A couple of painful days

7 Apr

I’ve taken the liberty of taking these two days out of sequence – as they’re linked, and a bit different from usual. I make no apologies for uncomfortable content – but you have been warned….

DSCF2845DSCF2846 (art from a modern exhibition in Tuol Sleng prison)

So, a history lesson. Because I didn’t know much about it either.

Cambodia, of course, was a French colony – way after the glories of the Angkor empire, when they controlled  . .  well, most of Laos and Thailand, and after Angkor fell, they yo-yo’d from Thai to Vietnamese rule. In 1864 they came under French rule, which ended in 1953. This period was one of great peace and stability under King Sihanouk.. but Cambodia ended up pulled into the Vietnam war, leading to American carpet bombing and a Vietnamese invasion. Eventually Sihanouk, who had renounced the throne and set up his own political party, was overthrown and formed a government in exile, allied to a local indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement that he called the Khmer Rouge. And the stage was set for one of the most brutal and violent eras in modern political history.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, to initial rejoicing… the celebrations were short lived, as Pol Pot and the rest of the Khmer Rouge leadership ushered in an era of fear, violence and slaughter. Newly christened Democratic Kampuchea began a slow march into an agrarian peasant dominated society where the intellectuals and the elite were seen as the enemy. Even wearing glasses was seen as reason for the death sentence. Anyone with any form of schooling was suspect, and between one and three million people died in the holocaust.

This dark period was brought to an end by the Vietnamese, who liberated Phnom Penh in 1979 and continued to wage war on the guerrilla Khmer Rouge movement until their withdrawal in 1989. The Paris Peace agreement was signed by all parties in 1991.

Although Cambodia is a place of peace, the memories lie deep in the people. Cambodia is very much a young country, largely due to the slaughter – even a conservative estimate of 1.5 million people would mean that 20% of the population had been killed. (English language note: the word ‘decimated’ can strictly only be used when over 10% of the population is destroyed). Most of the countries monks were killed and the monasteries destroyed. Even today, the courts are yet to try the surviving leadership – the Khmer Rouge continued to fight until 1998, the same year that Pol Pot died himself. It’s likely that the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge will die before sentence is passed.

And maybe writing all that history is just me having to avoid writing about the reality and perhaps experiencing some of the discomfort and sadness again as I try and capture my thoughts

It’s poignant for me because this is in my lifetime… and it’s sobering, saddening and painful to visit some of the places where the worst of these atrocities took place. I don’t like museums much, and I definitely was not excited about going to see these.

In suburban Phnom Penh is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, otherwise known as S.21. This was originally a high school, and doesn’t seem that far removed from where I went to school. It’s still possible to walk through the old classrooms, converted into tiny cells. The school gym equipment was used to torture the prisoners, who were also liable to be whipped with razor wire, have their finger nails removed, be subjected to electrical shock treatment or waterboarding. It’s estimated that 17,000 prisoners died in Tuol SLeng.. only seven survived, chiefly by making themselves useful as engineers or artists.

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It;’s impossible to visit Tuol Sleng without being deeply, deeply affected. Sadness hangs heavy over the compound – the barbed wire is still in place, although the courtyard has been replanted with frangipani, and brings a feeling of hope. There’s not very much else to say.. my heart was heavy with a deep, deep sadness as I wandered through the cells, as I read the stories of those who had survived – and those who were forced to serve. Hundreds of pictures of inmates line the cell walls, the eyes haunting me long after I had left.DSCF2837DSCF2838

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I had to take a day to clear the sadness out of my heart before visiting the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where most of the prisoners of S.21 were executed – about 14km south of Phnom Penh. I’m not sure I really managed all that well, and the sense of violence and sadness seemed to hover around me while I visited the Royal Palace – itself, of course, a part of the same violent history, where the king spent the Khmer Rouge years under house arrest despite being allied to the movement.

And so this morning I got on the back of a moto from outside the hotel and headed out into the suburbs with the indomitable Mr B – past the factories, the new build, the new brewery… so much new investment from Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Europe. It’s a scary trp from time to time, with sudden braking essential and the occasional sudden stop.

The fields which used to be a Chinese cemetery up until 1975, have all the tranquillity of an English country park. The trees are in blossom, the birds are singing. Occasionally a rooster chases a hen across the grass. And yet a deep deep air of sadness permeates the area. Everyone is quiet, speaking in hushed tones out of respect for the thousands of bodies who remain – estimates run at about 20,000 including hundreds of women and children.

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Occasionally bones and teeth and scraps of clothing can be seen – the rains bring new remains to the surface all the time. Of the 129 graves here only 89 have been excavated, the rest remaining. Each grave is a shallow depression in the earth, with well trodden trails between them, and a lake in the centre. The condemned would be ferried from Tuol Sleng in the evening and killed one by one.

One tree stands apart as the killing tree, where babies and children’s heads were smashed against the trunk, leaving blood, bone and brain matter on the bark,  before being thrown into the open grave.

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A stupa has been built in one corner of the field: it houses the skulls and remains of over 8000 victims, piled one on top of another up the height of the memorial

It seems unreal, yet the misery, the sadness, the melancholy is palpable. The visitors are mostly young tourists, most of whom were probably not even born – and yet everyone is visibly affected by the atmosphere.

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I pray that we have learnt from this experience. i pray that we are different now from back then. I pray that we will never be able to look another human being and inflict such merciless violence.  And on the way back, I ask what I can do – what we can do – to stop this ever happening again. And the answer comes back in a gentle whisper – You must teach people how to love each other. Teach people how to love themselves.

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