How do you pronounce Phnom Penh?
Or is it just Puh-nom Pen as we think the Cambodians do?
Regardless of how (in)correctly it is pronounced, the name can’t help but conjure up an image of the exotic. And that is exactly what the city is – an amalgamation of Khmer tradition, Pan-Asian history and a colonial French legacy. The city is home to 1.5 million, a mass of markets and museums, boutiques and bakeries, high-rise hotels, glistening embassies… all presided over by the flower-like Independence Monument.
However, exotic as it may be, it has been marred by the impact of war, revolution and genocide. Under 40 years ago, Cambodia was under the rule of despotic Pol Pot and his ruthless Khmer Rouge army, resulting in four years that tore Cambodia apart.
The Khmer Rouge (the Red Khmers), was the name given to the radical Communist Party of Cambodia led by Pol Pot and in government from 1975 – 1979. It is the Khmer Rouge that orchestrated the Cambodia genocide, in which mass executions, torture, overwork and famine killed over a third of Cambodia’s population.
On the 17th April, 1975, Khmer Rouge troops, many of them uneducated rural teenagers, marched into Phnom Pehn and ordered the evacuation of all the inhabitants. Families were forced to flee their homes and move to rural villages in the country in order to create the ideal agrarian society as dictated by Pol Pot. Under Khmer Rouge stipulations, the country was isolated from foreign influence; schools, hospitals and factories were closed; banking, financing and currency were outlawed; religions relinquished; private property confiscated; and a forced urban to rural migration was implemented. The Khmer Rouge idolised the peasant population, calling them ‘base people’ and putting them in charge of the city folk – who had been supposedly brainwashed by American Imperialism. Anyone who supported America, or capitalism, or education was an ‘enemy of Angkar (the organisation)’ and was executed.
Those that were considered fit were sent to labour camps across the country, split from their families, brothers, sisters, and near worked to death in order to meet unrealistic rice quotas. Those that didn’t survive the intense labour were no loss to the Khmer Rouge regime, if they weren’t fit to work, they were no use. Children were key to the regime, and were separated from their parents, indoctrinated into Communism, and taught to fight, kill and torture.
As an attempt to create a classless society, the Khmer Rouge executed anyone they considered an intellectual, city-dwellers, minority people, capitalists, professionals, and people with connections to foreign governments. There was no rhyme nor reason to those who they executed, and they were said to have discriminated against people who wore glasses (sign of learning), anyone with soft hands (not used to manual labour), and those who spoke other languages (involvement with other countries).
The regime finally fell in 1979, following a Vietnamese invasion in which Phnom Penh was captured. Although Cambodia and Vietnam are traditional enemies, defecting Khmer Rouge Cambodians helped the Vietnamese and pushed the Khmer Rouge to the west of the country where they continued to rule for the next decade. The rest of Cambodia, meanwhile, became the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, and the genocide was over.
Although there is much that I have missed, it is just a bit of background to set the scene for the two sites visited in Phnom Penh…
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The site was once the Tuol Svay Prey High School, but when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on 17th April 197, they turned into one of their infamous torture and interrogation prisons. There were similar prisons and killing fields dotted around the whole of Cambodia, but it is S-21, the largest of all the incarcerations centres, that keeps the horrifying memory of the four-year genocide alive.
The whole place has been left exactly as it was found in 1979. The tall concrete school buildings have been both bleached by the sun and darkened by pollution and wear and the grounds are surrounded by high walls, topped with razor and barbed wire. The three high-school blocks were split according to their function. Building ‘A’ was converted into a set of rooms to be used expressly for torture. The former classroom had glass paneled windows installed to minimize the noise of prisoners screams and were almost empty, with just a wrought iron bed, iron ankle shackles, and a bucket for waste. These were the largest ‘cells’ in S-21 and were used for those accused of leading uprisings against Pol Pot.
The tiny cells
The classrooms in the other buildings, used for the ‘common’ people, had been divided using crude brick walls to create tiny cells, no bigger than a toilet cubicle, where inmates were imprisoned while they awaited their torture. Others, on the top floors, were used as crowded communal cells as the number of prisoners incarcerated soared in the late 70s. The second and third floor balconies of the school were covered in a fishnet of barbed wire, so the prisoners didn’t even have the option of committing suicide and instead were wholly at the mercy of their barbaric jailers.
