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Cambodian Genocide: 1 In 4 Killed

Pol Pot, Brother #1 as he called himself, was not insane. Evil incarnate? No doubt. His brutality defies explanation or understanding. Americans, Ashley and I included, are not educated on this hideous man from the 20th Century. That is about to change.

A Young Pol PotBorn in the Cambodian village of Prek Sbauv in 1928 to a farming family with connections to royalty in Phnom Penh, Pol Pot was educated in France where he joined the French Communist Party, just as Ho Chi Minh had done. After returning to Cambodia, he then traveled to China and witnessed the beginning of Mao’s Cultural Revolution; class warfare designed to empower the poor. By 1975, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge had seized control of Cambodia and following their Chinese mentors, began to install an agrarian society. The “Greap Leap Forward” envisioned rice being the holy grail, everyone wore black pajamas to remove cultural identity, private property transferred was to collectives, families were separated for fear of conspiracy, modern health care replaced by traditional healers, and Buddhism was curbed. Pol Pot even abolished money noting that development of Democratic Kampuchea was of no importance. Educated people, city dwellers, and even those wearing prescription glasses were seen as threats to the perfect society that was to be free of outside influence. They were forced into work camps in rural areas that were managed by teenagers where “enemies” met their fate through disease, malnutrition, or execution via club to the head. Most accounts suggest one in four citizens of Cambodia perished by the cruel Khmer Rouge hands.

S-21 Buildng C Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - Interrogation Room

Pol Pot never faced a war crimes tribunal like the Nazis nor once uttered any regrets. After his own Khmer Rouge group sentenced him to life in prison (house arrest) after ordering the assassination and murder of a party member’s children and grandchildren, he died of a heart attack at his jungle home. His body was cremated over a blaze consisting of car tires and wooden scraps.

Mother & Child Victim Photo Victim Photos

Barbed Wire to Prevent Suicide By PrisonersAsh and I somberly visited two ghastly locations in Phnom Phen where Pol Pot’s “Great Leap Forward” history is showcased. Knowing the emotional toll would be heavy, we prepared ourselves prior to touring Tuol Sleng, code named S-21. This former secondary school turned prison, interrogation, and torture center is found amongst the hustle and bustle of Cambodia’s capital city. Over 14,000 lives were snuffed out at S-21. Strangely, most of these were Khmer Rouge loyalists from the army, works camps, or ministries who were accused of conspiracy. The victims would have their pictures systematically taken, tortured into a signed confession, then summarily executed with all the necessary paperwork in order.

Blood Stain Next To Chain Building C Barbed Wire

S-21 GallowsWe skulked the halls of Tuol Sleng and saw the still present metal beds outfitted with leg irons for torture perpetrated by young boys wearing Mao hats. Where once a room meant for learning stood, its walls are now filled with tiny prison stalls barely big enough to lie down. Blood stains still blemish the tile floors. Not wanting the prisoners to commit suicide from the three story hellish jail, the Khmer Rouge encased the school buildings in a fishnet of razor wire. Perhaps the worst room on display housed the thousands of victim’s snapshots. Elderly men, women with young babies, terrified girls, young boys – their images haunting. After three hours, we emerged from the barbed wire lined fence. Dumbfounded, outraged, and distraught were among the myriad of emotions.

Choeung Ek - Human Skull Killing Fields - Cracked Skulls

Respect SignThose who did not perish at S-21 were blindfolded and sent to Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. We hired a tuk-tuk for the twenty minute dusty ride through rice paddies to where the Khmer Rouge turned an ancient Chinese cemetery and orchard into a mass grave. Lighting incense and saying a silent prayer, we bowed in turn below the fifty foot memorial stupa housing 8,000 skulls and countless articles of bloody clothing that have been exhumed from the grounds. Each skull had the tell tale sign of a Khmer Rouge style execution: cracks. In order to save money and ammunition, the Khmer Rouge would club the victims to death with ox-cart axles. Then their bodies would be tossed into a shallow grave and doused with dual purpose D.D.T. designed to reduce the smell of petrifying human flesh and kill those buried alive. Some mass graves have been exhumed while others remain untouched.

Greg Outside Stupa Bones and Clothing Emerging From the Ground

Killing Fields - Collection of Human BonesThe dirt paths are strewn with decaying bones penetrating the soil alongside fragments of clothing. Here and there piles of teeth would set, never to be identified. If the whole scene were not upsetting enough, we came to the “killing tree” which, even now, is hard to write about. Here, babies were torn from their mother’s grasp, stripped, grabbed by the ankles, and swung into the tree until their skulls were satisfactorily smashed. The mother having watched this gruesome display, would be stripped then clubbed over the head. It was nearly too much to absorb. Two silent hours passed, the only sounds coming from our sniffling noses.

Respect the Mass Graves Mass Grave

Khmer Rouge UniformToday, Cambodians value their multi-party democracy, though it may be rife with corruption. They appreciate their ability to speak out against their government, a right not known in neighboring Laos or Vietnam. Ironically to us as Americans, Pol Pot’s attempt to start civilization once more under his “Year Zero” machine ended in 1978 when Vietnam’s invasion began on Christmas Day. Despite the horrific acts of the Khmer Rouge, the West and China supported Pol Pot during the Vietnamese occupation using the strategy of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. After a ten year occupation, the Vietnamese departed under pressure from America and yet another tragic civil war was waged by the Khmer Rouge. The UN then supervised elections in 1993 which resulting in having to name a First and Second Prime Minister. The First Prime Minister was overthrown in a military coup four years later by the Second PM. In 1998, election results reunited the adversaries, this time their positions switched. Needless to say, the Khmer people alive today have experienced immense hardship and turmoil. And it continues to shape the destitute country.

Killing Fields - Memorial Stupa Cambodian Men Waiting for a Fare

Seeing the war ravaged beggars, walking the Killing Fields, numbly visiting Tuol Sleng, and scarring stories of beachfront unexploded ordnance, it is easy to understand the fragile Cambodian psyche. When looking at the orphan’s, caretaker’s, and cook’s faces at Palm Tree, it was hard not to imagine their individual histories and what the future may hold. In contrast to America’s Baby Boomers, Cambodia’s middle aged folks have been decimated in numbers and spirit.

- Greg and Ash

Note: On July 26, 2010, the “curator” of S-21 who admitted his role in the death of 14,000+ innocents was sentenced to 35 years in prison. He is the first Khmer Rouge official to be convicted of crimes against humanity… three decades later.

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Understanding and respecting a country’s history, tragic or uplifting, is always part of discovering a new place. Cambodia’s citizens are still reeling from its recent past, making this history education of paramount importance while volunteering for one month.
2) Never forget. Wasn’t this the message after September 11, 2001? There are those among us who will try and say that awful day never happened, much like the deniers of the Holocaust. Thus, Ash and I feel the obligation to write and tell stories about the horrific things we have seen while on the world road.

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