Warning – some of the content in this entry has very graphic content and will upset.
While the world’s attention was on the end of Vietnam War, just over the border in Cambodia the Khmer Rouge came to power and embarked on a radical and brutal restructuring of the country’s social structure that would become one of the greatest acts against humanity since WW2.
To bring ‘equality’ across the population, cities were emptied of their people to work the land to create a self sufficient nation. Phnom Penh was reduced to a ghost town as it’s people were sent to the four corners of the country, including the elderly, the sick and infirm. It was rumoured that the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge warned the population of an imminent American assault on the capital to encourage people to flee the city.
People were forced to work 12 to 15 hours a day. Disobedience of any sort often brought immediate execution. Systematic wiping out of intellectuals took place (sometimes for just wearing glasses) and anyone thought of being too closely linked to potential enemies of the state, even it’s own officers were not safe from suspicion.
Schools in Phnom Penh were transformed into prisons to process people through torture on trumped up charges to being enemies of the regime and move them on to be slaughtered. Tuol Svay Prey High School was converted into the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) and now serves as a reminder of the genocide that took place.
The classrooms became torture chambers, some still house equipment used to inflict water torture and body part extractions. Outside a gallows used to part hang victims until unconscious only to revive them by dunking in rancid water before continuing integration.
Other classrooms were divided into smaller cells to detain larger numbers of individuals, some floors still had evidence of blood on them. The fronts of the building were covered in barbed wire to prevent prisoners jumping to their deaths. In building A, larger cells used to torture the regimes own cadres were fitted out with smaller windows, to reduce screaming being heard during interrogation. They were furnished with a bed, a blanket and a bucket for body waste, these items are still there today, along with implements of torture. Each room had a photograph on the wall showing how the room was found when liberated, with the body of it’s last victim, mutilated and still strapped to the bed.
Every prisoner was photographed and documented as they were processed and the cells now contain hundreds of thousands of these ghostly soulless faces staring out at you from the walls.
Fourteen bodies, left when the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge fled, are buried in the courtyard as a memorial. Two of only seven survivors of S-21 come back to S-21 every day to tell stories of their experiences.
At Choeung Ek, the gardens are well maintained, paths snake around this tranquil park and a large stone and glass building sits in the middle. So it is difficult to imagine the brutality of what went on here until you notice the 8,000 skulls piled on top of each other within the memorial building.
Most of the 17,000 detainees of S-21 were transferred to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. A large tree housed speakers used to drown out the screaming to the trucks arriving with prisoners. Whole families were killed to reduce the risk of reprisals, most were bludgeoned to death to save bullets, then tipped into the graves that they had just been forced to dig. Young children were beaten or swung against a tree and thrown into pits where their families had already perished. The bodies were then covered in DDT to keep down the smell and to ensure that anyone still alive would perish.
Some of the mass graves are marked by large wooden shelters and along with the killing tree, are covered in small coloured bracelets as a mark of respect for the people who died here.
It is very difficult to believe this actually happened as to imagine such brutality from man to fellow man is hard to perceive, but the photographs and video footage in the museum of the excavated graves were hard to ignore.
The Vietnamese liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge in 1979 with an estimated 1.7 million of it’s people killed now dead and a long road of rebuilding ahead of them.