Overcoming the inhumanity of war in Cambodia
It’s a cloudless, sunny morning. The heat already threatening to rear it’s suffocating head through the gentle breeze. It’s only just 8 a.m. and I am waiting on a Phnom Penh street corner for my local guide.
It was the day I would visit Tuol Sleng Prison, or simply known as S21, and the Killing Fields.
Both have become common stops for tourists with good reason. Both of these places are symbols of a dark chapter of Cambodian history that Cambodians want the world to see, to understand and to remember.
Like most Western visitors to Cambodia, I was vaguely aware of the history of violence that had plagued the country, taking an estimated 1.7 million lives in the fairly recent past.
But, admittedly, I did not understand the full scope of what had happened after Pol Pot and the Ultra Maoist Khmer Rouge took over the country in April of 1975.
Arriving at the Tuol Sleng prison in the heart of Phnom Penh I was immediately struck by the fact that the prison looked nothing like a prison, at least from the outside. I learned that it never was intended as such.
Before 1975, it was a school educating young Cambodians. In a cruel twist of symbolism after 1975, the buildings became torture chambers for those who had been educated.
Stepping into one of the small rooms that had once been a classroom, now stained with blood that could never be washed away, my guide told the graphic details of what prisoners brought to these rooms had to endure.
Just outside that one “cell block” stood a sign that read “THE SECURITY OF REGULATION”. This sign had ten rules posted that all prisoners were subject to, on it, the tenth summed them all up: “If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either 10 lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.”
Walking from room to room, cell to cell, the feelings of unease continued to creep up.
Countless thousands of men, women and even children met with unspeakable pain and suffering within the confines of these buildings before finally, mercifully, in most cases being taken to the Killing Fields and shot.
Only a select few survived the S21 prison, and of those select few only two are still alive. I was fortunate to have met one of those men that day on the grounds of the prison.
Bou Meng, now in his 80s, sat quietly holding his hands together a translator at his side.
I asked him why he wanted to come back to the very place he had endured constant beatings, electrocution and other unimaginable pain on the mind and body. Through his translator he says animatedly now, it is because he has to- He has to remind people what happened here so nobody forgets.
Forgetting is not an option, many Cambodians say. But, there is serious concern that the younger generations are doing just that despite the reminders of war throughout the country.
As I left the prison grounds I left with that sick sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. From S21 we boarded a bus into the outskirts of the Cambodian capital turning down a nondescript dirt road to the site of many massacres, the Killing Fields.
I walked through the quiet grounds, in stifling heat, past mounds, and mounds of dirt stretched out in front of me. Those mounds all housed mass graves. Knowing that thousands had been killed on this very ground was truly astounding. The sheer magnitude of the death toll was almost unthinkable.
There is a monument on the grounds of the Killing fields, that from afar it looks like any other small shrine.
As you walk closer and closer it becomes clear that it is not.
Hundreds of skulls and bones belonging to those murdered at the Killing fields are encased in the monument: The skulls of men, women and children stand in remembrance of what happened here. As I got closer, an elderly Cambodian man suddenly urged me to go inside the small building and walk amongst the bones.
My guide told me that the man wanted me to go inside so to “see it for myself”. He wanted me to go home and tell people about what I had seen so that the brutality could not be forgotten, witnessed even some 30 years later.
That night I found myself walking down the boulevard near the Royal Palace, where I noticed that many young people were gathering together playing a quick game of football on the grass in the twilight, and gathering together in groups just to talk.
Signs of burgeoning capitalism, like the tall hotel structures under construction and funky coffee shops, also made it easy to forget that more than 30 years ago this country was wracked by genocide and war.
Looking further, the scars still run deep in this country.
Down that same boulevard reminders of war sat in make shift beds settling in for the evening. There were at least 4 men, missing limbs, with just a thin mattress on the street to call home. Even in one of the premier tourist destinations in the world — Angkor Wat — remnants of Khmer Rouge bullets can be seen pockmarked across the façade of the temple.
Time is now running out for the survivors of the Khmer Rouge. Although a U.N. backed tribunal has been established, it has been plagued by funding problems and allegations of interference by the current Cambodian government.
To date, this first ever war crimes and genocide tribunal in Asia has only managed to successfully prosecute one lower level prison chief.
This is only a minor victory and cold comfort for the survivors of the regime.
With most of the former Khmer Rouge leaders identified for trial aging there is real fear that they will never meet justice before they die. Just last month another accused Khmer Rouge leader, Ieng Sary, died at the age of 87. Following his death, just two defendants remain and both are frail old men in their 80’s.
True justice seems unattainable, but it appears that for those who survived the brutality and those that were touched by the inhumanity of war there is a hope that, no matter how painful it might be, their history won’t be forgotten by future generations and won’t be ignored by foreigners.
Over and over, Cambodians told me not to forget what I saw, what I felt and what I learned in Cambodia and to share those experiences so that the inhumanity wouldn’t be forgotten or repeated.