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A somber beginning....Killing Fields and S21

We were excited about moving on to our next country, Cambodia! Everyone we knew who had been there raved about it and how amazing the people are so we were looking forward to seeing for ourselves.

Having opted for the bus we crossed the boarder at Bavet and it was clear we were entering a country on another poverty level. Travelling down the bumpy roads all the dust was kicked up into people's wooden houses right on the roadside, whilst naked children played nearby. The sun was starting to lower and everything a dusty glow. Very different from the luscious greens that had struck us on our last border crossing into Vietnam. Another thing we marvelled at was how flat the area was and when there were breaks in the trees it was flat as far as you could see.


Arriving in the capitol Phnom Penh we were met by the usual scrummage of people but instead of motorbike riders and taxis it was tuk-tuks. For a couple of dollars we were soon at our hostel, the White Rabbit, where we would be spending the next couple of days. US dollars are used here as well as Cambodian riel which can get a bit confusing... So ATMs give out dollars, most people will give your change in riel, and sometimes it can be a combination of both!

Having read a bit about Cambodias troubled past we knew we wanted to go to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Museum to find out more and organised a tuk tuk to take us the next morning. Our driver Stone told us we were in for a sad morning but was pleased we were going and said it was important to know what happened as his mother and father would never forget.

He was not wrong! It was such an emotional experience walking in a place where the reality of what happened is devastating. The realisation that if we had been living in Cambodia at the time we would have met this same fate purely for being able to read or for wearing glasses. Another example of how one mans ideology and paranoia was allowed to result in mass suffering and murder... do we not learn from history?

This is a place that should really be experienced first hand. Once it would have been full of the sounds of terror and anguish but today it is a place of quiet remembrance and on a sunny day with butterflies and flowers it was even harder to believe what happened here. I had been concerned that not having a guide would result in us missing out on information but the audio tour was really well done and provided a more intimate experience and allowed you to take it in in your own time and allowed for reflection. Everyone was silent.


The audio tour walked us through the experience of the prisoners who were brought here to be immediately executed. As Pol Pots paranoia grew the victims not only included intellectuals and diplomats but peasants, workers, foreigners, women and children, even babies! At its peak 300 people a day were arriving on the pretence of going to a new farm to work. This number was often too many to cope with in a day so they had to be detained overnight. Bullets were considered "too expensive" which meant other tools were used to bludgeon them to death and the sad truth is that many would have fallen into the pits still alive. The serrated edge of palm trees were even used.


Chemicals would be poured into the pits not only to cover the smell of decay so workers nearby would not work out what was going on but also to kill any of the unfortunate people buried alive in the pits. As we walked in between the mass graves you could see small piles of clothes and bones that had been collected as more come to the surface each year during the rainy season.


It was discovered that one of the graves only contained remains of women and children. Whilst standing by this mass grave that we were directed to look at a tree that was covered in bracelets that people had left as a sign of remembrance.


This was the tree that babies had been thrown against before being thrown into the pit. You could the see the exact moment that people heard the significance of this tree as hands went over their mouths in disbelief and tears filled their eyes. Pol Pot was quoted as saying "Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than spare an enemy by mistake". It was one of the most shocking parts of the day and we took a moment before going to pay respects at the stupa that has been built to house the remains that were excavated and acts as a memorial to all those who died.


Back in the tuk tuk Stone told us how even though that period in history was over that there was still a lot of problems for the people in Cambodia due to corruption and he said that money given to Cambodia by other countries never made it to help the people on the street. It was a quiet drive back to the city as we made our way to the next stop Tuol Sleng Museum otherwise known as S-21 (Security Prison 21).

When Pol Pot came to power all the cities became ghost towns within 3 days as everyone was sent to the countryside for forced labour. People considered a threat to the regime were sent to prisons and as education was no longer deemed necessary deserted school buildings like this one were an ideal choice for prisons. The outside of the building was covered by barbed wire to prevent any of the prisoners from throwing themselves out the windows


Rooms once used to educate children were turned into places of torture, interrogation and incarceration. In some rooms you could still see the blood stains on the floor.


An array of methods were used to make people confess their 'crimes' against the regime and also implicate family, friends and colleagues too, such as pulling fingernails, electrocution, water torture and also the Gallows. The Gallows was a piece of spots equipment that had been used by children which was turned into a tool for torture where people were hung upside down until they passed out. Then they would be dunked in water to rouse them and this was repeated again and again.


Some of the larger rooms were divided into hundreds of small individual cells (2m by 1m) with wood for solitary confinement. Occasionally they would be hosed down but as the drainage was poor they would often have to sit, lie & sleep in the water for days.


It is believed around 20,000 people were imprisoned here and most would have met their fate at the Killing Fields we had visited earlier that day. The regime kept records of each prisoner including photograph and autobiography. Room upon room displayed 100s of photographs and we read several of the autobiographies and "confessions". It brought home that each person was an individual and not a statistic and it was haunting looking at their faces knowing what would have happened to them.


Needless to say it was an intense morning and we were completely drained when we got back to the hostel.

Our worries about where to stay for new year and Xmas now seemed so trivial!


Posted by doyledan 04:29 Archived in Cambodia

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