HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fields of Death

Genocide - the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group
There is a part of my time in Cambodia last year that I've never written about. It is dark, but it has come up in recent conversations with a new group of people that did the same program as me.

As soon as I stumbled out of my tuk-tuk from Phnom Penh's airport into the guesthouse I was staying at, the staff started telling us ('us' being me and the other two people that arrived at the same time) that we should visit The Killing Fields. We weren't interested at first, since we had all just traveled around the world and, personally, I didn't want to kick off my time in Southeast Asia by visiting the site of one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. In the end, we relented when we were told that we wouldn't have enough time to once our training started.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians), led by Pol Pot, took control of what was known as the Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea. After re-naming the country Democratic Kampuchea (a demented oxymoron if there ever was one), Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge initiated a plan to return society to 'Year Zero'. Money was abolished, schools were closed, and the cities were evacuated by force, in an effort to create a completely agrarian and egalitarian society.

The Khmer Rouge's policies absolutely devastated a country that had already been heavily damaged by the U.S. military, in their fruitless attempts to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail through bombing runs. The group's leadership held educated people in great contempt, and their social experiment rapidly turned into genocide: people who wore glasses were assumed to be members of the intelligentsia - they were promptly tortured and executed, as were those involved with the previous regime, and ethnic or religious minorities. Others were forced into hard labor or starvation. By the time the Vietnamese invaded and ended the rule of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, up to 2.5 million people had been killed by the regime - 20% of the country's population.

Even today, it hard to escape the legacy of the Khmer Rouge's rule. The genocide is a major reason why Cambodia is still so poor today: anyone with experience in government, education, or administration was killed, leaving nothing but the hollow shell of a country standing. The cities crumbled, the economy was non-existent. The current Prime Minister had ties to the group, and orphans and severely injured people are visible everywhere. There is also a UN-backed tribunal underway right now; where the last remaining leaders of the group are on trial. The Cambodian people, however, have little interest in the proceedings. They are eager to put this horrific past behind them, and focus on a brighter future. No one talks about the killings. In recent years, however, efforts to commemorate those that died have resulted in two places of interest around Phnom Penh: the previously mentioned Killing Fields, and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former prison often simply called 'S-21'.

There are several Killing Fields, but the most prominent sits about 30 minutes outside of Phnom Penh. The other site of mass death I've visited is Auschwitz-Birkenau, and while the fields certainly don't compare to the eloquent solemnity of the concentration camp, they are still a powerful reminder of what happened.
Once you enter the grounds, you are faced with a towering stupa, a structure Buddhists use to hold bodily remains. As you approach, you are struck with a ghastly sight: the stupa is filled with the bones of victims unearthed in the fields. Piles of skulls, femurs, and tibias offer a graphic picture of how brutal the Khmer Rouge's extermination of its own people was. It was hard not to notice that some of the skulls had holes in them: in order to save bullets, many people were killed with pick axes or sharpened bamboo poles.
The rest of the overgrown field was full of holes next to poorly written signs, such as "Mass grave of 166 victims without heads", and "Mass grave of children hit against trees". Such was the viciousness of the Khmer Rouge that it is hard to even say how many people died at this particular field; one estimate places the number around 1.3 million.

We returned to the city itself, where we were taken to former Security Prison 21, or S-21. Fittingly, given the Khmer Rouge's disgust for education, the building was a high school before it was transformed into a notorious prison. Roughly 17,000 people passed through S-21. There were seven known survivors. Prisoners were brought in, brutally tortured into giving extensive 'confessions' about involvement with the previous government, and then executed. The need for the Killing Fields arose after S-21 ran out of space for more bodies.

One of the buildings contains rooms where torture sessions were conducted. The steel-frame beds, and sinister tools used to administer the torture, still sit where they were left. Faded blood stains on the floors, walls, and ceilings testify to the horrifying nature of the prison. A single black and white picture adorns a wall in each room: an image taken by the Khmer Rouge, in that very room, of a victim, on that very bed, after being tortured. The bodies are barely recognizable as human. The only time my skin has crawled more was at Auschwitz, in the room where masses of human hair, cut off as victims entered the camp, are piled behind a pane of glass.
In the other accessible building sits row after a row of black and white headshot pictures; a visual record of teachers, artists, bureaucrats, and shop owners that were processed into S-21 and exterminated.
Obviously, a visit to the Killing Fields and S-21 will not leave one in good spirits. However, I feel they are necessary if you are in Phnom Penh. It allows one to gain a greater understanding of why the country is still so poverty-stricken, why there are no old people, and why Cambodians strive so hard for the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment