Can your remember where you lived and what you were doing between 1975 and 1979?
I know that I was living in a small town north of Toronto, attending high school by day (okay, some days) and spending too much time at auctions and racetracks. I like to think that I have a fairly good memory of the period. Although I’m no more musically inclined than Edith Bunker, I can still sing the opening song from All In The Family; I can list the Kentucky Derby winners from Dust Commander through Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid; and I still have nightmares about a man-eating great white shark terrorizing the good people of Amity Island.
But what do I remember about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge? Other than the fact he was a leader in Cambodia in the 1970s and a very bad man who probably killed some people, not very much. For whatever reason – probably because Cambodia and Vietnam seemed so far off and not a part of my life – I simply didn’t pay attention when they made the evening news during my teenage years.
My sister and her husband were adults in the 1970s so I assumed they would be able to fill me in on this period in Cambodia’s history. We discussed it over dinner in Phnom Penh on Friday night. It was a short discussion. So I got out my phone, did about two minutes of research, and booked a day tour of the Killing Fields and a facility known as S-21. By the end of Saturday #82 we would know a whole lot more about this horrific period.
If you think you too could use a Cambodian history refresher, please read the next three paragraphs that I have cobbled together form various sources. It will only take a minute. Do it.
During the Vietnam/Indochina war, the northern and eastern regions of Cambodia held strategic routes for the Communist Army of Vietnam. Fearing that the Cambodians would join forces with the communists, America ‘displaced’ the King and president, and replaced them with a government more sympathetic to Western views. They also heavily bombed the rural areas of the northeast in an unsuccessful attempt to close transportation routes to Vietnam and gain the upper hand against the Vietnamese. Understandably, the locals in the areas subjected to the bombings became fiercely anti-American and formed a guerrilla group fighting on the side of the Communists. They called themselves the Khmer Rouge.
As the war continued, the Khmer Rouge grew stronger, recruited more members and pushed the front line closer to the capital of Phnom Penh. Just days after taking power in April of 1975, the Khmer Rouge ordered 2 million people living in Phnom Penh and other urban areas to head to the countryside. This was to be “Year Zero” in Cambodia’s new rural, classless society.
Citizens were to be turned into traditional rural peasants, referred to as the “old people” by the Khmer Rouge. Urban workers and educated elites were viewed as “new people” and easily expendable. The mass executions began in 1975. Doctors, teachers, journalists, lawyers, and police officers were tortured and executed. People with soft hands were executed. People were executed for wearing eyeglasses, as it was seen as a sign of education. Wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and grandparents were executed for being related to the so-called traitors.
Saturday #82 started with a leisurely breakfast at our boutique hotel in Phnom Penh. Think omelettes, croissants and fresh-squeezed orange juice by the pool. I knew this was going to be a very rough day so a little bit of luxury seemed okay.
By noon we had been bused to a former inner-city high school known as S-21. The Khmer Rouge occupied the property in 1975 and for three years they used it to detain and torture between 12,000 and 20,000 men, women, children and infants.
Several professional guides were on hand to escort small groups through the facility but I opted to rent an audio guide and walk around at my own pace. There were perhaps 100 of us wandering the grounds at the same time, in complete silence, transfixed by the audio guide. The narrator went into great detail to paint a picture of what happened here. He introduced us to several survivors and one of the guards who told their stories. Of the roughly 20,000 people who entered S-21, only 12 survived. Twelve.
For two hours I moved from room to room, examining photos of the people who were imprisoned here, piles of their clothing, the shackles and steel bars that were used to detain them, the tools that were used to torture them. Today the buildings echo with the sadness of the horrific atrocities that took place here not so long ago.
The vast majority of the people who passed through S-21 were taken by truck to an orchard located about 8km south of the city. The site is now officially known as Choeung Ek Genocide Center but more commonly referred to as The Killing Fields. In reality Choeung Ek is just one of several hundred mass grave sites located throughout Cambodia.
After a few hours at S-21 we boarded an air conditioned bus for a decidedly more comfortable ride to Choeung Ek. Once inside the gates we were handed another headset and left to walk around the property at our leisure. The well produced audio guide included a chilling account of a guard who was forced to kill or be killed. Nothing can prepare you for the stories you will hear at Choeung Ek.
In 1980 the government of Cambodia in conjunction with a team from the United Nations began exhuming 80 of the site’s 129 communal graves. They discovered 8985 bodies, most still bound and blindfolded. Very few people were shot to death at Choeung Ek as the Khmer Rouge considered bullets to be an unnecessary expense. Instead, those who died here were hacked to death with machetes or bludgeoned with a metal pipe. Some were beaten to a pulp with a bamboo pole and then pushed into mass graves while still alive.
Most of the buildings that existed at Choeung Ek in 1975-1979 were subsequently removed by locals who were scrounging for building supplies in the post Khmer era. Today Choeung Ek is quiet and peaceful. When we visited, birds sang and a warm breeze rustled through the leaves of trees that have seen some horrific sights.
Some see Choeung Ek as a place of unspeakable horrors. Some see it as a place that we can and must learn from. Some people claim to hear the ghosts of those who died here. Whether they do or not isn’t the point. If the spirits of those who died here do exist, I imagine they’d want us to tour the rooms at S-21, to see the tools of torture, the shackles and leg irons, the tiny cells and the classroom sized areas where hundreds of people were shackled together on the cold concrete floor until they confessed to trumped up charges and were executed. The spirits would want us to promise that a leader like Pol Pot must never again gain power, that such atrocities not be repeated.