Phnom Penh : 'Ghosts'

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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The silent grassy undulations of long-exhumed mass graves around the proximity of the memorial Stupa.

[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‘Pol Pot, withdrawn traces.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.

Killing Fields Explanation (abstract)
  Under house arrest at the time, he had managed to reach the ripe old age of 73 without either prosecution or an expression of remorse ( “My conscience is clear.” * ), his second wife and his daughter Sith were by his side when he departed.  A poignant family moment of closure maybe. 

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.

A glimpse of great loss : the memorial stupa at 'The Killing Fields'
  A nation’s entire populace crushed by starvation, exhaustion, illness and disease, murder, torture, execution and war in such a staggeringly short period of time.

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.

One of the several blocks of the former Tuol Sleng school. Some converted for detention, others interrogation and torture and administration.

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.

Mannacles and bars at Tuol Sleng (S-21)
  43 further mass graves containing the remains of upwards of 12,000 further victims exist at Choeung Ek but it has long been agreed by the Cambodian authorities and people that these should be left at rest for all time.  This number is just the tip of the ice berg, mass executions and grave sites having been located, exhumed and documented in every province in the country since 1979.

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.

'Girl Number 3' [S-21 photographic archives]
  Just grasses, dirt tracks, flowering trees and butterflies beneath blue skies today.  The grounds about the stupa undulate gently and these waves of earth, concavities in the ground, speak oh-so silently now of the final resting places, exhumed and grassed-over grave sites of so many thousands of powerless victims.  ‘The Killing Tree’ against whose bark the heads of babies were swung and smashed before being tossed into the pits atop their mothers cold, defeated breasts.  ‘The Magic Tree’ from which hung a large speaker that would blare out ‘revolutionary’ music at high volume to mask the moans and screams of people dying, so as not to raise suspicions of those working in the vicinity of the Killing Fields.

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.

'Against the Wall' [S-21 photographic archives]
  The former school, turned detention, interrogation and torture epicentre for Angka; ‘The Organisation’ as the Khmer Rouge ‘government’ coldly referred to themselves as.  Tuol Sleng or S-21 (Security Office 21) nowadays houses a museum to throw light onto the dark history of the years of the Khmer Rouge, the roll that Tuol Sleng played in the oppressions and the effect of all upon the Cambodian people as mass and as individuals. 

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’.

'Wire 2'
  The core of his support was seen to be the ‘Base’ people.  Poor, uneducated rural villagers under whose protection the Khmer Rouge had thrived under whilst in the wilds.  At this time the insurgent forces were more colloquially referred to as 'The Others' or 'The Black Ghosts'.  Following the arrival of these 'Ghosts', the entire populations of Phnom Penh and other cities were evacuated with immediate effect to the countryside, labelled ‘New’ or ‘April 17th People’ and treated as second class citizens.  Likewise a broad assumption of the possession of an education was applied to these ‘New’ people who were murdered without trial in great numbers over the next few years if revealed or suspected to have been a member of the middle classes, to exhibit signs of any education or even for the act of wearing glasses.
'Vacancy' [S-21 photographic archives]
  This in itself quite a leap forward in viciousness from the public embarrassments, kickings and beatings (and yes, killings) of teachers during the Chinese ’Cultural Revolution’. 

“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.

Barbed wire was affixed to the frontice of the detention blocks to prevent the possibility at attempts of suicide.
  You cannot help but bring to mind Winston Smith’s degraded lesson in the brutal mathematics of totalitarianism at the ‘Ministry of Love’ in Orwell’s ‘1984’.

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.

'Resignation' [S-21 photographic archives]
  Some go unnumbered.  In having reproduced a good number of these portraits for this blog I hope I am not frowned upon too heavily.  My belief - a cliché though it be - is that the nullifying purpose that these pictures were originally taken for can maybe be somewhat counteracted by their reproduction in any form so that the images or ‘ghosts’ of the disappeared live on in some marginal respect.

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.

Walls knocked through classrooms at Tuol Sleng and turned into rows of tiny detention cubicles
  Staring out of the windows here the curious juxtaposition of a calm, tree, flower and grass populated school playground offsets the bleak prison concrete of the makeshift brick and wood detention cubicles.  Also knowledge that the large wooden climbing frame visible was once used as a means of hanging by execution.

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.

The oddly serene 'playground' at the former school turned prison.
  No more than what? Five?  Six days?  My journey has a slightly inescapable velocity at the moment whilst I attempt to loop back to Cyprus for the end of May and Cambodia was the country that drew the short straw on the itinerary.  Like a stone skimming across water my journey at the moment is all speed, surface contacts and no depth.  For which I apologise.  I have wallowed in history rather than introduce you to this rather fabulous country.  But this reflects my personal experience accurately unfortunately, so Cambodia I promise I shall return and laugh with you next time!      

