Warning: Graphic Material Contained

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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The high school that became the S-21 security facility in Phnom Penh.
Before leaving Phnom Phen, Megan and I visited the memorials and museums dedicated to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.  It's taken several days to recover, research and write the following entry.  This entry contains images and descriptions of events that are not suitable for our younger viewers.  Those of you who are older, I encourage to read this entry.
 
The political situations in Cambodia which lead to and followed the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime (April 1975 to January 1979) are convoluted, confusing and enigmatic.  Even tour guides we've spoke to, assumed students of the places we visited, have little clues as to what happened, who did it, and why.  I will try here to give a short and clear summary as I've been able to research.
21 detainees were alive the day the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh. By the time soldiers arrived there were only 7 survivors. The other 14 are buried on the grounds.
 
In the 1960's, King Sihanouk, a confusing and enigmatic figure in Cambodian history himself, feared the communist Vietnamese, but saw Thailand and South Vietnam (along with there US ally) as a greater threat to the safety of Cambodia and so declared Cambodia neutral to international conflicts during the Vietnam war.  This included severing all US aid, which supplied the majority of their military budget.  In 1965, fearing a US plot against him, he severed all ties with Washington DC and gave the communist Vietnamese permission to utilize Cambodian provinces in their conflict with south Vietnam.
 
This act, in addition to his socialist economic policies, alienated right-wing Cambodians, while his internal policies, including ones that disallowed political descent, angered left-wing, foreign-educated Cambodians.
Megs in one of the 14 interogation cells of S-21. The ammo box on the bed was the prisoners toilet, and they were required to ask permission to use it or they would be punished.
  In 1967 a rural-based rebellion broke out in western Cambodia. This led Sihanouk to bend to the political pressure of the military and implement harsh repression of followers of left-wing philosophies.
 
During this time, Paris-educated Pol Pot and Ieng Sary fled into the countryside, fearing reprisals for their Marxist philosophical beliefs.  There they met and began to consolidate control over a small rebellious faction of Cambodians.
 
In 1970, while in France, King Sihanouk was deposed as chief of state by his cousin as well as a military general name Lon Nol--a coups backed by the US.  Sihanouk fled to Beijing and started a government-in-absencia, gaining connections to the indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement lead by Pol Pot.
Each cell had a photo of the final victim present in it when the Vietnamese arrived.
  It was Sihanouk that named the faction the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer).  The King's support of the Khmer Rouge brought many rural Cambodians who wished to fight for their king into their fold, increasing the groups size dramatically.
 
Once he took power, Lon Nol gave the communist Vietnamese an ultimatum to withdrawal their troops, but had little military might to back such an ultimatum.  In 1970, US and south Vietnamese troops began invading north-eastern Cambodia in an attempt to flush out communist Vietnamese.  This action, combined with secret US-based carpet bombing of Cambodian provinces ('69-'73) led to the deaths of nearly 250,000 Cambodians, pushing more and more peasants into the Khmer Rouge camp.  In addition, communist Vietnamese troops moved farther into Cambodia and by July 1970 communist Vietnam controlled nearly half of the country, including the pride of Cambodia, Angkor Wat.
The day the Khmer Rouge liberated Phnom Penh, and the end of 5 years of civil war.
 
From 1970 to 1975 Cambodia became embroiled in a brutal civil war between the Vietnamese-backed Khmer Rouge and Nol's military forces.  Lon Nol's regime became riddled with corruption, finding ways to take advantage of US military and economic aid, and as a result was never able to gain a foothold against the Khmer Rouge.
 
On April 17th, 1975, Phnom Penh surrendered to the Khmer Rouge.
 
"I was fifteen years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975.  I can still remember how overwhelmed with joy I was that the war had finally ended...It didn't matter who had won...The civil war had tired us out.
2 weeks later.
..At the time we didn't realize how high the price was that we had to pay for the Khmer Rouge's peace."--Teeda Butt Mam, Worms from Our Skin, Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields
 
The power of the Khmer Rouge was largely based on the exploitation of the young and uneducated, stoking the fires of frustration that burned in the hearts of farm workers who believed they toiled for the prosperity of the city people.  The Khmer Rouge's ultimate goal was to return Cambodia to a time before Western influence, creating a fanatical Maoist agrarian culture.
 
Within 2 weeks of taking power, the Khmer Rouge evacuated people from Phnom Penh and provincial capitals, telling them that the US was going to bomb the cities.
This gym-set was used as a torture device. A survivor produced a series of pictures depicting its use.
  Women, children, men, old, young, sick and even the hospitalized were taken out of the cities.  Hospitals were shut down, libraries destroyed, the postal service stopped and all flights (with the exception of a once a week flight to Beijing) were halted.  Doctors, lawyers, ambassadors, teachers, professors and politicians were all taken to detention camps and both they and their families were killed.  If someone was suspected of being educated (by wearing glasses, for example) they would be tortured until they confessed.  If they didn't confess they would eventually die under torture or be killed.  If they did confess, their family would be rounded up and killed as well.
 
