Sunday, 17 February 2013

Phnom Penh (2) - The Atrocities

It is hard to write about the day we spent at Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) and Choeung Ek (one of the infamous Killing Fields) and do it justice.  What we have learned about the recent historical events in Cambodia profoundly affected us both and the day we spent at Tuol Long and Choeung Ek was harrowing..

A very potted history

I think a bit of background is needed for those who, like, me, knew little about recent Cambodian history.  The Killing Fields is only part of a complicated story.

Cambodia was a French colony for a long time until 1955 when King Sihanouk took over as leader of the Popular Socialist Party.

Choeung Ek Memorial
In the years following he struggled to keep Cambodia neutral during the unrest of the 1960s when neighbouring south eastern countries, Laos and Vietnam, were being subject to increasing communist attack.  King Sihanouk gave considerable power to his Defence Minister Lon Nol who eventually overthrew the King in 1970 sending Sihanouk to exile in Beijing

When the anti-communist south Vietnamese, supported by the US, began bombing Cambodia (dropping more bombs that they did throughout the whole of World War II), this angered many Cambodians and support grew for their own communist party, the Khmer Rouge. 

The Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot and his cronies, took control of Phnom Penh in April 1975.  Within days, city dwellers throughout Cambodia were driven to rural areas to work as effective slaves.

Families were separated, individuals sent for re-education (never to be seen again), schools and closed, and food was rationed to such an extent that in the months and years that followed many people died of starvation.  Many succumbed to disease, dying needlessly because there were no doctors or nurses to treat even the most simple of illnesses.

And as the Khmer Rouge sought to rid the country of its opponents, so began the slaughter. 

Those targeted were anyone who had worked under the previous administration, the upper and middle classes, along with professional people such as doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, civil servants, engineers, monks, even factory workers - basically anyone with an education.  Even those who wore glasses or who had soft hands were summarily imprisoned, tortured and executed.

And because the regime feared that surviving family members of those executed would later seek revenge, whole generations of families were ruthlessly obliterated and even babies were not spared.  One of their slogans to justify killing children was "When you dig up the grass, you must remove even the roots".

Between 1975 and 1979 he Khmer Rouge committed mass genocide against its own people. 

Estimates of the number of victims range from 1 million to over 3 million.  In 1975 Cambodia had a population of around 7 million and therefore a conservative estimate is that one quarter of the population was massacred or died as a result of the regime.

The North Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in January 1979 forcing the Khmer Rouge to retreat to the jungle.  Civil war continued to rage throughout the 1980s with the Khmer Rouge operating from their jungle garrisons, invading villages and continuing to cause terror in rural areas.  Tens of thousands Cambodians died during this period and hundreds of thousands more were forced to flee.

During this period the Khmer Rouge was still recognised by the United Nations as the lawful government of Cambodia as it seemed no-one in the west at that time wished to take the side of a communist North Vietnam.  Both America and the UK supported and armed the Khmer Rouge following the invasion by the North Vietnamese in 1979 and it is alleged the SAS provided covert training.

Relative peace finally came to Cambodia in 1993.

We saw this 4-5 inch scorpion in the grounds
of Choueng Ek
However, ex high ranking officials of the Khmer Rouge still hold office in government today (because they switched allegiance at the last minute).  They continue to enjoy a life of luxury, wield immense power and wealth, as part of a government which is routinely cited as one of the world's most corrupt.

A Tribunal was eventually set up in 2004 to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity against senior members of the Khmer Rouge but progress was hampered by the Cambodian government who maintained the country's poor economy and other financial commitments meant that only had limited funding for the expensive tribunal proceedings.  Donations were made by other countries including Canada, India and Japan and the first cases were eventually heard in 2011 but the whole process is fraught with criticism.

