There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Monday, 17 February 2014

Phnom Penh (2), Killing Fields and Torture Chambers: Part 5 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

The same driver but a different guide, a young woman called C, arrived at 8.30 to take us to the Choeung Ek killing field.

During the late 1960s Cambodia became increasingly drawn into the Vietnam War (or American War, depending on how you look at it). In 1970 General Lon Nol overthrew King Sihanouk who had made a secret deal with Hanoi allowing men and materiel to move through Cambodia along what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Lon Nol’s pro-American stance led to war against North Vietnam. His forces were no match for the battle hardened Vietnamese, meanwhile indiscriminate American bombing continued. Between 1970 and 1975 this war cost 300,000 Cambodian lives.
 
King Sihanounk photographed in 1983
Photo stolen from Wikipedia


While Lon Nol fought the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge, the home grown communists, were expanding their influence from their northern bases and by 1973 they held most of the country outside the capital. On the 17th of April 1975 they took Phnom Penh and were greeted as liberators. They ordered the immediate evacuation of the city, claiming the Americans were about to launch a bombing offensive. They were widely believed, though two weeks later, on the 30th of April, American involvement in Southeast Asia ended when the North Vietnamese took Saigon. For the next three years Phnom Penh was a ghost city.
 
Lon Nol
Photograph stolen from Wikipdeia

Taking the 11th century Cambodian golden age as their model, the Khmer Rouge set out to create a self-sufficient agrarian society where all men and woman worked side by side in comradely equality. To achieve this superficially charming, if rather dotty, ideal the Khmer Rouge first abolished schools, money and markets and then set about eliminating all opposition. According to Pol Pot, ‘A person who has been spoiled by a corrupt regime cannot be reformed, he must be physically eliminated from the brotherhood of the pure.’ Those who could not be among the ‘brotherhood of the pure’ included ethnic minorities - the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham – and the ‘new people’ which meant city dwellers and intellectuals. Teachers were particularly strenuously persecuted, but the definition of ‘intellectuals’ was drawn widely and included those who spoke French and anyone wearing glasses. 
 
Pol Pot
(Picture stolen from Wikipedia)
Much of the killing was carried out by brutalised child soldiers. Of Cambodia’s 8 million people over 1 million were murdered and as many died of starvation and neglect.

Officially 12km southwest of the city, Choeung Ek is barely beyond the suburban sprawl. Avoiding the congested main highway, our driver zigged and zagged down a series of minor roads, some unsurfaced, between houses, factories and the occasional monastery.

Choeung Ek is just a field. Part of it was once a Chinese burial ground, but there is nothing to suggest it was a spot marked out by nature as a place of great evil, or great suffering, but then Auschwitz was once an ordinary barracks on the Silesian plain.

Passing through the entrance, we approached the Choeung Ek memorial, a simple glass-doored chedi, accompanied by the sound of children chanting at a nearby primary school.


The monumental chedi at Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek is one of over 400 killing fields so far identified in Cambodia. It was not the worst, but it is the most well-known and has become the centre for commemoration. The remains of 8985 individuals have been exhumed from 43 mass graves, but there may be as many as 17,000 as more graves remain unexcavated.


Mass graves at the Choeung Ek killing field

Every year the rains bring bones to the surface and even along the paths it is easy to find the bleached remains of human beings entombed in the hard-packed earth.
 
Bones in path, Choeung Ek killing field


The chedi contains the remains of some of the victims, skulls at the bottom and smaller and smaller bones as it goes up through 13 layers. The base contains a collection of implements used in the slaughter - axes, metal spikes, hammers, hooked knives - and diagrams of the damage each would do to a human skull.
 
Just a few of the victims of the Choeung Ek killing field


The use of expensive bullets was abandoned early in the genocide. If Auschwitz was killing on an industrial scale, this was killing as a cottage industry, more brutish, more bloody, more personal.


The base of the memorial chedi
Choeung Ek
The bones are laid on aluminium trays and some of those above eye height still have their protective packaging. On the underside of one are the words ‘the protective film should be taken out 45 days after having completed the execution.’ Even here the remorseless God of Irony demands his due.

Beyond the chedi is a banyan tree from which loudspeakers were hung so that music could drown out all other noises.


The banyan tree, Cheung Ek

Around are the pits of the mass graves. One, which was filled with mothers and children, sits beside the tree against which the youngest children’s brains were bashed out. There is another where 160 bodies were found, but not a single skull. This is a place where it helps to switch off your imagination.


