Stories

Cambodian Genocide

Although this tragedy happened only a few years before I was born (1975-1979), I knew very little about it and found it very interesting and worthwhile to share.

In total, this was a very moving experience, but I will warn you that some of the pictures and descriptions can be a bit disturbing as well.

Since our arrival in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, Adam and I noticed bits and pieces of a brutal history. Signs for historical sites related to genocide, conversations about Cambodian history, far too many people walking around without limbs and an obvious amount of elderly population seemed to be missing. Despite that, everyone was in good spirits. It was another big city of Southeast Asia with crazy motorbike traffic, tons of food, busy and lively.

On the way from the bus station to the guesthouse, we made arrangements with a tuk tuk driver to pick us up the following morning for a tour.  As promised, he was waiting for us at 9am. In my ignorant bliss, I was all excited to start exploring Cambodia until Adam reminded me about the place we were going. This may be intense; prepare yourself to see some disheartening stuff.

We arrived first at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. As I hopped off of the little car, a man begged me for some money. His face and arms were completely burned. Most likely he was a victim of one of the many land mines that were planted during the awful Cambodian genocide, one of the most brutal in history. Before arriving in Cambodia I had heard of the communist dictator Pol Pot, but did not truly have a grasp of the atrocities that occurred during those four years in this country. I would get to know it very well over the next few weeks.

Tuol Sleng was originally a school. When the communist group known as the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975; they forced everyone to leave the city and turned the former high school into a prison camp.

The first building we visited was used to torture prisoners. The prisoners were those against the regimen or anyone they thought were suspicious, along with their entire families.

Suspicious people were all the educated, former police and military people, professors, middle and upper class, even the people wearing glasses were a threat because they appeared too smart and therefore were a liability.

The rooms were left as they were found; only without the corpses. My morning smile was all gone by then. It was almost as if there was heaviness in the atmosphere.

From the rooms we went to a building used for housing prisoners in cells. As I was walking in, I noticed that a wire fence was placed along the outdoor hallways along the balcony. It made me wonder… later I read that the fence was put in place to keep prisoners from committing suicide by jumping. Unimaginable what it must feel like to be pushed to that point. Then I looked to the patio, a huge sign was facing me; they were the rules from the regimen.

To know that this happened only 35 years gave me chills. We walked slowly, observing everything and without talking to each other, imagining the horrible scenes.

Another building had rooms with information about the facts and photos of prisoners. They ranged from children to elderly, all with the same short cut hair and identical uniforms. Their malnutrition was apparent in their bony bodies and their faces showed no hope and a deep sadness.

In the courtyard was a tall pole they used to hang prisoners and submerge them in putrid water to confess crimes they never committed. If ghosts existed, this place would be full of them, roaming around the patio and rooms day and night. It was such an eerie place.

The Khmer Rouge was led by Pol Pot. He died in 1998, but some of the living top officials from the Khmer Rouge still remain in trial to this date, waiting for judgment. His goal was to create a society without competition, where people worked for the common “good”.

The Khmer soldiers forced everyone to move in communes and indoctrinated them with their ideas for four years. Anyone refusing these changes was killed.

People were divided into categories that reflected the trust that the regimen had for them.  Many were forced to work long periods of time and were fed very small portions of only rice.

From this prison, after months of torture, prisoners were transferred to their final destination: the Killing Fields. Our tuk tuk took us there next. I wanted to ask him about it, but didn’t  He was a child when this happened and was most likely negatively affected in one way or another.

The fields are outside of the city, around 20 minutes away. At the entrance they gave us an audio guide that helped explain the history as we toured the fields. They also had recorded testimonies of survivors from both sides. I dropped a few tears while I listened to the stories of the victims.

The Khmer Rouge would truck dozens of people at a time to this place, kill them and dump them in mass graves. Some had up to 500 people in them. All the grounds are uneven now. Although they collected the skeletons, teeth and small bones come out to the surface when it rains a lot.

As we walked in the first thing ahead was a tall memorial that the Cambodians built housing the bones from the graves they have excavated. It was unlike anything Adam or I have ever seen in our life. Very powerful.

The soldiers argue that they had no option but to do what they were told at the time. Most Khmer Rouge soldiers were recruited from the rural county. They were young men without education, easy to manipulate.

The horrible events were finally over with the invasion of Vietnam in 1979. Many Cambodians ended in refugee camps and immigrated to the United States.

Outside of the museum, a little shop was selling related books. I bought and read one named First They Killed my Father where a survivor relates how her family was forced to move outside of Phnom Penh and got separated in working fields. Some members of her family were killed. I learned many other details about how families were treated and how many families suffered first hand.

What Cambodians suffered during this period is beyond words. It is one of the worst human tragedies of the last century without a doubt. More than twenty percent of their population are believed to have died (1.7 million), some were killed, and others died of starvation. (and maybe more)

Knowing what Cambodians have been through and getting to know them meant a lot to me. I am not exaggerating when I say people in Cambodia are some of the nicest in the world. We spent three weeks there, and they overwhelmed me with constant happiness and smiles. And their country is beautiful!

I encourage you to share this post, to visit Cambodia, and to visit the Genocide museum and killing fields given the chance.

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