A personal account

We had only been in Cambodia a day or two when I started reading the book “First They Killed my Father” by Luong Ung which describes, through the eyes of a child, life under the Khmer Rouge from 1975 until 1979.  My knowledge of Cambodia’s history was sketchy and Ung’s book does not purport to advance any complicated political or historical background explanation.  What she does is explain the misery of her life under the Khmer Rouge and her struggle for survival, what she witnessed, how much she endured and lost, and how these experiences have stayed with her.  She tells her story with dignity, honesty, and the intense anger and hatred of an young orphaned child

Luong Ung was one of 7 children of a wealthy Chinese-Khmer family living in Phnom Penh.   She was 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge stormed the city and within 3 days the soldiers had forced people from their homes turning Phnom Penh into a ghost town.  Those that refused to leave were murdered.

Luong’s father was a high ranking government official during Lon Nol’s time as leader and was therefore considered an enemy of the new regime.  As a family, they fled to relatives in the country and assumed the identity of poor peasant farmers constantly fearful of discovery.

Her childhood was immediately cut short, her schooling ended and she was set to work in the rice fields with the rest of the population.  She barely survived starvation and disease.

Excavated grave pits behind the Memorial
Heartbroken, she stood by as she watched her beloved father marched off to certain execution; she was helpless when the 15 year old sister she worshipped died alone in filthy hospital conditions of a treatable disease; she was powerless to do anything as her mother sustained beatings after trying to smuggle food to feed her baby sister – shortly afterwards her mother and sister were both later taken away and executed.

Luong’s story does not end in 1979 when the Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia and forced the Khmer Rouge to retreat into the jungle.  In short she, her brother and sister-in-law were smuggled to Saigon.  In Saigon they sold everything they had and joined the hordes of Vietnamese fleeing the country by boat.

They risked their lives making the dangerous journey to Thailand in an overloaded rickety old fishing boat, miraculously survived the journey and ended up in a Thai refugee camp which they called home for 9 months before they were sponsored to move to America to start a new life.  Her two remaining brothers and one sister remained in Cambodia. 

Luong’s family’s and many others remaining in Cambodia’s continued to suffer when Pol Pot fled to the jungle.  As civil war persisted throughout the 1980s, the Khmer Rouge continued to terrorise her those living in rural Cambodia.

After the family were separated when she fled to the US with her brother and sister-in-law, Luong had no contact with her family in Cambodia for several years. 

In America, Luong’s brother and sister-in-law worked and saved money to send back to Cambodia.  At that time America did not recognise Cambodia as a separate country and therefore would not accept post to be sent to Cambodia so every month her brother made the trip across the border into Canada to send parcels and money home to various addresses in Phnom Penh in the hope that eventually they would reach the family. 

They heard nothing back for some time until one parcel eventually reached their eldest brother and the family was reunited.  Many families were not so lucky and do not know, to this day, whether their family and friends perished or escaped. 

This child and her family went through hell and her story is just one of millions.

Reading Luong's account gave me just one person’s story and an insight as to how this history is very real and that it affected everyone in this country, and I believe it gave me a better understanding of the human cost when we visited the two sites at Tuol Sleng Prison and Choeung Ek.

Tuol Sleng Prison

Tuol Sleng was originally a school built in the 1960s but after the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh, all schools were closed and, like many others, it was used as place to incarcerate, interrogate, torture and finally execute men, women and children.

The school was turned into a security complex known as Security Prison 21 (S-21).  There were approximately 150 of such prisons throughout Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime.  It is estimated that up to 20,000 people were imprisoned, tortured and murdered here.  Those who were not summarily executed here at Tuol Sleng were taken instead to Choeung Ek extermination centre to meet their deaths.

The museum features the cells as they were during the regime’s rule.  The cells were tiny, only 1 metre by 2 metres and were either made from brick or wood, built inside the existing classrooms where the blackboards still hang on the walls from the school days.

There were larger interrogation and torture rooms.  When the North Vietnamese invaded in January 1978 they found the bodies of 14 individuals inside these rooms where they had been left to rot as the Khmer Rouge fled.  In each of the rooms where they were found are photographs of how these last victims of the prison were found.  They are now buried in the courtyard.

