The Killing Fields & S21, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

S21Buckle up. This one is going to be bleak. There’s no easy way to write about genocide is there.

However it’s Phnom Penh and its Cambodia, so despite some pretty horrific facts I’ve learnt today, its important stuff. Now obvs I’m ad-libbing/probably taking accidental liberties with historical facts, but for everything else there’s Wikipedia.

To understand the Killing Fields you have to understand this bit (or read the book/watch the film.)

It all revolves around class A megalomaniac; Pol Pot (Asia’s Hitler) and his penchant for extreme Maoist communism. He rose to power to become ‘Brother Number 1’ (head honcho) around the same time as Cambodia was really feeling the devastation of the Vietnam War next door. His vision was to create an ‘Old Cambodia’ to take the country back to simpler (read archaic)times. Rather creepily he decreed it ‘Year Zero’ and aimed to destroy all that was civilized and begin society again. This is known as the Khmer Rouge. And is quite utterly deranged.

Incredibly this involved evacuating the entire Capital city of Phnom Penh. (We watched a badly made documentary at a local bar the night we got here, which had amazing archive footage from the ghost city.) He basically created turmoil by saying the Americans were planning to bomb PP, and forced residents out to the countryside promising no need to lock their doors, their houses were safe. This turned out to be quite the bluff. His real plans were to irradiate the middle/upper classes and force a whole nation into the back-breaking work of rice production. Ironically, his concerns were for export only, hence massive famine was rife at the time. To execute this he resorted to the oldest trick in the book; the creation of a fierce class war which saw the recruitment of vulnerable rural Cambodians – all mere teenagers/children at the time, to turn on their own people.  The numbers are denied/unclear, but it is thought around 2 million Cambodians were massacred, in a 4 year period. A quarter of the population at the time.

That was one in every 4 people you know. And it really would be. Intellectuals, any university graduate, teacher, foreigner, artists. Hell, anyone with glasses or soft hands, or who so much as held their own independent thought. The plan was to dissolve all religion, all recreation, and all emphasis on family – in replace of pure communal living. Whole communities were rounded up, arrested for reasons they were never told, and forced under torture to admit they were CIA/KGB spies?!

Just a warning – Stop reading now if you are squeamish.

005The Killing Fields are 15km out of the city. Today they are a beautiful and peaceful orchard and museum. And also the mass graves of 9000 butchered men, women and children.  In rainy season bones fragments, teeth, and rags of clothing are still being discovered in the ground on which you walk. There are the 17 tiers of human skulls and bones housed in a memorial statue, and (there is absolutely no way to sugar-coat this next sentence) there is a huge tree, used to bludgeon babies to death on. Bullets were too expensive; therefore people were almost always hacked to death. Speakers also hung off the branches playing creepy Khmer music night after night to hide the screams of the exterminations. Take all this and add in quite a poignant audio guide (the whole place is designed for silence, rather than screeching tour group guides,) and turns out you create a moving place of remembrance, which you have to admit is something, for a place that is technically just a haunting piece of land.

This is kind of the warm up.

If you are going to see the Killing Fields, they go hand in hand with S21 (security Prison 21) an old school transformed into torture chambers. The overspill of those killed led to the creation of The Killing Fields.

Block C of the courtyard has been converted into a top floor of photography exhibitions and museum, above the cells that still remain below.  I’ll spare the accounts of prisoner’s testimonies that we read, there are only 7 by the way, that’s how many survived, but needless to say all of the group of the 5 of us could really do with a few episodes of Glee that afternoon.

We cast a vote for the most hard hitting fact of the day; that Pol Pot and his generals all led pretty decent lives and it took 30 years to be brought to justice (or death in Pol Pot’s case.) Or that the United Nation allowed the Khmer Rouge a seat as representatives of Cambodia until the 1980’s (to quote Lonely Planet:  ‘Meaning that the murderers represented their victims.’) Or that all of this was only in 1975 – 79. Very much almost, in our own lifetimes.

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Connecting to %s : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

Blasts From The Past…

December 2011

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