The citizens of the cities were made to work in the fields, 12-15 hour days, with little sleep and two meals a day consisting of rice-water or boiled corn.
Our guide's husband was killed at this mass grave. Of her husband, sisters, younger brother and children, she is the only one left.
  If a man lost a cow he was supposed to tend he was killed.  If a woman passed out in the fields from exhaustion she was killed.
 
Children were recruited to spy on their families and communities, wandering among the people and reporting anyone speaking a foreign language or showing other signs of education.  Families were separated, moved from one labor camp to another to keep them off balance and to prevent rebelious unification.  If someone committed suicide they were marked as 'the enemy' for showing dissatisfaction with the rebellion.  As relatives of 'the enemy', any family members of the suicide victim would be killed.
 
In Phnom Penh, one of the few high schools was transformed into the S-21 security facility.
One of dozens of plates of photos showing victims of S-21.
  The classrooms on the first and second floors were divided by brick walls into cells for individuals, where the third floor was used for mass detention.  The school was surrounded by a double wall of corrugated iron and concrete, barbed wire topping and stretching between them.  Barbed wire was eventually added to the outside walkways of the 2nd and 3rd floors as too many prisoners chose to commit suicide by jumping from them.
 
Prisoners to be killed were taken to the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh.  Bullets were too precious, so most of the killing was done with bamboo canes to the back of the neck, suffocation or drowning.  These fields have 129 communal graves, 42 of which have been left intact.  Approximately 17,000 people were tortured and killed in this field alone.
Human teeth eroding from the ground along one of the paths.
  Over 19,000 mass graves have been found around Cambodia.  To this day, bone fragments, teeth, and clothing from the victims can be seen on every dirt path.
 
Like the Nazi's, the Khmer Rouge kept excellent records of all their activities, including photographs of prisoners interned there, as well as photographs and written accounts of interrogations and deaths.  They turned the school's gym equipment--once used by children--into torture devices.
 
To become a member of the Santebal (secret service) applicants were required to fill out an eleven-page form.  Most of the form was taken up by 32 questions aimed at information regarding the applicants family and their relationship to them.
Khmer soldiers. Children were also used as executioners.
  Questions such as "Do your parents have any political, economic, material or sentimental power over you?"  Informing on your family and friends was common practice in the time of the Khmer Rouge.  "Family-ism", or the missing of one's family, was strictly forbidden.  National songs of the Khmer Rouge told children that the Angkar (the organization) was their family, that their parents, grandparents and siblings were all unreliable and that the country belonged to them.
 
Almost no one was safe from the brutality.  Vietnamese-trained Cambodians that had been living in Saigon had returned to their country in 1970 to join the Khmer Rouge rebellion.  Pol Pot was vehemently anti-Vietnamese, claiming after 1975 that there had never been a connection between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam, so by the take over of Phnom Penh in 1975, most of those members had been killed.
One of the child victims of S-21.
  Engineers, Buddhist monks, moderate Khmer Rouge leaders, Khmer Rouge soldiers, artists, and foreigners (including British, American, New Zealand, Canadian and Australian citizens) were all tortured and killed.
 
It eventually became apparent that too many people were dying in the fields, and that they'd murdered too many children and dissidents.  If the Khmer Rouge was to continue they needed children so they began forced procreation programs where men and women were forced to reproduce.
 
Near the end of 1978 it was decided that "all the wheat that grows among the rice" must be eliminated and programs were begun to kill all individuals who had once lived in the cities.  Ironically, it would be the Vietnamese that would save the remaining people from this fate.
The government keeps the road to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (the Killing Fields) poor. The day we went it was raining, but our tuk-tuk driver was a champ getting us through.
 
Pol Pot's anti-Vietnamese sentiments led him to attempt to retake the Mekong Delta.  From 1976 to 1978 incursions into Vietnam killed hundreds of Vietnamese and on December 25th, 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, toppling the Pol Pot government in 2 weeks.  Pol Pot and the surviving Khmer Rouge fled to the jungles bordering Thailand.  The Vietnamese then put into place a government led by several former Khmer Rouge leaders, including Hun Sen who had fled to Vietnam in 1977.
 
For the next 20 years, supplied by diverted UN relief food and medicine, and weapons from US and other sources, the Khmer Rouge continued to fight the Vietnamese-established Cambodian government.
 
Pol Pot died on April 18th, 1998 having never been tried for his crimes.
Just some of the 80+ graves uncovered.
  Three other top Khmer Rouge members--Ta Mok, Khien Samphon and Nuon Chea--were forced to flee to the jungle once again.  In December of that year, Khien Samphon and Nuon Chea defected to the Cambodian government.
 
The international community put on the pressure for a war crimes trial of the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge.  The political process between Hun Sen's Cambodian leadership and the UN has led to complications which have delayed any serious trial.
 
25 years later the Cambodian people are led by a member of a group responsible for the deaths of an estimated 2 million of their people, and Sihonouk is king once again.  The streets are filled with twenty-something men desperate for work, and there is a painfully obvious lack of elders.
Megs feeding two children. The woman is thanking her. We fed 5 kids that day for about $2.
  Yet of the scores of times I'm asked every day if a want a tuk-tuk or a moto taxi, my polite "no thank you" is always returned with a grateful smile.
 
