Memories from the Cambodian war

Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge who wanted to create the “perfect” communist state. In doing this, they killed probably a million people, intellectuals, land-owners, everybody connected to them, and everybody who didn’t want to play their game.

In Phnom Penh, there are two places that one must visit to understand this part of their history.
One is the Tuol Sleng prison, also called S-21, that the Khmer Rouge installed in a former school in Phnom Penh. They transformed some classrooms into tiny cells, others into “interrogation rooms”, the schoolyard was used for torturing the prisoners. It was in fact an extermination prison, and almost all prisoners died there, except 14 people who were still alive when the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh. The prison is now a museum, but has been left largely the way it was found back in 1979 (I wish they would renovate the ceiling though, it seems like it’s going to collapse any time soon…). This really makes a very strong impression. Inside, there are different exhibitions of photographs. One exhibition shows photos and personal comments of a Swedish person who was part of a delegation that visited the country under the Khmer Rouge. He describes how at the time he didn’t know and didn’t want to believe in the atrocities that were happening in the country, because he (and many other Europeans) believed that the Cambodians were about to form the ideal communist state, where everybody was equal and that was not dependent on other countries to survive. Later on he had to admit that he had been terribly wrong, and that’s why he shows his photos now, along with his comments, so that this would not happen again.

A few days later, we took a Tuk-Tuk to Cheung Ek, the “killing fields”, about 14 km from Phnom Penh. A quiet spot in the countryside with lots of trees. One can hardly imagine that this was the very spot where tens of thousands of Cambodians were killed in the most horrible way. They were taken here in trucks, most of them from the Tuol Sleng prison, and just beaten to death (bullets were too expensive). Since the 1980’s, several mass graves have been unearthed, and a big stupa has been erected that contains the skulls found in the graves. One particular atrocity was committed at the “killing tree”: children were held by their legs and swung against the tree to kill them.
There was also a small museum, talking about the people who were responsible for the killings, and how their judgements are getting on (they are being tried by a joint Cambodian-UN tribunal, which has been very very slow to get on, and the accused are slowly dying from old age without having been judged, like Pol Pot for example).

After Vietnam’s uncritical propaganda, it was good to see that Cambodia has made the effort to show everything that happened in the past, with a strong will that this will never happen again. Recently they also published a book for all the schools about what happened under the Khmer Rouge.