“Paul Potts? Thas the singer innit?”
“No, Pol Pot”.
I’m listening to two backpackers go back and forth on a bus Rose and I are taking from Siem Reap to the capital Phnom Penh.
“Ok. Pol Pot.”
“He was in charge. Over a 1 million people were killed”.
That number is still being debated. Between 1975 – 1979 when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, the standard estimate is that they were responsible for 1-3 million deaths. Which, to me, seems a ludicrous variance. How is it possible to say, “give or take 2 million people were killed”?
A Cambodian research group, who spent time investigating the graves, and documenting names – claims a figure closer to 2.2 million people, while Unicef has said 3 million. Regardless, assuming the truth is somewhere in the middle – the reality is that in four years, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge wiped out close to 25% of the population in the pursuit of an extreme form of Communism.
His idea was that the educated, or bourgeois class, were capitalist stains on Cambodia, infected with Western ideals that didn’t serve Cambodians (despite that he studied in Paris and apparently had an infatuation with French literature). Instead, Cambodia would become a new country, dependent on no one. It would be self-sufficient, based entirely on agricultural production from a working class who would produce rice for the country with no help or visibility of anyone who had a university degree.
To accomplish this, he went to where most educated people in Cambodia lived – the city – the capital Phnom Penh, and ordered everyone to move into the countryside. The entire city was emptied. Government workers from the previous regime were tagged for execution, authors, intellectuals, any one who had any independent thought and had any kind of previous popularity, even going so far as to include anyone wearing glasses. Why? Because they symbolized smarts. And smarts were on the chopping block.
Pol Pot wanted children or farmers. People who hadn’t, in his opinion, been exposed to ideas, and were malleable and impressionable enough to carry out his will. The rest could go. And, most did, ending up in a mass grave as part of the infamous Killing Fields, a site that lay 15km outside of the city. However, some people, had the unfortunate luck to also end up back in Phnom Penh, here:
Called S21, it was a jail that had been converted from a public school (was the irony lost on Pol Pot?) where inmates were questioned, tortured and then 20, 000 were led out to the Killing Fields where their sentence was carried out.
Now the site is called Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and Rose and I are here, walking through the various rooms and grounds. It’s beyond grim. People have died here, in horrible circumstances, while others, who weren’t so lucky had been put through every imaginable torture device by Khmer Rouge leadership to extract a confession, preferably to say they were working for the CIA or the Vietnamese – to help justify the Khmer Rouge’s paranoia.
On the first floor there are rows and rows of photos, showing each prisoner who entered – along with torture devices used, and metal beds where prisoners slept. On the walls of each room are photos taken when the prison was liberated. Each photo shows a dead prisoner tied to a metal bed.
We moved upstairs where there are rows and rows of rooms:
Brick prison quarters where the inmates were held. Higher up, on another floor, more cells, but these one wooden:
I thought it was pretty horrifying. But it only got worse. In the last stretch of building before we left, there were display cases of human skulls and bones with photographs above showing what the Killing Fields looked like when they were first discovered – a mud pit of skeletons.
Also, to underline the completely twisted and demented acts the soldiers committed, there were paintings on the walls that could have been representations of Dante’s Inferno – as he witnesses people tormented in purgatory. It was unbelievable.
After more light fare in the courtyard showing yet another torture device, Rose and I decided we’d seen enough, and found a restaurant near our hotel to plough into a bowl of noodle soup for comfort.
For me, I’d never truly understood the horrors committed by Khmer Rouge – which isn’t to say that I had always underestimated them – it’s more so that I knew they were bad, but didn’t know the entire, horrible picture.
I know, it’s a heavy duty experience and not the most pleasant to read about. I just found it incredible – the madness and how the Khmer Rouge actually retained nominal representation in the UN years after they were overthrown.
The whole thing just got under my skin. I also wasn’t big on Phnom Penh – maybe as a hangover from the museum – but Rose too said, even before going to the museum she felt a heaviness about the place that didn’t feel inviting.
So to balance things out, we fled the city. We’d read some good write ups about the south of Cambodia – a beach area known as Shihanoukville, and even better – an island off it called Koh Rong.
We packed our bags, booked a bus ticket, and hoped to find some sun.
Next stop: big lizards, bigger water buffalo, mosquito nets and an almost deserted island.