On display are examples of instruments of torture.  One striking fact about the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, and which was to be reinforced during our trip to Choeung Ek, was the nature of the weapons used to inflict violence on their victims.  Guns and ammunition were expensive and rarely used.  The Khmer Rouge improvised using farm tools such as shovels, hoes, hammers, axles, bamboo sticks, even serrated palm leaves to cut throats – anything rather than waste a bullet.  Death under the Khmer Rouge was not quick; it was always brutal and often prolonged.

We walked through rooms with row upon row of photographs of the victims at S-21.  There were small children, men and women, as well as many elderly.  Paul and I wandered around separately (which we tend to do at museums) but when we spoke afterwards we were both struck by some of the expressions on the faces in the photographs for the same reason.  Many of the victims looked hopeless and resigned, most just look terrified, but some were proudly defiant.  It was heart-breaking looking into the eyes of these people and reading their faces.

In one section there were translations into English of confessions extracted from some of the prisoners, most admitting to having engaged in activities now banned by the regime, such as contact with foreigners.  Among the prisoners were 9 westerners and we read transcripts of their admissions of crimes against the regime.  They all perished here.

Inside the Memorial Stupa
One section of the museum considers and analyses just how the brutal regime commanded and maintained such support and how the people recruited were able to commit such atrocities against their fellow countrymen.  It considers the choices available to those people and looks at the reasons behind their decisions.  It also asked how it was these people could perpetrate such vicious acts, how they could inflict such pain terror on their fellow Cambodians, and how did those that survived the war live with themselves today with that on their conscience?  The enduring psychological affect on the perpetrators of violence in these circumstances is is not something that is usually addressed. 

There were statements on display from former prison guards, many were just children when they were recruited and who did so because they knew they would be fed, they wanted to fight the South Vietnamese and the US, or simply because if they refused they would be murdered (and likely their family too).  There was no doubt that defying the Khmer Rouge meant certain death.

Some were defiant because they believed they had no choice, some were repentant, and as you examine the testimonials you ask yourself the question:  what would I have done? It is easy to say you would refuse and rather die than do what they did but the truth is it is unlikely you would be given that choice.  If you were given the choice of killing a neighbour of watching your son or daughter, mother or father being slowly tortured, what would you do in a time of war? 

It was suggested that maybe they were the forgotten victims.  War is evil and hateful for everyone and you are often judged in accordance with whether you were on the winning side, not on your deeds alone.

In the last exhibition room there is a collection of human skeletal remains; skulls and bones piled into glass cupboards, unidentified except, in some cases, by gender and age group but nothing more specific than that.  It is a shocking and grisly sight but it stops you in your tracks as you faced with a crude reminder of the ultimate price paid by the people who passed through this place.

After spending a couple of hours visiting the museum, and in a suitably sombre mood, we climbed into our tuk tuk to make the journey to Choeung Ek, the same 15km journey made over 35 years ago by many of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng.

Choeung Ek

Before 1975 Choeung Ek was an orchard and a Chinese graveyard.  Some remnants of Chinese graves remain and nowadays they are afforded respect throughout the grounds by the guardians of this place.

Nowadays, Choeung Ek is the best known of The Killing Fields sites.   A memorial has been erected to the estimated 20,000 people who were murdered here and dumped in shallow graves.

It is only one of approximately 300 Killing Fields sites scattered across Cambodia.

When you arrive you are provided with an audio guide and you are then requested to follow the instructions provided quietly as you are guided around the site.  

The memorial itself takes the form of a Buddhist stupa constructed from marble and acrylic glass, and it houses over 8,000 of the skulls recovered, as well as many other bones and clothing found at the site.  The skulls are displayed on the first 16 levels and can be clearly viewed.  They have been sorted into gender and age range but their actual individual identities will never be known.

