pardom depression and couldn’t take care of the children. He moved often to live with one of his brothers and sisters, became ordained as a monk for 1 year then worked odd jobs before becoming a mechanic. He got married and moved to Phnom Penh and had 4 children.
When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh they made an announcement telling everyone to leave the city for 3 days because Americans were planning to bomb the city. He walked toward Roka-Kong since there would be water there. There were dead bodies everywhere and one of his sons died of a fever on the way. Because he was a mechanic the Khmer Rouge moved him from place to place to fix sewing machines bikes, cassette players, tractors, etc. One night he was arrested for no reason. They killed his wife and children in front of him. He was able to survive by confessing to being part of the CIA. He could also fix typewriters which was crucial to take testimonies.
Bou Meng had the sweetest smile and kindest face and you could tell he wanted to tell us his story. The second he started telling us his story his eyes turned to raw sadness.
Bou Meng was sent to S-21 with his wife Ma Yoeun. He was an artist and she was a midwife. He was repeatedly beaten. Duch, the prison chief found out that Bou was an artist so he had him draw a picture of Pol Pot. He warned him if it wasn’t exactly right that he would be killed. It took him about 3 months. It was 1.5 M wide and 1.8 M high. Duch was pleased with his work so he had him continue to paint other portraits and kept him alive.
The United Nations did not step in to take justice on the people involved until 2007. Both Chum Mey and Bou Meng have attended the court sessions in the tribunals in 2009 and testified as witness vindicating their suffering to some small degree. They won’t be happy until justice is served and they don’t feel like it has been.
Choeng Ek (The Killing Fields)
There are 353 killing fields in Cambodia. The killing fields were where the Khmer Rouge brought innocent people to die. When people were brought here some of them held out hope for a future, some knew they were going to die and some just wanted the sadness and death to end and were ready to die.
These sugar palm tree leaves were used as a weapon. Everywhere you looked they had turned anything into something that would harm people.
This is just one of the many mass graves found in Cambodia. With 400 people found, this is one of the largest. They build buildings around the graves so people can come respect and pray for the people that died there and not walk over them. They find new bones and graves during rainy season almost every day.
There are many mass graves throughout Choeung Ek. The graves are shown by the buildings and indentations in the grass.
“It is better to kill an innocent by mistake then to spare an enemy by mistake.” Slogan by Pol Pot. Pol Pot. He even became paranoid and killed his own soldiers.
This tree was used to kill babies in front of their mothers. They would crack their heads against the trees. When one member of a family died they would kill the whole family.
“Clearing grasses, it shall dig it’s entire root.” Pol Pot
There are still bodies under water but they want them to rest in peace so they are not going to dig them up.
The bones were found during the last excavation in the area.
The stupa at Cheong Ek has 17 levels of bones and the 1st 10 levels have 9,000 heads. This is the largest stupa. The upper levels are used for other bones like femurs. The stupa is built in Buddhist form and is decorated with Hindu and Buddhist symbols. Garuda birds for the god of Vishnu who rides this bird. The corners of the roof are Nagas which are magical serpeant like dragons. Nagas are legendary as they are said to have fathered the Khmer people. They are enemies of Garuda. When they come together they are a symbol of peace.
In 1979 Pol Pot fled to Thailand. Pol Pot remained the leader of the Khmer Rouge for 20 years. He was placed under house arrest and died a year later. Some say he may have been poisoned by his own people.
Still today, Cambodia can see the effects of the Khmer Rouge. They are bringing people to justice for their crimes, people still suffer from PTSD and there are still millions of landmines.
They estimate that over 7 million landmines were in Cambodia after the genocide and still about 40% are left. We got to speak to a CNN hero who was the youngest soldier in the Khmer Rouge. His job was to find food and lay 1,000’s of land mines. They would have kids walk through fields to lay them and also check for them thus killing many of his friends. In 1993 the UN taught him how to clear landmines with metal detectors and he is hoping to do good after what he was forced to do as a child. They have 30 people that clear landmines everyday and sometimes find over 100. He has destroyed 50,000 landmines by himself as a volunteer. From 1993-2006 he diffused them completely by hand.
There is still a lot of work to be done in Cambodia to fix the effects of the war. I am writing this piece to bring awareness to something so horrible that happened that not everyone knows about even still today.