Cambodia’s Painful Past & Sad Present – S21 and the Killing Fields
Now before I get too in depth into our experience I must submit one caveat – we were only in Cambodia for 5 days total. Not nearly enough time to acquire an accurate view of any region of the world. The reflections below are simply my initial thoughts from the people we met and the experiences we had in our short time there.
The night after our whirlwind tour of the beautiful temples of Angkor near Siem Reap back at our guesthouse I found myself chatting with the front desk attendant who reluctantly began to tell me about the current state of her country.
She went onto detail the utter state of despair of her homeland – from corruption, to violence, to poverty, to lack of educational opportunities and worst of all, ‘…we don’t really have any hope for the future’. The entire conversation was held in a very tense fashion, the girl constantly making sure no one was close enough to overhear as according to her, ‘bad things still happen’ to people who talk poorly of the current government.
This certainly laid the groundwork for my perspective as we disembarked from Siem Reap and hopped on a mini bus headed west to Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh.
The route itself from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is worth commenting on as it was a bit of a microcosm for the bigger picture that would eventually become apparent.
Highway 6 runs between the two cities and heading out of Siem Reap is a decent road – certainly a bit dusty with some steep bumps to avoid but overall not bad. It’s when you get about 2/3 of the way into the journey when the road just…stops.
The pavement ends and the van is forced to continue its traverse over red Cambodian dirt for the next 20km or so which is then followed by patches of pothole-ridden pavement until the outskirts of Phnom Penh are reached.
In discussing with those familiar to the area, we were even lucky there was any pavement at all – apparently it’s a fairly new development. Stories of bumpy, stomach churning rides over this stretch from years past were abound.
And I don’t want this mistaken as a complaint about an uncomfortable ride – we can and have handled our share. My point is that this is Cambodia’s main highway. This is supposed to be the main artery connecting the country from east to west and a vast portion of it doesn’t even exist. This lack of infrastructure gives an immediate feeling of a government who can’t or won’t support it’s people.
We arrived into the capital city and found our way to a cheap little guesthouse near the central area – as touristy as you can get in the city but we had heard from multiple sources that exploring the outer regions of the city isn’t advisable for foreigners so we abstained.
The next morning we immediately set off again to see the city’s sights but it was of a different kind than the beauty we observed in Angkor. Phnom Penh’s attractions are the kind you wish didn’t exist. They are the remnants of the genocide that occurred here in the late 1970s by the Khmer Rouge, an extreme communist party who gained power at the end of the Vietnam War (which stretched in Cambodia).
Our first stop was a former primary school, named Tuol Sleng but now infamously known as S21.
First some context – the Khmer Rouge, who took power in 1975, had a vision to turn Cambodia into an ‘agrarian utopia’ where there was pure equality – no private ownership of anything foreign or modern. They deemed their first year in power ‘Year Zero’ to signify the purge of the ‘Old World’. They forced the residents of cities out onto farms where they were expected to work 20 hours a day and sleep in the fields.
Fearing the ability of the educated to threaten his party’s vision of this ‘agrarian utopia’ Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, ordered that all ‘intellectuals’ be rounded up, tortured and ultimately executed.
This meant all professionals, teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, anyone who wore glasses, anyone with long hair, anyone who could read. Dead. And not just them – their families too. “Pull up the grass and dig up the roots” was one of their rallying cries.
Ironically Pol Pot was a former teacher.
Ultimately of the country’s population of about 8,000,000, about 1,700,000 lost their lives during this time. That’s 21% of the population.
To assist in this policy many buildings were repurposed into prisons – thus we find ourselves at S21.
Unfortunately these prisons were not limited to incarceration – they were also torture facilities.
Over the course of their 4 years in power over 14,000 people were held captive in this place – only 7 survived. Purposefully left nearly in the same state in which it was discovered, many of the rooms still have blood stains from the atrocities committed within. Some of those stains are on the ceiling.
Each prisoner held at this hellish facility was photographed – some immediately upon arrival, others after extensive torture, cuts and bruises on full display. Their faces are tiled on the walls of nearly the entirety of ‘B Block’, the largest of the buildings within the compound.
Some don blank looks. Others show fear. Others anger. Most of utter despair.
Our tour guide was not a prisoner at S21 but lived during this time and after her entire family was murdered, she was sent out into the rice fields for 20 hours a day of forced labor. She sustained an injury to her leg leaving a massive scar from what she called ‘farmer torture’. We did not ask for an elaboration.
When their Khmer Rouge’s reign ended in 1979 and she returned to Phnom Penh, her situation barely improved. Despite the atrocities that had been committed over the past 4 years, there was absolutely zero support to be found for the survivors. Not food, not shelter, certainly not jobs or education.
She found herself sleeping under stairways. Well, trying to sleep while underneath stairways. The trauma she sustained prevented her from sleeping for days on end. She had to beg for food. Steal it if things got bad enough.
Eventually she was lucky enough to find a job cleaning the gruesome facility where she now found herself a tour guide. From there she was able to learn English from a local professor and develop some semblance of a life. According to her, this was an anomaly.
Most Cambodians still, 35 years after these atrocities, find themselves scraping by day-to-day without so much as an apology for the horrors they went through.
Worse still, many of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge still roam free within Cambodia’s borders – Pol Pot lived with many of his seconds in comfortable seclusion until his death in 1998. The current Prime Minister is a former party member. Other high ranking officials have been granted amnesty in exchange for their support of the current government.
We left S21 and followed the same path that proved to be the final journey for nearly 9,000 of it’s prisonsors – the road south to Choeung Ek more famously known as the Killing Fields.
During this journey we were mobbed at several stoplights by groups of young children, donning torn clothing and covered from head to toe in filth, begging for money.
We had heard from multiple sources that these kids are usually working for a gangster of sorts who takes the majority of their hauls each day. Knowing this I tried to ignore them but finally had to relent and give them a couple dollars. It was the definition of heart wrenching.
When we finally made it to Choeung Ek, we spent about 2 hours walking around what at a glance would appear to be simply a quiet field dotted with some trees. This could not be further from the horror of which was the scene 35 years earlier.
This is where the prisoners of S21 in addition to many others from the neighboring areas were brought to be executed and buried. The dead discovered there amounted to over 20,000 but as rains continue to erode the area, new evidence of human remains are unearthed.
As we walked in between the excavated holes, it was almost impossible not to set foot on a torn piece of clothing partially displayed out of the ground. The exposed bones were easier to avoid.
Every few months volunteers go around the site, pick up these exposed remains and transfer them to the Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa – a 62m high Buddhist structure housing these remains including over 5,000 skulls which stare out over the fields which held their final moments.
That night we were eating dinner near our guesthouse when an old man walked by selling wallets he claimed were made by local minorities. Who knows if that’s true but he had very kind way about him so we bought one and invited him to join us for the meal.
He declined food, opting for just a water and for the next hour described to us a summary of his life. As you can imagine, it was sad. He and his family had been forced out of Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge and lost everything.
Despite his English capabilities, this 70 year old is unable to find a job and has resorted to hitching rides into the city to sell his family’s wares for his primary source of income. He reiterated the current governments intolerance for dissent and how it’s leaders are the same who murdered a fifth of the population.
When he left us he went to sleep on the abandoned 2nd floor of a local shopkeeper’s building. He could not afford any accommodation.
This conversation, on the eve of our departure, worked to cement my sad view of this country. With a past so painful and a present so devoid of hope how can one think anything positive?
Now I’m sure if we had ventured out to live with a family for several weeks like we had in other countries my view would have changed at least a bit – for the human spirit tends to find light even in the darkest of places.
But we didn’t have that experience.
We had one that brought me up close and personal with what it’s like to get dealt a truly shitty hand in life. And from this perspective I feel even luckier than I did before – but it’s hard to shake the feeling of absolute and utter sadness after our 5 days in Cambodia.