The audio guide is narrated in English by a Cambodian survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime.  It is humbling and profoundly moving.  You are guided around the site by the narrator while he explains where the overcrowded trucks pulled up and where the prisoners (who had usually undergone torture and starvation beforehand) were taken off (sometimes first forced to dig their own graves), and then lined up alongside these shallow pits and bludgeoned to death with crude weapons.  Loud music was piped through speakers while executions took place to obscure the screams of the dying and many were buried alive.  Chemicals were spread over the bodies to help with the odour and to aid decomposition before they covered up with a thin layer of mud.

The audio guide contained individual accounts or further information, and even music, and you were encouraged to take time to reflect.

The atmosphere is solemn as you would expect and because visitors wander around in virtual silence, stopping every now and again to sit down on a bench to listen to a section on the tape, you really have the opportunity to lose yourself and consider the extent of what actually happened here at this site and all over Cambodia.

They found 129 grave pits and excavated 86, finding nearly 9,000 bodies.  It was agreed in 2005 that no further remains would be disturbed but, particularly following the rains, bones and teeth and pieces of clothing continue to find their way to the surface and remain clearly visible throughout the grounds.  Every 2 or 3 months, workers at the site go around pick up those remains that have surfaced and they are stored.  

No-one will ever know the identity of the people who died here.  The people who survived will never know what happened to their family and loved ones.  No records were kept so survivors have no way of knowing if, when, how or why their loved ones died or whether they managed to flee to safety and found refuge in a far flung land.  Over 35 years later, without irrefutable proof of their death, some people still harbour hopes of seeing their loved ones again.

The little wooden "spirit house" beside the grave
containing the 166 headless corpses
In one mass grave pit they found 450 bodies of men, women and children.

There is another pit where they found 166 headless skeletons with remnants of clothing worn by Khmer Rouge soldiers.  It is a Cambodian superstition that if your body is not buried whole then your spirit will haunt the earth forever.  It is suspected that these were Khmer Rouge soldiers murdered by the paranoid elite because they believed they had become a threat in some way.  Everyone who was perceived to be the slightest threat was slaughtered, even those on the same side

Burying these men without their heads would have been a sign of contempt and considered an additional punishment. No-one was trusted in these times.

Next to this pit was a “spirit house”.  These little shrines are found throughout south east Asia and they are miniature houses or temples, sometimes extremely colourful (but usually gold) and often elaborately designed.  They are usually balanced on a pedestal or pillar and placed just outside houses or business.  They are a refuge for lost spirits.
They are also shrines where the living can honour their ancestors.  There will be a bowl or jar at the door of the house where incense sticks are burned, and each day offerings of food and drink are placed outside to appease any spirits who may otherwise cause problems. 

The spirit house situated near this particular grave pit was a simple one made from wood and a poignant reminder of the importance of customs, superstition and religion to the Cambodian people. 

The Memorial Stupa
In another pit they found the remains of 100 women and babies.  A few feet from this pit was a tree which has been labelled the Killing Tree.  When they discovered this mass grave they also discovered remains of blood, bones and brains on the bark of this tree.  It is believed that the women were hacked or bludgeoned to death, while their infant children were swung by their feet against the trunk of the tree, smashing their tiny skulls before hurling them into the pit after the bodies of their mothers.

As you walk around the site, listening to the gentle voice of the narrator asking you not to forget the people who died here and in places like it all over the country, you look down at the well worn path and see the bones dulled with age and shiny enamel of the teeth of some of the victims which have not yet been collected by the volunteers.  It is as if, as the narrator says, the dead refuse to be forgotten. 

Faced with this evidence I will never forget the victims of the Khmer Rouge, the survivors and this day will live forever in my memory as one of the most disturbing but moving on our whole trip.

It was a difficult day and we were exhausted at the end of it.  How humans can inflict so much misery is beyond me.  And it seems nothing has been learned from history as they continue to do so.  But how some can endure so much suffering and survive, like Luong Ung did, humbles me.


No comments:

Post a Comment