Mass grave, Choeung killing field

The victims were brought here, maybe 20 at a time, in trucks from Tuol ( sometimes 'Toul') Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, and it was there we went next.

As we drove back into town C asked, ‘Have you any questions about the Khmer Rouge?’ I paused for a moment, but there really was only one question, so I asked it. ‘Why?’ ‘That,’ she said, ‘is the question everybody asks, but there is no answer.’

The Cambodian genocide stands out among the genocides of the 20th century. Turks killed Armenians, Germans killed Jews, Hutus killed Tutsis but Cambodians killed Cambodians. Nothing marked out the perpetrators as being different from their victims; indeed as the revolution began to eat itself some of the early perpetrators became victims.

On the way we dropped into Psar Tuol Tom Poung, also known as the Russian Market, as during the Vietnamese occupation (1978-1989) economic sanctions meant the only imported goods available came from Russia. It is now a regular market with local produce and goods from all over the world. We bought some table mats as gifts and strolled round this refreshing outbreak of normality


Psat Tuol Tom Poung, the 'Russian Market'
Phnom Penh

Security Prison 21, known as S-21 or Tuol Sleng Prison is now Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was once Tuol Svay Prey High School and from certain angles it still looks like a high school.....


Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh
From some angles it still looks like the high school it once was

... but high schools do not have graves were you might expect volleyball courts, nor gallows where there should be football goals.
 
Gallows where there should be football goals, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Only prisoners of some importance or standing were brought to Tuol Sleng, along with their wives and children (‘kill them all, even the children so there is no one left to seek vengeance’).


A row of classrooms used as cells, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
A row of classrooms became spacious cells, each equipped with a bed and a desk at which prisoners were made to write out their life stories from their births to (very nearly) their deaths. The rooms were fitted with rings so prisoners could be suspended from the ceiling and electricity points so that.... (I do not need to finish this sentence.)


'Spacious cell' Tuol Sleng genocide Museum


The block beyond this contains many of the mugshots taken when prisoners arrived - and some after they had been tortured. There were row upon row of them, mounted on school display boards. The photographs of the children were the most disturbing. Lynne left the room in tears. ‘I found this place even more  upsetting than Auschwitz,’ she said later. There were more rooms and exhibits beyond this, but we had seen more than enough.
 
Mugshots, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

C had declined to go through this room with us. She had the same look in her eye as Trang, our guide in Saigon two years ago, when he declined to visit the 'war remnants' museum with us. Trang had been in Cambodia, conscripted into the Vietnamese army of occupation, and remains troubled by his memories.

It was the Vietnamese who had put an end to the horror. Launching an invasion on Christmas Day 1978, they routed the Khmer Rouge in two weeks. They stopped the killing, restored markets, education, freedom of movement and private farming immediately, money and freedom of religious practice within a year. They get little credit for this, the US, Thailand and China giving tacit support to Pol Pot as the official head of state. The anti-Vietnam stance of the US was predictable given the timing and China staged a brief invasion of Northern Vietnam’s Lao Cai province in protest. The Khmer Rouge and their allies retained Cambodia’s seat in the UN until 1993.

Cambodian attitudes to the Vietnamese vary. C was careful always to refer to the years 1978 to 1989 as the ‘Vietnamese occupation’. Certainly they outstayed their welcome, only withdrawing when the collapse of the Soviet union cut off their funds, but on their arrival they were treated as liberators. Just once did C refer to the Vietnamese as ‘liberators', specifically in relation to Tuol Sleng prison.

There is another view, which we were to encounter the following day. Some Cambodians retain a perverse affection for Pol Pot, regarding him as a victim rather than a villain. To these people Tuol Sleng was fabricated by the Vietnamese to blacken his name.

The Vietnamese found 14 corpses in the prison, they were the last people to die there, and are buried outside the classroom block where they were found.
 
The graves of the last 14 to die at Tuol Sleng

Seven people survived Tuol Sleng. Two of them are still alive and they were both there.

Bou Meng is a small, wizened, toothless old man. He was selling signed copies of a book written about him by one of the genocide researchers. We bought one and were rewarded with this picture. I was unsure if it was appropriate to smile, Lynne looked serious but Bou Meng flashed a big, if slightly gummy, grin. He had earlier given a graphic description of how he came to have no teeth, our understanding in no way impaired by lack of a common language.


