Phnom Penh : 'Ghosts'
Phnom Penh Travel Blog› entry 131 of 268 › view all entries
[Warning : some people may find some of the images reproduced in this entry of a distressing nature, and I apologise for any discomfort caused by their inclusion. You have the choice not to view them. ]
‘Pol Pot, withdrawn traces. Bye Bye.’
- Revol (Manic Street Preachers, 1994)
It’s Thursday 16th April 1998. The above song lyric is scrawled bold in black pen and gaffa-taped to the back of my black and white combat print shirt as I enter the Honey Club’s ‘Chopper Tunes’ ‘70s night on Brighton sea front with my art college pals. It’s a rather childish teenage way of saying “farewell and f**k you” to one of the 20th Centuries most notorious ex-heads of state, Pol Pot ( nee Saloth Sar) who passed away yesterday following a heart failure.
No such cold comfort was ever extended to the millions of Cambodians who suffered under the brutality, inexplicable violence and gross ineptitude of his Khmer Rouge security force led state of Democratic Kampuchea (DK) between April 17th 1975 and January 7th 1979. Estimates inevitably vary, and suffering for the living and the dead is of course unquantifiable, but upwards of 1.7 million Cambodians are said to have met any variety of ends during this period.
Mike, Gray, Mario and I arrived in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh last night and, rightly or wrongly, our one full day only in this city will be spent immersing ourselves in the remembrances of the suffering of the Cambodian peoples under the Khmer Rouge 30 years ago rather than anything more hedonistic, beautiful or enjoyable. Sometimes on a journey it’s appropriate to stop moving and turn history’s clock back a little rather than dashing forever headlong into the presumably brighter future.
The first of two principle sites we visit today that bare testament to the excesses of Pol Pot’s regime is the Genocide Centre in the village of Choeung Ek, approx 15km southwest of Phnom Penh, better known as ‘The Killing Fields‘. This site served the purpose of a mass-execution venue mainly between 1976 - 1978, the years when the bureaucratic systems of interrogations, accusations and executions were in full swing courtesy of S-21 (Security Office 21), the former Tuol Sleng school turned interrogation centre in Phnom Penh. Approximately 18,000 detainees from S-21 were shipped out to meet their final end at Choeung Ek. Most hauntingly 8,000 skulls of the victims exhumed from countless mass graves around the site now reside in a large memorial stupa tower erected on the site to bare witness to the atrocities of Democratic Kampuchea.
A strange atmosphere pervades ‘The Killing Fields’. Without the knowledge of where you stand and stare they have a feel of deceptive pastoral gentility. A countryside scene undisturbed by physical reference to the past other than the grievous silent pronouncement of the ‘Bone Stupa’, as all remnants of the Choeung Ek execution encampment were razed to the ground after 1979.
After a quiet walk around the grounds about the stupa we mount back into our tuk-tuk and head back to Phnom Penh and to Tuol Sleng.
Tuol Sleng with rather macabre appropriateness in its recasting from a sight of education and enlightenment to one of torture and anguish reveals in this desecration of purpose the hollowness at the core of Saloth Sar’s/ Pol Pot’s vision of a New Society. A former teacher himself (and a much respected one, with a liberal upper-middle class education in a fine Parisian lycee) Saloth Sar oversaw between 1975 -’79 what is often referred to as an ‘intellectual genocide’.
“Study is not important. What’s important is work and revolution.” - Angka dogma
The bare blackboards still remain on the classroom walls at Tuol Sleng. Just one of many details that contribute to an overpowering morbidity that seeps up and down the stairs and through the barbed-wire curtained passages of the ‘school’ buildings. Rusted iron beds have been left to speak silent volumes of agony within the centre of many of these improvised interrogation rooms. One wonders what kind of lessons were being taught here in the dark years.
Tuol Sleng is a difficult site to visit and walk around. But you must. The exhibits and displays that have been housed in the abandoned class rooms are powerful and informative and must be taken in line by line. Many rooms house nothing more than large Perspex covered montages of the thousands of ‘ID’ photos that were taken of S-21’s victims. Presumably these individuals’ last ever portraits. These are deeply effecting. The young and vigorous, the keen and betrayed, the starved, the sick, the old and countless children all stand and stare back at you, many with cold, bureaucratic numbers pinned crudely to their clothes.
For me, possibly strangely, the most effecting exhibit at Tuol Sleng is one room where statements are posted by Cambodians who felt compelled by fear of death to work as appointed in roles at S-21 during its reign of terror. Having survived the regime to live to be grown family people, ‘then and now’ portraits of these individuals accompany their meditations on what it was like to submit to necessity, to avoid joining the number of so many deaths they were forced, in small ways, to be complicit with, or at least to witness.
We spend several hours here before mournfully walking back out the ’school gates’. Mike and I get the tuk-tuk driver to drop us outside the Vietnamese Embassy so’s we can collect our passports deposited there this morning for visas. We stroll around a closed market and an abandoned fairground site before getting our lift back to our lakeside guesthouse.
And that’s it for now, for Cambodia and me. I am ashamed to admit.
* In response to the statement “As you know most of the world thinks that you’re responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Cambodians who didn’t deserve to suffer.