Similar to the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept a meticulous record of those who passed through S-21 and on display at the prison is room after room after room of mugshots; photos taken of prisoners who passed through the prison, all of which were dead soon after. As you walk through the classrooms the bewildered ghosts of men, women and children stare out at you, their faces clearly etched with expressions of fear, or pain, or pure confusion about what is going on. Some are not more than kids; a couple of young boys smile at the camera, evidently oblivious to their impending fate. A blind woman with a shaved head, a beautiful young Khmer girl with a furrowed brow clutching a newborn baby, an emaciated middle-aged man – they were all taken from their homes, tortured and killed. Some of the faces are blackened and bloody and some are of mangled bodies with a number placed on them, people who are hardly alive yet still labelled before they are sent to die.
When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in 1979, they found only seven prisoners alive in S-21, all of whom had used their skills to save their lives. One of them, Chum Mey, was there when we went, talking to some visitors. After his arrest, he was kept alive as the Khmer Rouge needed his skill in repairing machinery and he was mainly employed in repairing the typewriters they used to document the names of prisoners passing through. He is in his 90s now and has in fact testified against some high ranking Khmer Rouge Officials in the war crimes tribunal. Chum is phenomenal; he has seen the Khmer Rouge kill his wife and young son, has witnessed the horrifying atrocities of S-21, yet he still sits in the prison day after day in order that we might not forget the atrocities that have been committed.
To tell you the truth, I only made it into building A. I didn’t see the tiny cubicles, nor did I see the rooms where curators have displayed the instruments of torture, nor could I find any words to say to Chum Mey. The eerie juxtaposition of the quiet, sunny grounds, and barbaric relics and haunting memories is harrowing. And weak and prone to tears as I am, I didn’t cope too well. Yes, you must visit S-21, but it will be hard.
Number of Prisoners who passed through Tuol Sleng
1975 – 154
1976 – 2,259
1977 – 2,350
1978 – 5,765
NB. Not including children although the number is estimated at 20,000
Choeung Ek – The Killing Fields
Eerily, we followed the path that hundreds of thousands of condemned Khmers must have followed during 1975 – 1979 and made our way from S-21 to Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields. This is the site where those that had ‘confessed’ to being an enemy of the Khmer Rouge were taken to be executed and buried in mass graves.
This is a completely different experience, namely as the whole area is so peaceful, beautiful even. There are no buildings left, all were torn down and their materials used by starving Cambodians after the liberation from the regime in 1979. In their place is a huge memorial stupa, beautifully decorated and glistening in the late afternoon sun. It is mesmerising, yet as you look closer you see that the stupa is in fact filled with skulls – hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, neatly categorised and lined in rows, testament to the unimaginable brutality that once unfolded here.
The Buddhist Stupa
Some of the skulls encased within
You are provided with an audioguide during your visit, which is full of information about the Killing Fields themselves as well as survivor stories and pieces of music. You learn that often the executioners would use the tools at hand to kill, rather than bullets, in order to save money. There are clear marks on the skulls in the stupa that have been made by a machete, or the point of a sickle, or the blunt end of a hoe. One of the hardest sights is a mass grave that once held the bodies of women (most of them were found naked) and children. Next to the grave is a tree which, when the site was discovered had bits of hair and blood and brain matter on it. It emerged that soldiers would hold babies by their legs and smash their heads against the tree, before tossing them into the grave. Imagine how many mothers saw their own children killed in this way before they too were killed and thrown into the same pit.
The killing tree
On the guide you can listen to the horrifying sound of the propaganda music mixed with the whirr of the generator as it would have been played from this tree to mask the sounds of execution
Most of the mass graves have been excavated, hence the exact knowledge about the number and origin of the victims, and the preservation of the skulls in the stupa. Some, however, have been left and as each year passes and each rainy season floods and drains the ground, bones, teeth and bits of clothing get pushed up to the surface, speckling the path like a bad memory. Caretakers at Cheoung Ek gather those that have been pushed right up and store them at the site, perhaps this constant reminder is the victims’ way of showing that they will never be forgotten.
Clothes on the path
The caretaker’s most recent finds
Bones on the path
The horror of both Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek is limitless and we could not even to begin to imagine what the people of Cambodia have been through. We saw but two of the Khmer Rouge’s centres of evil and there are many hundreds more. For us, it has taught us a great deal about the history of Cambodia and, although we may have seen some things that we would rather forget, it is important that we do the exact opposite and always remember.
Francois Bizot ‘The Gate’
Loung Ung ‘First they killed my father’
Pin Yathay ‘Stay Alive, My Son’