The dark past of Cambodia

We weren’t looking forward to our visit to two of the more infamous sites of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous regime which led Cambodia through its darkest period of history.

Sure, it’s been written a million times before but some stark statistics are that anywhere between 2 and 3 million people were killed from 1975-1979, many of whom were brutally murdered by the government. That’s 1/3 of the entire population of Cambodia at the time, either murdered for sometimes no other reason than being educated or being a relative of the wrong person. That’s men, women, children and even babies. Khmer Rouge thinking was that babies would grow up and seek retribution for their parents’ death.

We were taken to the Tuol Sleng prison, also called S-21. An old primary school. This is where “confessions” were obtained from around 20,000 people and only 7 survived. Presumably as a way to officially sanction the evil that they were about to commit, prison administrators ensured that ever person who entered had an official photo taken and paperwork completed. Now, hundred of photos of the inmates are displayed and the look on some faces seemed to confirm that they knew what was going to happen to them. Some look only lost and confused. There are blood stained floors and walls. There are gory photos that show what was found in each of the rooms when the Vietnamese army discovered the prison.

The head of S-21, Comrade Duch, is thus far the only person to have been tried for the crimes perpetrated against the Cambodian people.

Next, we went to the Choeung Ek killing fields, though there are hundreds around Cambodia, which were exactly what the name suggests. A pagoda has been built as a tribute to around 17,000 who were murdered there, most taken from the S-21 prison. The memorial pagoda displays all the bones found, including skulls on the first four levels. Truly awful stories about how people were murdered were told to us by our guide. The bones and clothing that are still coming up to the surface, including all over paths on which we walked, underline how recent this ‘history’ still is. We quizzed our guide about many details but no one can explain why a government exterminates 1/3 of its population.

We’re glad we had this very educational and truly upsetting day. It is hugely impressive that Phnom Penh is now such a functioning and vibrant city, when only 30 years ago it had just emerged from complete abandonment during the Khmer Rouge years, its population going from 1 million to 2,000 in just a few days. Even more amazing is how the Cambodians we have met on this holiday, who undoubtedly have lost parents and loved ones, all seem to be educating themselves further in languages/skills (our tuk tuk driver was studying medicine in breaks!) and are hopeful and positive about the future. If there’s any justice in this world, they deserve every success.