"The Khmer Rouge were very clever and brutal.  Their tactics were effective because most of us refused to believe their malicious intentions."--Teeda Butt Mam, Worms from Our Skin, Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields
 
Mostly it's the children who worry me.  Lack of sex education, combined with one of the worst AIDS epidemics in Asia (having been fueled by UN-sponsored troops boosting the prostitution industry in the 1990's) has lead to even greater tragedies.  Several days ago I visited an orphanage dedicated solely to the care of 82 children who'd lost their parents to AIDS.
This memorial has 17 floors and skulls from the victims exhumed are kept here.
 
Children play on the sidewalk and streets, whether they have parents or not, and beg for money from passers-by.  It's evident that some do it simply because they often get it.  We've offered food to some children who have accepted it graciously, sharing among their siblings and friends.  Once we offered bread to an 8-year-old (carrying his 1-year-old brother in a sling on his back) who complained about it being stale.  He then hit his little sister over the head with it.  The bread, of course, was perfectly fine.  What's going to happen to these kids when they grow up having been taught that being cute and dirty gets you free money?  NGO's are here in droves, like the orphanage we visited, that are giving the children educations, skills and a sense of self-worth but it is so overwhelming.
The cells built into the old classrooms of S-21.
 
Our friend Tim, who we met in Bangkok, was born in Cambodia and adopted by a family in Canada.  We couldn't help but think if that hadn't happened it might have been his face we'd seen offering us a twelve-cent tuk-tuk ride across town just so he could eat.  Anyone who makes fun of Angelina Joley, or any other family, for jumping on the bandwagon of adopting kids from here has never been here.  Five days and I want to take them all home myself.
 
-----
Material for this summary was compiled from personal interaction with a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, information provided by the memorials located at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and S-21, as well as the history section of the Lonely Planet Guide to Cambodia, the short story collection Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields, and the autobiography, When Broken Glass Floats.
One person per cell. Only underwear allowed. No blankets, bedding or mosquito nets.
  Photos were taken by the author.
umbralwalker says:
Yeah, it was rough. The mix of feelings we both have regarding some Cambodians is frustrating. After having learned this history, we came to Siem Reap with a desire to help where ever we could. Since arriving we've been shistered by 'street kids' expecting to be given money and food, overcharged by drivers thinking we have money, etc. But Cambodian smiles are addictive, and the kids at the orphanage were fabulous.
Posted on: May 25, 2006
smcclatchey says:
Wow, this made me sick for a while. I can only imagine how you two must have felt. Thanks for writing it.
Posted on: May 23, 2006
allaboutgrace says:
You have traveled into the heart of darkness and witnessed the bloodlust of humankind. Revenge begets revenge and hatred, hatred. There is no end to the violence that men will inflict upon each other, even on women and children, once they enter the twisted cycle of killing and being killed. The only act that will break the cycle is for someone with ultimate power to lay it down, and then to establish just laws that honor the dignity of every human soul.
Posted on: May 23, 2006
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The high school that became the S-…
The high school that became the S…
21 detainees were alive the day th…
21 detainees were alive the day t…
Megs in one of the 14 interogation…
Megs in one of the 14 interogatio…
Each cell had a photo of the final…
Each cell had a photo of the fina…
The day the Khmer Rouge liberated …
The day the Khmer Rouge liberated…
2 weeks later.
2 weeks later.
This gym-set was used as a torture…
This gym-set was used as a tortur…
Our guides husband was killed at …
Our guide's husband was killed at…
One of dozens of plates of photos …
One of dozens of plates of photos…
Human teeth eroding from the groun…
Human teeth eroding from the grou…
Khmer soldiers.  Children were als…
Khmer soldiers. Children were al…
One of the child victims of S-21.
One of the child victims of S-21.
The government keeps the road to t…
The government keeps the road to …
Just some of the 80+ graves uncove…
Just some of the 80+ graves uncov…
Megs feeding two children. The wom…
Megs feeding two children. The wo…
This memorial has 17 floors and sk…
This memorial has 17 floors and s…
The cells built into the old class…
The cells built into the old clas…
One person per cell. Only underwea…
One person per cell. Only underwe…
One of the child members of the Kh…
One of the child members of the K…
The doors torn through the classro…
The doors torn through the classr…
The numbers on the wall are the ce…
The numbers on the wall are the c…
Barbed wire added to the 2nd and 3…
Barbed wire added to the 2nd and …
A survivors account. Note the refl…
A survivors account. Note the ref…
The former swing-set where childre…
The former swing-set where childr…
Note the number of mass graves on …
Note the number of mass graves on…
The damage to this skull was done …
The damage to this skull was done…
The darker skulls were found deepe…
The darker skulls were found deep…
Smaller bones eroding from the gro…
Smaller bones eroding from the gr…
Clothes from victims eroding throu…
Clothes from victims eroding thro…
A pile of bones and clothes sittin…
A pile of bones and clothes sitti…
The way home.
The way home.
Two children we fed on the street.…
Two children we fed on the street…
Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk