Leaving the beach behind I headed to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. In a complete contrast to the awe and splendor of Siem Reap and the relaxed drunkeness of Sihanoukville, PP was a time for history.
The two main sites to visit are the Killing Fields and S21, both a remembrance of Pol Pots and the horror of the Khmer Rouge. S21 was originally Tuol Svay Prey High School until in 1975 Pol Pot's security forces turned it into Security Prison 21. This was the largest centre of detention and torture in the country during the Khmer Rouge reign. Under Pol Pots communist rule, he declared that all cities be evacuated and people sent to work in collectives in the countryside. Anyone who was educated, especially teachers or who posed a threat to this rule were sent to security prisons like S21 and tortured before being executed. He wanted to create a system where the uneducated rule. As a result he did serious damage to the country, for example he pulled up railway lines, destroyed history like at Siem Reap and made sure his country would remain backward by removing the educated. Almost everyone who entered S21 were later killed at the Killing Fields. During the first part of 1977, S21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day. It is believed that around 17,000 people were imprisoned here over the 3 and half year rule, and only a handful survived.
Entering S21 it is unthinkable to belief that a place of learning and education could be turned into a place of mass torture. Pretty courtyards are surrounded by white buildings. Only upon entering the buildings does the horror become apparent. Stark walls still show the damage and room after room so metal bed frames that prisoners were tied to and implements of torture nearby. Some of the buildings still show the prison cells that were created from brick or wood, barely big enough for a person to lie down in. Barbed wire surrounds the outside which was used to prevent prisoners from jumping to commit suicide. Outside there is a 'gallow' which was used when the school was active to hold rope for students to exercise with. Under Pol Pots this was used to torture prisoners by hanging them upside down until they became unconscious before they were dunked in dirty water to regain consciousness before the exercise was repeated.
Other rooms show picture after picture of the people who were brought in, ordinary people who were facing their death just for being educated or a supposed threat. There were photographs of children, some of them mere babies. What crime they committed cannot be imagined or even what threat. Remaining rooms held the skulls of victims, or instruments or torture. We watched a movie about the time of the Khmer Rouge. It ended with a Cambodian man who had been part of the forces of the Khmer Rouge. He happily explained his role in the Killing Fields, and did not seem the least perturbed that he had smashed 5 people to their deaths with a bamboo cane. The atrocities of this place are hard to explain. How man can turn upon man in that way is just not understandable. How one man can turn on his on his own countrymen and execute them, but then escape justice should be questioned. Pol Pot died before he could be tried.
The Killing Fields highlighted this further. Once tortured at S21 and names of other possible traitors had been drawn out, the prisoners were shuttled by bus to the Killing Fields. Here they were lined up in front of pits then beaten to death with whatever tool was available, including bamboo canes, in order to save bullets. Toxins and poisons where then poured over the pits to stop the smell but also to kill anyone who remained alive. There are 129 mass graves containing the bodies of around 17,000 men, women and children who were executed here between mid-1975 and December 1978. Excavations were carried out in the 1980s and a white stupa (religious monument) was built encasing around 9000 human skulls that were found during the excavations.
Entering the Killing Fields was even more surreal than S21, especially as there was a school nearby and children could be heard playing. Dramatic black clouds loomed behind the white stupa, making it even more prominent. Wandering round the fields was eerie. They cover very little space and in some of the pits human bones could still be seen poking out of the ground. The mass graves were small. One grave, about the size of a minibus is believed to hold 469 skeletons. Not only were these people hideously tortured for no crime, they were killed without compassion and dumped in shallow graves without any respect to humanity or religious belief. I found the stupa disturbing as well, even though it was built as a memorial. Human skulls were piled on top of each other, appearing like little care was given. I am sure it was at the time but part of me feels like these people still deserve a proper burial and care.
Phnom Penh and its remembrance to the atrocities it faced, explains the attitude of Cambodian people. It has a dark history where fellow countrymen turned upon each other, removing history and education. It is a moving place which makes you question how people can do this but also how people can stand by and let it happen. The UN for instance allowed the Khmer Rouge to occupy the Cambodian seat at the General Assembly until 1991. For 12 years the murderers were representatives of its people. Only now, 30 years later are the Khmer Rouge being brought to court for the atrocities they committed. It was a sobering experience, which made me question what makes humanity and what do we as an individual, really stand and fight for. After World War II many said it would not happen again but in a small country just as much evil resurfaced thirty years later. And it is still happening in other countries today. Maybe its time we stopped looking at ourselves and stand up to make a difference in the hope we can prevent this crime from happening again.