A sad farewell to Rob & Gilly was tempered by our plans to reconnect within a fortnight. They made their way toward the border while we set off back to the Cambodian Capital Phnom Penh to learn a bit about the Khmer Rouge.
Our first stop to this end was Tuol Sleng – or S21 as it was known during the 3 years 8 months and 20 days of Pol Pots’ truly insane regime. The place was an old school converted into a prison for anyone deemed a threat. I say prison but it was more of a drop in torture centre before an almost inevitable journey out to the killing fields. Of all the residents that ever passed through only 7 are known to have survived.
A little background; Pol Pot was an educated man who’d studied abroad and become actively involved in Communism. He returned to Cambodia as a teacher. As far as I can remember the King of Cambodia got deposed during a coup by the ruling government. He then threw his support behind the opposition communist party which grew, grew and grew in the rural areas outside Phnom Penh and on April 17th 1975 Pol Pot and the forces of the Khmer Rouge wandered into the capital and asked everyone to leave. And I mean everyone.
They cleared the whole city moving people out into the countryside & began to implement a manifesto that I cannot believe any right-minded individual could have thought was a good idea.
The premise was to reset to year zero and create some kind of agriculture based socialist utopia. Apparently rule number one when you’re applying your tyrannical noggin to implement such a programme of change is to round up anyone who ever demonstrated even a modicum of intelligence and execute them – but not before torturing a confession out of them first. As to what they were supposed to be confessing to I’ve no idea but when you’re having your toenails removed by pliers I’m sure you’ll confess to anything.
Speak more than one language? Obvious enemy of the state. Teacher? Clearly a threat. Wear glasses? Deadly. New born baby of one of the above? No problem – the lads at Cheung Elk [possibly the most famous of the killing fields] have a special tree where they’ll swing you by your leg and smash your head in against the trunk before launching you up in the air, catching you on the bayonet of their rifle, and dropping you in the pit alongside. I think it takes a special type of detachment from humanity to carry out such an act a few times a day for several years.
We visited Cheung Elk after S21 and saw that tree along with the many other huge un-exhumed mass graves. They have erected a huge stupa with 19 levels filled with the skulls of innumerable victims. When the rain falls the soil shifts and cloth, bones and teeth rise to the surface through the mud.
Even in the midst of it it’s difficult to conceive precisely how something like that could happen.
The world knew nothing about it. Even after the Vietnamese – pissed off at the Khmer Rouge’s incessant border scuffles – rolled into town to send the Khmer Rouge packing it was Vietnam that took the heat from the international community. They were condemned as an invading force with the United Nations still recognising the Khmer Rouge as the rightful rulers of Cambodia.
Only as the atrocities were slowly uncovered did the tide of support turn. Over those few years the Khmer Rouge systematically tortured and executed in excess of 2 million of its own nationals – over a quarter of the country’s population.
Even today the leading members remain unpunished for their crimes. Pol Pot died untried. Duch, the warden who presided over S21 was only recently put on trial – I confess he may well have been charged by now. That said, no truly sufficient punishment can ever be visited upon these monsters.
We finished the day with a visit to the Foreign Correspondents Club – overpriced hangout for journalists. We decided against a drink and hit a cheaper local joint instead.
Phnom Penh finished without any further notable event. We were then on our way to Siem Reap, home of the temples of Angkor and a rendezvous with legendary fellow Miltonians Colin & V!