This post is likely to be challenging, intentionally so. It provides details of the Cambodian genocide which took place between 1975 and 1979. I have chosen to include it because, when considering how to travel consciously and how to be a balanced tourist, it is worth being aware of the recent history of the country, and the exceptional resilience of its people.
Through awareness and conversation, change can happen.
Phnom Penh is home to the Tuol Sleng Museum, the Cambodian genocide museum.
Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s regime and turned into Security Prison 21 (S21). The classrooms were turned into cells and torture chambers and it is believed that over 20,000 Cambodians passed through the gates over the three years, eight months and twenty days of Khmer Rouge rule. Only seven men survived the prison and were found when it was liberated by the Vietnamese on the 7th of January 1979, two remain alive today and were at the camp selling their book and the charity they established to help now elderly Cambodians who lost all of their family during the conflict.
The high school is now a museum. Testament to the past. A reminder for the future.
On 17 April 1975 the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh and started to implement their ideology of creating a giant, peasant-dominated, agrarian cooperative, untainted by anything that had come before. Within days, the entire population of Phnom Penh was marched to the countryside (aged, sick, infirm included) to commence work on the farms. Disobedience equalled execution. Any indication of intellectualism or of the past was irradiated. Wearing glasses was reason enough to be killed. Prison camps, such as S21 were established across the country, along with killing camps such as the infamous ‘killing fields’ 15km South East of Phnom Penh. Buildings, cars, the Olympic stadium, anything which symbolised the past was destroyed to make space for the new future, an agrarian communist future.
Pol Pot, born Saloth Sar, lead the Khmer Rouge and transformed Cambodia over this period. Family’s were split up; men sent to the men’s work camps, women to the women’s, children separated into boys and girls groups and sent to work, or be looked after by the elderly who could not work on the fields.
When I visited, my tour guide, Mrs Souke, was 7-10 years old at the time and shared her experiences with me. She hauntingly said “there was no family”. She remembers being hungry, thin, working on the work camps doing anything – farming, digging, building dams. She remembers carrying heavy rocks on bamboo sticks across her shoulder and her shoulder swelling up because of the abuse, but not being able to tell anyone about it and just having to get on and keep working. She remembers waking up before the sun for work, and only being allowed to stop work after it had set. She remembers being hungry, having no shoes, sleeping on the floor, eating the soil. She remembers her father and four siblings who died during the time; she is grateful for being able to be reunited with her mother and three siblings who survived. Most notably, she showed incredible resilience and forgiveness. When I asked what’s had happened to the prison guards at s21 she explained that none had been put in prison as they were only doing what they could to survive. They did not have a choice, and their circumstances were almost as bad as the prisoners. It was incredibly humbling to meet such a calm and warm lady who works every day to keep history alive, despite the horrors she must have lived through.
The Khmer rouge kept Nazi-like records of their prisoners, so, similar to Auschwitz, there are photographic records of everyone who passed through the camp, a snippet of which were on display:
The prisoners were given a number on the day they arrived. Depending on the year, the number shape is different – no numbers for 1975, baggage tab type shape numbers for 1976, rectangular numbers for 1977 and full prison-esque plaques for 1978. Rather horrifically, some of the numbers were stuck into skin (one boy had a number pined to his neck). Prisoners are brought to S21 for torture and if they didn’t die at the prison, they were then sent, shackled in a truck, to the nearby killing field where they were bludgeoned to death. The purpose of the torture was to establish why they supported the CIA. The reality was that most people were just normal people from the street with no political ambitions or affiliations.
The guards tended to be boys, chosen because they could be influenced more easily, forgiven because they had no choice:
Pol Pot died naturally, in freedom, in exile in Thailand in 1998.
In an upstairs room with posters on the lead Khmer Rouge generals who are now on trial by the International Criminal Court, there was a guest book. A visitor had written
“Extremely important to have this historical atrocity remembered. To walk the grounds, halls and stand in rooms that once served as a peaceful learning ground for children then abused for torture cells is something that I could never forget. It always astounds me as to what the human spirit can sustain. To the ‘survivors’ – go well. To the families of victims – may peace be with with you. To the children of Cambodia – learn well, read and listen.“