It’s difficult to describe these places and the emotions felt whilst visiting. The dark years in Cambodian history are little known throughout the globe – in ignorance I was actually unaware of these events until a few months ago.
The Khmer Rouge, led by the dictator Pol Pot, orchestrated one of the biggest genocides in human history. In effect, the country’s party started to kill it’s own people in order to create a society that would be self-sufficient and only working within agriculture. As a result Cambodians were forced to move from cities into countryside, to work long hours for little food and no pay, and could not profess to have sign of intellect or individually. From 1976 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge killed almost a third of the Cambodian population. They murdered intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, soldiers and members of their own party. They attempted to purge the population of anyone who had an education, and therefore could question the party’s ideals; over time they also killed innocent and random people who were ‘suspected’ of being traitors. They took children from parents and used them as the main force behind the torture and execution of thousands of innocent people – as children were easily influenced and controlled.
The Killing Fields is one of the predominant places where thousands of victims were taken and immediately murdered. Many mass graves have been excavated here and hundreds of skeletons found – many of these have been housed in a memorial building which is central to the complex. You can visit this and look upon the skulls of the Khmer Rouge victims – each categorised according to sex, age and cause of death. Walking around this beautiful place is a surreal experience. The audio guide provides fascinating but disgusting information about the events that occurred, and also first-hand descriptions from the torturers themselves. At the end you are played a section of harrowing music, mingled with a diesel engine that would have been played loud enough to drown out the screams of the terrified and dying people.
The below picture is taken from a fence that goes around one of the mass graves found – everywhere there are Buddhist prayer bracelets left as a sign of condolence and remembrance for the thousands of victims.
We then proceeded to S-21 prison, which was once a school until overtaken by the Khmer Rouge – since they closed all schools and places of education. This is the place where over 17,000 people were sent to be tortured about their so called traitor activities, and subsequently killed as a result. Only 7 survivors are said to have left the prison alive.
It’s a surreal and eerie place. Walking along the corridors that were once home to happy children, but became the site of nightmares. Rows and rows of pictures displaying a small proportion of the victim’s faces, mixed with images of the dead after torture. There are also pages and pages of so-called ‘confessions’ by those in the prison – many simply lied about their traitorous activities under duress.
You walk through rooms which hold a single bed (the below) and were used to torment the higher ranking victims. Then there are number of rooms holding numerous makeshift brick or wooden cells which gave the prisoners very little space to move – some of these still have dried smears and drops of blood on the floor. Walking amongst the dark cells felt so claustrophobic and at one point deathly quiet when I was by myself – I couldn’t stand the silence and the haunting feeling, and had to leave immediately. There are also empty rooms that were used to house hundreds of prisoners in rows – all shackled to the floor and left to lie and sit for days on end – eating, defecating and sleeping in the same spot.
The outside corridors are covered in barbed wire to prevent the desperate prisoners from committing suicide, and the gallows used for torture were once play ground items for the children’s exercise – this school come prison is one of the most terrifying places I have ever visited. An area of education, laughter and fun turned into a place of nightmares.
It was fascinating to visit and to learn more about the atrocities that went on in this 3 year period, but it was also very emotionally draining. Remnants of this terrible time are visible throughout Cambodia, but visiting these places helps us to understand more and remember those who suffered unjustly for a ludicrous cause.