Cambodia - A country that doesn't reflect its past

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Orders on a sign for the victims ('prisoners') of S-21


Jonas and I arrived in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh with nowhere to stay.  We were hoping to have an hour before we left Vietnam to book somewhere but as our bus was already ready and waiting to depart we got on.

Fortunately we met a couple of girls on our coach who had names of hotels that they were staying at.  Gail, from Aberdeen (Scotland) was staying at a lovely $70 per night hotel as part of a short vacation she was having.  Misa, from Tokyo (Japan) was staying at a standard hotel with rooms for $7 per night.  Of course Jonas and I as seasoned backpackers went for the cheaper option, and it was pretty comfortable.  We all decided to meet up at the Torture Museum in the city later that day.

I want to tell you a bit about the atrocities that took place in this country in the late 1970’s as I was unaware of them and I’m sure some of you too (especially those of us born in the 80’s & 90’s) did not know about them either.

In the 60’s Cambodia became involved in the Vietnam conflict.  This led to the United States carpet-bombing various suspect communist bases (which at the time they did in secret).

Then after a coup in the early 70’s the US, with South Vietnamese troops invaded the country to find any communist forces.  As with the Vietnam war in general they failed to succeed which only made things worse as this push both Vietnamese and Cambodian communists deep into Cambodian territory (sound familiar?).  There was mass civil unrest and fighting in the country and this didn’t stop until the capital fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge began some atrocious and horrific acts of human rights violations – and believe me that is the understatement of the year.  They abolished money, made cities become abandoned, and then committed mass genocide on a scale that’s unimaginable.

They would take the educated, people who could speak a foreign language or who were foreign, even those that wore glasses and then lead them to the countryside where they would be tortured and then executed.

Those that were not taken to the ‘fields’ in the remaining towns and cities died of malnourishment or mistreatment.

In the years of the Khmer Rouge rule it is estimated that over three million people died.  Three million.  It wasn’t till the end of the 70’s that Vietnam invaded and over threw the regime.

And what sickens you more is a quote from the Lonely Planet guide book that ‘the Khmer Rouge maintained a guerrilla war throughout the 1980s, armed and financed by China and Thailand (and with indirect US support), against the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh.

It is amazing how well they hid the atrocities from those that funded them, or did they already know it was going on and just turned a blind eye?


One of the blogs at S-21


So Jonas, Misa, Gail and I met at S-21 or Tuol Sleng Museum, a former school turned prison during the regime that brutally tortured, maimed and killed people.  It’s a sobering visit.  Empty rooms with black and white checked floors and a single metal bed, with the chains or cuffs that were worn by the previous occupant.  To the right of every bed is a picture, incredibly graphic and not for the fainthearted of how they found the previous occupant.  Face beaten in – some literally split in two.  Blood all over the floor.  You look at it, horrified, and then realise that you are in that room, this is the bed that person was on, those are blood stained chains that were wrapped around his legs.  It happened here just over 35 years ago.

Each room was the same.  Another picture.  Another horrific image in your mind.  You can’t help but imagine what was it like, what was going through the mind of the victim?  What was going through the mind of the sick person that did this to them? 

You couldn’t identify the person from the pictures, their injuries too severe.  But then you visit another one of the blocks.  This one housed all the photographs (that could be found) of the victims.  Taken like a Hugh Grant police photo, each with their own ‘prisoner’ number.

There was wall to wall pictures, I mean hundreds upon hundreds.  You walk through them like an art gallery, thinking she died here, he died here, he died here..  You don’t think it could get any worse.  You then turn around a corner and then see pictures of all the children they killed.  Treated the same like their parents – they were prisoners too.  Beaten, tortured, stripped naked.  It happened to those poor young souls too.

This place claimed 100 victims a day.

The following day myself and Misa visited the mass graves in the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.  This place was home to 129 mass graves where those that left S-21 were taken here to be executed.  So far, it is believed that 17,000 people were executed here; men, women, children and babies.

As you walk around the two acres, areas are roped off of the mass graves that they’ve currently found.  You can still see some clothes, bits of bone and teeth in the ground as there is so much here that still hasn’t been excavated (they discovered this place in the late 80’s).

In the middle of this place stands a giant Stupa that houses 17 tiers of bones, jaws and skulls – 9,000 skulls so far.  You can see the damage on many of the skulls where they were shot with a bullet or bludgeoned with an axe.  There are skulls of children, senior citizens, women and men.

The Stupa


You then read of how the executions take place.  One horrific method (and you may wish to skip this paragraph) is the execution of young children and babies.  There used to be a tree located in the park next to a particular pit.  They used to take the live children by their feet and smash their heads against the tree and then simply throw them in the pit.  You also hear how they found mass graves of headless bodies and a grave full of their corresponding skulls.  Many people were buried alive too.

So surely not again in my lifetime things like this would happen.  But they have done and continue to do so.  You read in the UN briefing papers on Iraq how Saddam and his regime conducted atrocities similar in horror, but not necessarily in number, on his own people.  There are similar horrific events taking place in certain parts of Africa.

You now maybe thinking, blimey I don’t want to go there.  But you know what do go there.  Do see it for yourself.  I have respect for the Cambodian people and their current government in relation to this place.   They have kept it open so that people don’t forget about the atrocities that took place at S-21 and Choeung Ek.  That something like this should never happen again.

Jonas, Gail and I headed for Siem Reap, Misa had an extra day in Phnom Penh.  Siem Reap houses some amazing temples, and to see all of them can take several days but with just a day of touring we hired a driver for the day (a bargain at $15) and began to see some of the biggies.  

Group shot with Jonas doing the token looking the other way!

Me and the Keith Lemon iPhone App

Photo by Misa




For the final day, Saturday, Gail left in the morning and Jonas and I were joined by Misa.  Having a nice chilled out day we grabbed some food and drink from the aptly named Pub Street and toasted a good few days in Cambodia.

2 comments:

  1. The Keith Lemon photo is brilliant! I'm glad you're enjoying yourself :-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just keep the updates coming son, very educational!

    ReplyDelete

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