* 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.

Little or no remorse : Saloth Sar aka Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge and ellusive head of the state of Democratic Kampuchea during its mercifully short reign.
Pol Pot said “I’m going to reply.  I’m going to tell you clearly.  I would like to tell you that I came to carry out the struggle, not to kill people.  Even now, and you can look at me, am I a savage person?  My conscience is clear.” -  Interview with U.S. journalist Nate Thayer, Oct 1997, 6 months prior to death.  [Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot by David P.Chandler]

Stevie_Wes says:
Cheers Emily, yes, it was hard to know how to respond/ interact with such an effecting place. Especially photos of photos of the deceased. But I figured, as per the hopes of the exhibits there, that it's just another small way of perpetuating these otherwise anonymous victims onward through shared human experience. Tuol Sleng remains the most soul-shaking venue I've yet visited in my life.
Posted on: May 20, 2014
emarrama says:
i love the pictures in black and white i visited today and it just seemed wrong to take picture but the b&w give it depth to what really happened there. wow i hope that doesn't sound to morbid.
Posted on: Mar 01, 2014
Stevie_Wes says:
Yeesh! What a birthday... but as you say Anne, being reminded of our continuing right to life, and progress through life is all that we may reasonably wish.
Posted on: Nov 04, 2009
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The silent grassy undulations of l…
The silent grassy undulations of …
Killing Fields Explanation (abstra…
Killing Fields Explanation (abstr…
A glimpse of great loss : the memo…
A glimpse of great loss : the mem…
One of the several blocks of the f…
One of the several blocks of the …
Mannacles and bars at Tuol Sleng (…
Mannacles and bars at Tuol Sleng …
Girl Number 3   [S-21 photograph…
'Girl Number 3' [S-21 photograp…
Against the Wall   [S-21 photogr…
'Against the Wall' [S-21 photog…
Wire 2
'Wire 2'
Vacancy   [S-21 photographic arc…
'Vacancy' [S-21 photographic ar…
Barbed wire was affixed to the fro…
Barbed wire was affixed to the fr…
Resignation   [S-21 photographic…
'Resignation' [S-21 photographi…
Walls knocked through classrooms a…
Walls knocked through classrooms …
The oddly serene playground at t…
The oddly serene 'playground' at …
Little or no remorse : Saloth Sar …
Little or no remorse : Saloth Sar…
...It is so extraordinarily full …
'...It is so extraordinarily full…
Mikey & Mario
Mikey & Mario
The memorial Bone Stupa at the …
The memorial 'Bone Stupa' at the …
Killing Fields Explanation (abstra…
Killing Fields Explanation (abstr…
The Killing Tree (abstract)
The 'Killing Tree' (abstract)
Killing Fields Explanation (abstra…
Killing Fields Explanation (abstr…
Tuol Sleng school.
Tuol Sleng school.
Exhumation   [S-21 photographic …
'Exhumation' [S-21 photographic…
Girl on the Floor [S-21 photogra…
'Girl on the Floor' [S-21 photogr…
A Corridor Before   [S-21 photog…
'A Corridor Before' [S-21 photo…
Victims   [S-21 photographic arc…
'Victims' [S-21 photographic ar…
One   [S-21 photographic archive…
'One' [S-21 photographic archiv…
Anonymous   [S-21 photographic a…
'Anonymous' [S-21 photographic …
101(detail)   [S-21 photographic…
'101'(detail) [S-21 photographi…
Mother and Child   [S-21 photogr…
'Mother and Child' [S-21 photog…
The Chair   [S-21 photographic a…
'The Chair' [S-21 photographic …
Broken Images   [S-21 photograph…
'Broken Images' [S-21 photograp…
Classroom entrance at Tuol Sleng.
'Classroom' entrance at Tuol Sleng.
Broken Glass
'Broken Glass'
Tools of detainment : the torture …
Tools of detainment : the torture…
Steps
'Steps'
Blackboard
'Blackboard'
Lessons in Cruelty
'Lessons in Cruelty'
numbing Numbers :  some of the rec…
numbing Numbers : some of the re…
The rather twisted anthem of Democ…
The rather twisted anthem of Demo…
Wire 1
'Wire 1'
Converted detention cells
Converted detention cells
Many murders committed by the Khme…
Many murders committed by the Khm…
Desserted market and fairground in…
Desserted market and fairground i…
Fairground  Phnom Penh
'Fairground' Phnom Penh
Mike at the pool table.
Mike at the pool table.
Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk