Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Phnom Penh, S-21 and Killing Fields - 16-19 April 2011

It's early, yet the heat still oppresses my brain as I sit there eating my simple and overpriced breakfast that the manager had thrown in front of me during one of his 'moments'. The manager is British and moved to Cambodia several years ago, married and bought this hostel, although he's a nice enough chap, he has got one hell of a temperamental mood. If, heaven forbid, something didn't go his way the manager would throw a temper tantrum alike a three year old child. By mistake, an extra breakfast was produced and was only discovered once the manager had reached our table, he was livid at the poor girl in the kitchen and began to shout and say 'That's it, kitchen's closed. I've had enough, there's no more food...'. He even threatened to throw the girl out. Highly unacceptable behaviour in any work setting. Alan, acting as a UN peace keeping force, very kindly paid for the extra meal and equilibrium returned to the hostel once more.

Tom broke my new sun glasses!
The previous day we had arrived in a very quiet, almost dead Phnom Penh. It was Sunday and it was the Khmer New Year holiday so most people who have migrated to the capital to work had been allowed to return home to their families and celebrate their biggest festival of the year. The hostel was no different, we arrived to be greeted by the owner who had informed us that the majority of his staff had gone home for the holiday and we would have to forgive him for any delays in service as it was just him and another, I presumed to be his wife, looking after the place. On the bus, Alan, Nicky, Tom and I had met a Russian/Danish girl that went by the name of Ekaterina who was on a quick trip around South East Asia. We made friends quickly and as she didn't know where she was going to be staying on the first night, we invited her to stay with us. I had been the wise one and booked a room with air-conditioning. I know it was around a pound more expensive but there is a line where you decide having a decent, sweat-less night is far more desirable than having a little extra in the diminishing pot of gold. I can assure you that I was glad I did when I heard how the others slept in their heat filled room.

Nicky was still upstairs in bed as he wasn't feeling too well, Ekaterina had moved her stuff over to another hotel that she had booked with her friends and so that left, Tom, Alan and I to wonder the streets of Phnom Penh and discover what the city was all about. It took a lot of effort, and after putting it off and off, we finally pushed ourselves out of our seats and began walking away from the hostel. The sun seemed to be strong still despite it being past what is deemed to be the hottest part of the day. We struggled on, dodging the sun where we could and Tom was still suffering from his Sihanoukville sunburn. Finally, we decided enough was enough and retired in a small café, whose fans were strategically placed to cool the patrons down where we spent the remainder of the day drinking Ice Lemon Tea (highly recommended!) and played 'Shithead' and Black Jack.

There's not much that really draws tourist into Phnom Penh itself, it's not a very pleasant city to stroll around, not many tourist attractions or things to look at. It's purely a working city with a bloody history that is still felt amongst all people of Cambodia. The once magnificent colonial buildings are now dilapidated, damaged and have no signs of improvement. If you look behind the row of bars and restaurants that line the river, you see the gruesome reality that Cambodia is still direly poor. Most people visit Phnom Penh to visit S-21 Prison and the killing fields to pay their respects to the innocently culled people.

In the early twentieth century, Phnom Penh and Cambodia was a flourishing French colonial state and people of the country had their liberty and opportunities. As the was across the border in Vietnam raged after the second world war, things began to change and in the late 60s, Prince Sihanouk, The King and Cambodia's Head of State, secretly made a pact with the North Vietnamese to supply them with overpriced rice and in return Sihanoukville was opened up to shipments of supplies and weapons for the Viet Cong. The then Prime Minister and known anti-communist, Lon Nol became increasingly frustrated and concerned with Vietnamese operations taking place on their land. Lon Nol eventually approached the United States CIA for assistance in overthrowing the King and in 1970, a successful coup was staged and Prince Sihanouk was removed as Head of State. Following this coup, Prime Minister Lon Nol took full control of the Government and Cambodia was renamed the Khmer Republic.

April 1975, Khmer Rouge soldiers enter Phnom Penh
The newly founded Khmer Republic withdraw all agreements with the North Vietnamese and ordered all Vietnamese off their soil. This may have been done purely for the Americans but it cannot be 100% confirmed. The Vietnamese continued to use the land and as conditions in The Khmer Republic deteriorated and American bombs began falling heavily over the Eastern borders, civilian tensions grew and support for the opposition grew. The opposition were the Khmer Communists under leadership of Pol Pot, famously dubbed The Khmer Rouge and following a term of civil war, the Khmer Rouge ruthlessly and forgivingly took control of the country in April 1975. The country was renamed again, this time it was Democratic Kampuchea... Not really sure how 'Democratic' came into it!?

Deserted streets of Phnom Penh
In the following days after the Khmer Rouge took over, thousands of people were expelled from their homes in all major cities around the country. The promise was that the Khmer Rouge were going to clear up and allow the people back into their homes. This of course never happened, it was never going to happen, it was the first step for the communist's radical plan to wipe Cambodia clean of capitalism and revert all people back to an equal playing field. The Chinese communist officials pleaded with the Khmer Rouge to take the revolution step by step as it's impossible to just clean the slate and start a fresh. The Khmer Rouge didn't listen and stubbornly continued with their original plan. It didn't work and resulted in the death of over 2 million Cambodian people in the period from 1975 to the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

S-21 Teung Sleng Prison
Tuol Sleng Prison, more commonly referred to as S-21, used to be a school within Phnom Penh but when the Khmer Rouge took over and shut down all schools, hospitals etc, they turned this building into a prison. Tom, Nicky, Kate, Alan and I squeezed ourselves into a tuk-tuk and headed through the streets of Phnom Penh to the prison. It was stinking hot as usual and the breeze blowing through the moving vehicle was thoroughly welcomed by all of us. The prison is now a genocide museum to remind people of what happened and hopefully prevent it from happening again. The tuk-tuk driver didn't hang about and through it around the corners seemingly careless of his human cargo and pulled up with a screech outside the dull concrete walls of Security Prison 21. We all walked inside, paid for our entrance and immediately the once joyous mood became solemn and pensive. Despite the lush green grass and trees flourishing full of life in the middle, the surrounding three blocks that make up the prison reek of painful and torturous death.

Cells within S-21
It didn't take long for the colour of my t-shirt to completely darken with sweat that flowed from my pores and my hopes that I would get used to the heat diminished. On days like this, it's disturbing to think of how the inmates coped, crammed into their small dark cells, shackled at the ankles to the wall or, if they were lucky, to their beds whilst their toilet bowl at their feet was full of their rotting waste. All this, and constantly wondering when the guards were going to come and take them away for questioning. Every foot step they heard walking up and down outside their cells was a torturous, heart thumping moment that could be their last. S-21 was initially turned into a prison for members of the Lol Nol government but was extended to teachers, policemen, soldiers, doctors, nurses and anyone who had any standing in society. Eventually the prison began holding members of the Khmer Rouge who were thought to be dissidents to the party. Inmates were beaten to an inch of their lives each day, tortured using a series of techniques including water-boarding, suffocation, hanging, cutting, electric shocks, pulling out fingernails and even bleeding them to death. Females were raped by interrogators but if discovered were in turn executed as sexual abuse was against Kampuchea's policy. Killing the inmates was discouraged as the confessions were important to the Khmer Rouge, although how can such confessions under torture be guaranteed truth? Once they had signed their confessions, they would either be allowed to die there or more commonly be marched with hundreds of other people to the killing fields outside Phnom Penh.

The passageways of S-21
After walking around the prison complex in astonished silence, all five of us reconvened and headed back to our tuk-tuk driver who was going to take us to our next destination, the killing fields. It was such a relief to be squeezed back on the tuk-tuk and having the wind blow through our hair once again. The cars behind us had to turn their windscreen wipers on as our sweat was swept from our hair. The Killing Fields are several kilometres from the city and it tool us around twenty minutes to get there. Again, could you imagine being marched out there in the hot sun after days or months of torture and beatings?

The memorial Buddhist Stupa in Choeung Ek
As you pass through the entrance gate of Choeung Ek killing field, you are greeted with a tall Buddhist Stupa that holds a collection of the victims' shattered skulls, clothing and personal artefacts. We took our shoes off and walk up and around the spire. Memories of my visit to Auschwitz popped into my head as I saw clothing that belonged to a child. It suddenly becomes real and emotions of sadness, remorse and hatred flush through your veins. How can people be so cruel to another human being? Once the 'traitors' reached the fields, dug their own graves, they were ordered to kneel down in a row. Women cried as they held onto their children and comforting them, men begged for their lives and were beaten back down to their knees with the butts of the guards guns. Ammunition was in short supply and guards were under strict orders not to use bullets unless absolutely necessary. The killing began, butts of guns slammed down repeatedly of skulls, bayonets and sharpened bamboo sticks were thrust into chests, spades penetrated skulls and poisons were forced down throats. The most shocking deaths were those of the children who were torn from the mothers hands by the ankles, lifted into the air and swung against tree trunks, bashing their heads until they died. There were also reports of babies thrown into the air like clay pigeons and fatally caught by a guard's bayonet as an entertaining sport. The Khmer Rouge took the initiative to kill who families including children and babies to reduce the risk of them rising up and taking revenge for their parents murder.

These used to be people....
Walking around the mass graves, you become aware of the reality of genocide and the floors in human nature. Although the sun shone on us, it felt like the middle of the night and I didn't notice one bird chirping in the trees. It's important that these places exist to remind us what happened and to prevent it from happening again. Choeung Ek is maybe more shocking than Auschwitz due to its recency. The five of us walked silently out of the complex and climbed back into our tuk-tuk that headed back to Phnom Penh and present day Cambodia.

Next Time: Phnom Penh to Battambang

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