Bou Meng, Tuol Sleng survivor

He was, and is, an artist and it was his ability to draw portraits of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leaders that saved his life. Although he seemed relaxed and happy, his art work, some of which sat on his desk, is a way of working out his feelings. His wife was arrested with him, he has not seen her since and still wants to know when and how she died. He asked Comrade Duch - the camp commander - when giving evidence at his trial. Duch, who acknowledges his crimes and is currently serving life imprisonment, had no answer - he could not remember one death among so many thousands.
 
Comrade Duch, the commander of Tuol Sleng Prison,  photographed at his trial in 2009
Picture stolen from Wikipedia

We both wanted to ask C about her family's experiences and were pondering how to frame the question when she volunteered the information. He father came from Kompong Thom, she said, but had been a high school student in Phnom Penh staying with his uncle.
 
Pol Pot - as drawn by Bou Meng

When the Khmer Rouge arrived he tried to make his way back to Kompong Thom, but was caught up in the general movement of people and found himself in the north west of the country where he was put into a boy's camp. Khmer Rouge policy was to separate husband from wives, parents from children.

A couple of years later the Khmer Rouge decided he should be married and sent him, quite by chance, to Kompong Thom. They married off dozens of young men and women to complete strangers at mass ceremonies, except there was no ceremony, no celebration, just the declaration that they were wed.

Though back in his home town, her father could find no members of his family. As the Vietnamese arrived he and his wife escaped to one of the refugee camps on the Thai border and stayed there for five years during which time C was born. They eventually returned to Kompong Thom where her father eventually found his family. They later moved to Phnom Penh as the capital was, they felt, the place to get ahead.

C is now married and has two children of her own and a good job, so there are some good news stories.

Leaving Tuol Sleng I saw a middle-aged man of European origin sitting in a tuk-tuk. He was lighting a cigarette and beside him was a Cambodian girl of seven or eight. There may have been an innocent explanation for this odd scene, the girl looked relaxed and happy enough, but after the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese occupation, we sent Cambodia Gary Glitter. Phnom Penh is experiencing a welcome boom in 'normal' tourism, but behind that the seamier, sicker, illegal type of tourism still continues.

We lunched in the shady courtyard of an upmarket restaurant in a smart district barely a kilometre away from Tuol Sleng and a world away from mass murder and torture.
 
Shady courtyard of an upmarket restaurant
One kilometre and a whole world away from Tuol Sleng

That we still had an appetite was remarkable, but we ate and enjoyed spring rolls, soup with prawns and squid, fish in a coconut curry, chicken with green beans and mushrooms followed by fresh fruit.

 We took a nap in the hottest part of the day and later walked along Norodom Boulevard....


Norodom Boulevard, Phnom Penh

....to the Independence Monument. The sandstone tower, completed in 1958, was built to celebrate independence from France and now commemorates all the country's war dead - and there are a vast number for such a small country.


The independence Monument, Phnom Penh
 
A hundred metres down Sihanouk Boulevard.....


Sihanouk Boulevard, Phnom Penh

.... is a statue of King Sihanouk. He had a remarkable career first as an absolute monarch, then abdicating to become leader of the communist party - though still styling himself 'Prince' Sihanouk – and being exiled to Beijing. Returning to Cambodia he spent the Khmer Rouge days under house arrest but later returned to the throne as a constitutional monarch. He abdicated in favour of his son in 2004 and styled himself 'King Father' until his death in 2012. His was a career without parallel in the twentieth century - or any other century.
 
King Sihanouk, Phnom Penh

On the long, hot walk back we stopped for a beer. Draught Angkor and Cambodia beer is, we observed, far cheaper than the bottled variety. We paid $2.50 for a 33cl bottle at lunchtime, here half a litre of draught beer cost $1.50. It would be much cheaper, we would discover, away from the capital. Cambodians habitually use the US dollar and reserve their own currency, the riel, for the ‘cents’ part of the transaction, ($1 = 4000 riels). To pay $1.50 you hand over a dollar bill and 2000 riels. I had acquired a 10,000 riel note when changing my Vietnamese Dong on the border but although I never saw another riel note above 1000, they happily took it plus 2000 riels for a bill of $3.
 
Buddhist monks, Phnom Penh
That evening we took a stroll to a restaurant in the 'Rough Guide'. The Nouveau Pho de Paris is very like a mid-market restaurant in China, there is nothing French about it except the name and although it offered some Vietnamese dishes, there was no pho. It was, though, the first restaurant we had eaten in where the clientele were predominantly local. We had sheet noodles with chicken and sweet and sour pork - most Cambodian dishes, apart from their coconut based curries, are variations on Chinese originals.


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