There is a real discomfort in writing this blog and sharing these photos. Learning about Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime, and visiting the hallowed sites of Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’ and Tuol Sleng (S.21) prison was something that we felt obliged to do. You don’t really look forward to it, but you feel you must, to pay respect and homage to victims, and indeed to pay respect and homage to those who live everyday with their memories of this horrific period in Cambodia’s history.
Before he was Pol Pot, he was Saloth Sar. Born in 1925, in Kampong Thom Province, son to a considerably wealthy, land-owning, rice farmer and eighth of nine children. At the age of 20 he moved to Paris on a scholarship to study radio electronics, however he neglected his studies when he joined the Cercle Marxiste (Marxist Circle) that had taken over the Khmer Students Association, and indeed captivated the impressionable young man and his peers.
He returned to Cambodia in 1953, after losing his scholarship, and joined an underground communist movement whilst teaching French literature and history at a private school, an incredible irony considering teachers were amongst those targeted under his leadership.
In 1962, Sar became the acting leader of the Cambodian Communist Party but soon after was driven into hiding in the jungle near the Vietnamese border by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. It was during this time that Sar formed his armed resistance movement, the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers/Cambodians). The colour red was invoked as a symbol of communism.
His road to power began in 1970, when Sihanouk was removed as head of state after he ordered anti-Vietnamese protests that spun out of control, and his followers were found to be involved in clandestine operations. After his removal from government, the North Vietnamese convinced Sihanouk to support the Khmer Rouge, which he did actively, and they also offered Saloth Sar (Pol Pot) whatever resources he required for his insurgency against the Cambodian government.
In the period that followed, the North Vietnamese (Viet Minh) and the rebel group in South Vietnam (Viet Cong) undertook most of the fighting against the Cambodian government. Sar took this opportunity, not only to instill his principles of Cambodian self-sufficiency, but also to gather and indoctrinate new recruits into his army. These new recruits were peasant class youths (the poorer, and by extension, less educated and more easily inculcated, the better). By 1973, Sar already controlled two thirds of the country and half the population. He had began reorganising peasant villages into cooperatives, evacuating cities to the countryside and importing 5 million dollars a year worth of weapons from China, funded by slave-labour run rubber plantations in the north of the country.
On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge army, primarily made up of teenage peasant guerrillas, marched into Phnom Penh to begin a mass evacuation of all its citizens to the countryside. Saloth Sar renamed himself ‘brother number one’ with the pseudonym of Pol Pot.
Thus began the 4 year rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and indeed also began the unfathomable horror that was inflicted upon Cambodia.
The country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, and became somewhat of an experiment, informed by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, in extremist agrarian socialism. Year 0 was announced, and society began to be ‘purified’.
Money was quickly removed from circulation, businesses were closed, media was shut down, as were means of communication including mail services, telephone and even the ownership of bicycles. Foreigners were expelled, and foreign languages ousted, foreign economic and medical assistance was also denied. Education was halted, religions were banned, health care eliminated and parental authority curtailed.
Two million inhabitants of Phnom Penh were sent, on foot, to the countryside, with some 20,000 dying along with way. Everyone was forced into slave labour on collective farms and projects. Pol Pot demanded that the national rice yield be tripled immediately, which of course, was an impossible demand to meet. And though the crop output and exports were enormous, Cambodians starved. A work day was 18 hours long, with only two rest periods, and workers were expected to survive on two meals of rice soup (but the grains of rice were so few one could count the number of them in one’s bowl).
All remnants of ‘old society’ were destroyed, and many of those imprisoned, tortured and executed were the educated, wealthy, police, lawyers, teachers, former officials and soldiers, and even buddhist monks or other religious figures.
Through the combined efforts of executions, forced labour, malnutrition and virtually no healthcare, 25% of the Cambodian population perished. The exact numbers are not known, but the best estimate, is some 2.2 million people.
