Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Face to face with Cambodian history, 22 April 2009

Just a few days ago I witnessed the jewels of Cambodia at Angkor Wat. These National Treasures were just spectacular and it is clear why the Cambodians hold them up with such pride. Today, I witnessed something that was as far away from the splendid temples as possibly imaginable.

I had read a bit about Cambodian history online before coming away, but I didn;t really take it in. There were too many names I had never heard of, and it was all too alien.. Watching the documentray yesterday was interesting but I still didn' really understand everything fully. But today, all the bits and pieces that I had gleaned from the internet and the documentary became very clear. Very clear.

At 8.30 this morning myself, Hannah and Chris pulled up in our Tuk Tuk at Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (Emma was still ill).

We made our way thorugh the ticket barriers and were pulled straight towards the Stupa. None of us said a word to each other, the three of us just walked in silence up to the white monument. The only noise to be heard was the noise of children playing in the school playground next to the site. In side the stupa was a glass tower containg 9000 skulls. Instanly chills ran all over my body. 9000 people were tortured and killed at this site less than 35 years ago.

We walked around the site. The ground was uneven with lots of shallow craters. Each crater was a mass grave. The bigger graves were highlighted and signs displayed the number of people who were buried in each grave. The mass graves were tiny, but they still held a hundred or so bodies.

As we walked around the site we started to notice scarps of clothing embedded in the earth. Those scraps were once clothes. My stomach and heart wrenched when beneath the tree roots i noticed bone poking out of the ground. Human bone.

It was all horrendous. There was one part called "The Punishment Tree". This was where children, yes children, were beaten. There were bone remains at the base of the tree.

The site was kept a secret and great lengths were taken to ensure that locals farmers didn't find out what was going on. DDT was spread over the dead bodies to remove the rotting smell (it was also used to kill people, a slow, painful, rotting death). They also palyed loud sounds to drown out the screams. And instead of using guns that made loud noises, they used pickaxes, hoes, and heavy blunt objects to bludgeon people to death.

Who were the people who were killed here? They were all people who were considered to be enemies of the Khmer Rouge. Some were killed just because they were intellectuals, others becuase they wore glasses. Even if someone wasn't an enemy of the Khmer Rouge, if they were just suspected as being enemies, they were still killed.

9000 people were killed at Choueng Ek, around 2million were killed in Cambodia.

Back in the tuk tuk none of us could speak. I was angry that I didn't know anything about all this. I cursed my histroy textbooks that were full of Hitler and little else more. Everything I had learnt had sunk in. Suddenly the names Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, and Democratic Kampuchea all fitted in to place and the harrowing history of Cambodia was real to me.

S-21 was our next port of call. It used to be a high school. The Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison, a plcae of interrogation, a place of torture, a place of murder.

My stomach was wrenched the whole way round this former prison. The first block consisted of cells. Each cell was empty except for a hard iron bed (there had never been a mattress) and iron shackles. In each room was a large black and white photo of a prison inmate shcakled and tied to the bed. In some pictures the prisoners had raw marks on their chests where they had been lashed.

Before we entered the second block we came across some gym apparatus that would have been used in the school to do chin-up excercises. In the Prisonm these frames became a torture device where men were hung upside down during interrogations. When the victims passed out they were dippe din vile, rotting water full of hoirrible things to revive them.

Inside the second block we came face to face with the victims. At S-21 every prisoner that entered was photographed. We walked thorugh so many rooms and saw so many faces of so many victims. Some had empty, vacant expressions. Some had eyes filled with absolute terror. Others looked scared. Some looked defiant. A couple smiled. Some opf the men had bandages on their faces - they most have been beaten before they were photographed. All the women had their hair in the same bobbed cut. One woman had a baby in her ar,ms. There were ophotos of children too, some of the kids were no older than 5. All of these people were deemed 'enemies' of the Khmer Rouge. All of them were interrogated, tortured and detained at this site. There were thousands of photos.

OVer lunch the three of us reflected on what we had seen. We all agreed it was all so unjust. I looked out on the street and I noticed an old woman. If i had seen her the day before, i wouldnt have thought anything about it, but at that moment, having seen all that i had seen, I saw the old lady in sucha different light. She would have worked on a co-operative, toiling in the heat in an attempt to meet the unrealistic rice quotas set by in the genocide. Aware of the recent history of Cambodia I started to see the older Cambodians in a very different light.

After l unch the prison was quieter. We walked around musing our thoughts and feelings between us. The third block was separated into tiny cells. Tiny, smaller than the area of a single bed. Each cell had a chain that was cemented into the floor and a jug for the toilet.

Upstairs in this blokc was a fascianting photo exhibition by a Swede who had been given priviledged access into Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer ROuge. Cambodia closed its borders in this period so no one in the outside world kenw what was going on. There were rumours that dreadfull things were happening to the people. The khmer rouge organised the trip which the Swede attended for Propaganda pursposes.

The Swedish man's photos were displayed in the exhibition and alongside each photo were his thoughts at the time, and his thoughts now. He was impressed with what he found in Cambodia. He found a country where communism was working, people working on farms were happy, people were working together successfully and everything was prosperous. It became clear in hindsight that everything he had seen had been staged. There was a real sense of guilt in his words, he felt guilty that he had not seen thoruhg the facade. He had gotten so caught up in this idealistic communist reality.

Another exhibition was on those who were lost in the regime, those who disappeeared without a travce. Another exhibitoion recounted the stories of the people who worked at S-21 and how they re-established their lives after the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed. All of those who worked in S-21 were imprisoned once order was restored. As much as these pople had murdered and tortured so many innocent victims, it was hard to see them as anything but victims themselves. They were no older than 15 when they were committing these acts of torture and interrogation, they were told what to do and did it out of fear for their own lives.

It was an Emotional day. I left with so much anger, so many questions and my heart felt so much for all the Cambodian people. My heart longed that justice would be granted to them soon.

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