We took a bus from Siem Reap to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh for $6 a person. We stayed at the Angkor Mithona Guesthouse on the 5th floor with no elevator for $16/night. I had to haggle to get that rate. The room was small and old but what I liked about it was the balcony that overlooked a busy street. Upon arrival, I was underwhelmed. Phnom Penh used to be known as the “Pearl of Asia” due to its French influence and beautiful architecture. Most of its charm was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and what remains is a concrete jungle with rubbish lined streets. Why would one visit this city? It’s crowded and polluted but it’s burdened in the history of the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia in the 1970’s. In school, I never learned about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The history of it all starts in Phnom Penh. I was intrigued and had to see it for myself.
Here is a little history lesson for those of you like me that never learned about it. Pol Pot was a man, much like Adolf Hitler, who had a dream. His dream was for a utopian farming community where people worked together and shared everything. Pol Pot gathered his followers from poor, uneducated farmers. He basically told them that money and religion were evil and the reason why poor people didn’t have anything. Eventually he had enough followers to take over the country becoming prime minster in 1976. Pol Pot forced all urban dwellers into the countryside to work on collective farms and destroyed banks and temples. He is responsible for killing 3 million people (out of a population of 8 million). Anyone of suspicion (doctors, professors, monks, mechanics and people of any skill or trade) was imprisoned, tortured and murdered, pretty much in that order. Pol Pot told his followers that “It is better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.” Towards the end, Pol Pot became more crazy and paranoid and murdered many of his own followers, called cadres, too. His reign ended when the Khmer Rouge tried taking Vietnamese land along the Mekong River. The pissed off Vietnamese came in and ended it all, exposing the atrocities. Pol Pot not only manipulated his own people, he manipulated the whole world. The Khmer Rouge held the seat at the UN until 1982!
We arranged a Tuk Tuk driver for the day ($13) to take us to the Killing Fields and the S-21 (Tuol Sleng) prison museum. Entry to each was $6 a person and included an audio tour. We started at the Killing Fields where, as the name indicates, the Khmer Rouge sent people to be killed in hordes. Their method of killing people was beyond barbaric. Hands bound and blindfolded, the people were unloaded and forced into small huts. Loud music played from speakers hung in the trees to disorient them. They were lined up and walked to the edge of a large pit/grave. A cadre would club them in the head making them fall into the grave semiconscious where another cadre would slit their throat. One by one this is how millions of people were killed…men, women, elderly, and children. With babies they would simply bash their bodies against a tree. Pol Pot didn’t believe in “wasting” bullets so this is how he wanted the executions or “purging” to go. Walking around and listening to the tapes describe what took place in the very space I was in was surreal. Multiple mass graves are still visible though mostly filled in with dirt and grass now. When it rains bones, teeth and cloth are exposed which you can still see in and around the pits. There are signs saying “please do not step on bones”. Many of the bones are put on display. Some people, especially Christians, may find it taboo to display bodies instead of properly burying or cremating them. After discussing the ethics, the Cambodian people agreed that the bones should be displayed as a reminder to people of what happened, hoping that history will never repeat itself.
S-21 (Tuol Sleng Prison Museum) was originally a school in the center of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison and torture chambers. Usually people were only here a short while where they were tortured and forced to sign confessions of being a conspirator or spy. Once they signed the confession they were sent to the killing fields. The tour starts off by going one by one into the former classrooms turned torture chambers. A bed with no mattress, metal shackles still hanging from the frame, was the only furniture in each room. The museum put a picture of the wall displaying a body in the bed. It was very graphic. Being an ICU nurse I have been around death a lot, anyone who has been around death knows that a certain smell lingers when a person dies. Even though it has been over 40 years since someone was killed, I could still smell it. The smell haunts the entire building. They used all kinds of torture techniques ranging from waterboarding to hanging people upside down until they passed out then dropping them head first into pits of feces and urine to wake them up.
Other buildings contain former classrooms split into small prison cells with bricks or wood. Most of the cells were very small, only like 4X8 feet. The prisoner’s feet were shackled to a metal hook on the floor and had a metal box to relieve themselves. Some rooms were not split up but open where multiple people were imprisoned together and forced to lie down in rows like sardines. There is an illustration in the museum showing how the prisoners were aligned on the floor that reminded me of how the African slaves were shipped to America. The Khmer Rouge took pictures and documented every single prisoner that came into S-21. In one of the buildings many of the mugshots are exhibited. It was very disheartening to look into the sad eyes of people who were taken from their homes, guilty of nothing but being born in the wrong place and the wrong time.
All in all, Phnom is worth visiting so you can see all this for yourself. Thoughts of the Khmer Rouge and all the people who were tortured and killed followed me for days. I couldn’t believe how it all happened under the nose of the U.N. I think this significant portion of Cambodian history should be included in the curriculum for world history in high school. It is gruesome but I think it speaks volumes. I heard a memorable quote during the audio tour by the ambassador of Germany, H.E. Joachim Baron von Marschall. “No political goal or ideology, however promising, important or desirable it may appear, can ever justify a political system in which the dignity of the individual is not respected.”
I will never forget.