Photos by Ben Journee
Choeung Ek (Killing Fields)
The most well known of the 300 killing fields across Cambodia is Choeung Ek, and the memorial site is now marked with a massive stupa that houses the remains, mostly skulls, of 5,000 victims that were executed at this site, many of which arrived in truck loads from Tuol Sleng prison.
Those killed at Choeung Ek were usually bludgeoned and hacked to their deaths because bullets were ordered not be wasted, and this style of execution creates a thicker atmosphere and has a more stomach churning effect, than other occasions of mass murder that live in our consciousness.
Some 8,895 bodies were discovered in mass graves after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and the site still harbours the remains of many more victims, which, as of 2005, are not allowed to be disturbed. Mass graves from which bodies were exhumed are now cordoned off by low bamboo fences, the stakes of which have been heavily adorned with cotton bracelets left by visitors who leave them as offerings to pay their respects. My own, fluorescent pink bracelet, which I acquired at Angkor Wat, hangs with the others.
Glass boxes are stationed around the site, some housing recently found bone fragments and teeth that come to the surface of the earth after the monsoon. Other boxes are full of clothing items (many child sized) that have also been found by staff after the annual rains.
The most horrific of all spots for us, and I’m sure for most, was the killing tree. Unbearable to face, it was upon the tree that executioners shattered infants and children to death.
It was a heartbreaking moment to see a mother and her young, playing daughter, no older than the children who were killed at this site, walk past the tree right in front of us, merely 34 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
Tuol Sleng (S.21)
Tuol Sleng was a former primary and high school that was converted into Office S.21 in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. It was designed for the detention, interrogation, torture, confession under duress and execution of those accused of opposing the regime.
Like the Nazis, their record keeping was impeccable. And the hallways are now lined with literally countless faces, recorded in black and white, which were photographed upon their arrival. Room after room is filled with their restless spirits.
14 victim corpses were found at the prison when the regime fell in 1979, the last who were imprisoned and tortured there before the prison was abandoned. These souls are buried in the courtyard, outside building A, under white headstones, as a constant and pressing presence.
The classrooms were converted into cell blocks, with each cell measuring only 2m long by 0.8m wide. They are haphazardly arranged in brick and mortar, and the claustrophobia presses itself on your lungs as you walk down the aisle between the two rows of cells, which are oppressively and horrifyingly small.
Records reveal that in 1975, Tuol Sleng held 154 prisoners. In 1976 there were 2,250. In ’97, 2,350 and in 1978 there were 5,765 victims held at S.21.
One of the things that is hardest to stomach for me, is that the horrors inflicted during this time are still so unresolved, and one can truly sense that the spirits of those who have perished have not been able to rest, nor have those that have lived through the regime been allowed to put that history behind them.
It was only in 1997 that a tribunal was established to set up trial proceedings for senior members of the Khmer Rouge. But it wasn’t until 2006 that judges were sworn in and the trials are still in progress to this day. Many of the regime’s leaders have already died from natural causes in their old age.
Pol Pot lived to the age of 72, on the northern border between Cambodia and Thailand, where he fled after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and installed a new government run by Khmer Rouge defectors.
Pol Pot continued to command the Khmer Rouge, essentially up until his death. The Khmer Rouge even received some funding from the UN and was still recognised internationally as the rightful government of Cambodia until the 90s. They were still able to receive weapons from China, and skin crawlingly, the Thai army made money from these imports.
Eventually, Pol Pot was sentenced to house arrest by a former Khmer Rouge colleague that had control over a faction of the old party. He was never given a formal trial (only a mock one which he wasn’t present for in the early 80s), and died in his bed after the Khmer Rouge had agreed to hand him over to an international tribunal. Whether this was by heart failure, or suicide, or poisoned (which have been consistent rumours), we will never know as he was quickly cremated before the body could be inspected by the government.
Together, Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng are the most restless, unresolved and painful sites we’ve ever visited and experienced. The spirits and faces of those who perished at these sites are now ingrained in our psyches, and it is nearly impossible to imagine how the people who suffered through the regime have managed to craft a new life for themselves. And yet, they have.