When Paula and I spent a month travelling all around Thailand in 2005 we met loads and loads of interesting people, but I have to say that one guy in particular sticks out from all the rest. Actually that’s not true: I don’t really remember him as a person, per se; but what I’ll never forget is that he told us something so profound, so shocking, it created an obsession that haunted me for the next six or so years. I was so horrified – yet deeply interested – by what he said that afternoon, I vowed to one day go see it with my very own eyes. Here’s how it went down:
Late one sunny afternoon in Bangkok Paula and I sat drinking giant, cheap Heinekens in a small bar that was a favourite haunt for wayward backpackers such as ourselves. And as travellers do, a young man about 25 named Rob came over and introduced himself, and we invited him to join us. An Englishman by origin, Rob was working in S.E. Asia as a tour guide for an adventure travel company, and was enjoying a few beers before setting out the next morning guiding 12 cyclists from Bangkok all the way to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a distance he said was approximately 530 km. “Have you been to Cambodia before?” he asked “No; actually, I don’t know anything about it” I replied. Rob continued “It’s where the Khumer Rouge committed the mass genocide of two million people between 1974 – 1979, you know, like as in the movie The Killing Fields“. I paused and thought for a moment… I’d heard of the film, but never saw it.
Wait a minute – Genocide? Two million people killed? 1974 – 1979? This means this happened during my lifetime – in fact, just a mere 25 years earlier! Shocked, I wondered “How could this be?”; but more jarringly I wondered “How could I not have known about this?” Rob went on to say that in April 1974 some guy named Pol Pot marched into the capital (Phnom Penh) took control of the country with his army – The Khmer Rouge – with the intention to return Cambodia to an agrarian communist utopia that was “for the people”. It was a brutal, bloody uprising that saw innocent people being slaughtered from the moment it started, and ultimately left a quarter of the population of ten million dead by their fellow countrymen.
I was gob-smacked… Again, I asked myself how could I have not known about this? Suddenly “Happy Hour” didn’t feel so “happy”, and I was horrified at what I was hearing; horrified, yet morbidly curious, and I wanted – needed – to know more. You see, as a student of history, I want to learn about events that shape our world, even when they are dark and horrific. Just like I obsessively studied the rise (and subsequent fall) of Hitler’s Nazi’s, I was now building similar mindset to learn about the newly-discovered (by me) Cambodian genocide at the hands of a mad-man. Rob told me if I was truly interested in learning more about the Killing Fields (and rise and fall of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge) he recommended a book called “Survival in the Killing Fields” written by Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who portrayed (and won the Oscar for) the protagonist in “The Killing Fields”. More importantly, Dr. Ngor himself survived the horrific and deadly ordeal in his own life, and the book was his story.
The next day I located a bookstore on Khaosan Road, found the book and picked it up. I was surprised to see there were many, many books outlining the atrocities of this era, so I grabbed a second one titled “First They Killed My Father”, the story of a privileged 5 year old girl who was taken from her family then trained to be a guerrilla by the Khmer Rouge. I paid for the books, grabbed Paula and we headed to the airport to fly south where we planned on spending a relaxing week at Railay Beach. On the plane I cracked open the first book, and was instantly gripped by the graphic brutality of life under the Khmer Rouge, and the extreme efforts citizens had to go to in order to simply stay alive under this brutal dictatorship. It described the mass exodus from Phnom Penh, the brutal torture and murder of innocent people deemed “too smart” or “a threat” to the regime; it talked about S-21, the former high-school-turned-interrogation-centre, the ongoing failed attempts to build a society without technology, and of course, the Killing Fields themselves – the compound where prisoners were taken to be killed, then buried in mass graves.
The images in my head were so vivid, so disturbing and yet so real, that I couldn’t put the book down. Once I finished, Paula and I traded until we’d each read both books. I can honestly say that, as horrific as it was, what I read in these two books changed my life, and I knew I had to learn more about this dark period in Cambodian history first hand. I made a promise to myself to visit Cambodia one day, and see these sites with my own eyers; a promise I became obsessed about keeping.
After much planning, in 2010 we arrived back to S.E. Asia, landing in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, then worked our way across that country, through Cambodia, eventually winding up in Bangkok, where afterwards we finished up with a week at Railay Beach. Despite an impressive itinerary that included the Chu Chi Tunnels, Angor Wat and gorgeous Thai beaches, all I could think of were two things: seeing Tuol Sleng, (S-21) the high-school-turned-prison (and now museum) where Khmer Rouge guerrillas tortured innocent people to extract “confessions” from them; and the mass graves where their bodies were dumped and buried, commonly known as the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Since liberation in 1979 many of the bones and skulls have been exhumed, and are displayed in a giant stupa at the entrance of the memorial as a reminder of this dark period of history.
Our Cambodian guide was a man whose name was pronounced “Tear”, who was a survivor of the Pol Pot Regime. Whilst touring S-21, (see photos above and below) Tear told us how he narrowly escaped being killed by a Khmer Rouge soldier for a “crime” he supposedly committed. It seems that Pol Pot was intent on starving a lot of people to death, so food was scarce and people were hungry all the time. Foraging food or eating at non-meal times was punishable by death, so doing either whilst under the watchful eyes of the soldiers was taking a real chance. Whilst working in the rice paddies one day, Tear discovered a soft-shelled crab, and was so hungry he wanted to eat it, but knew it was against the rules. Starving, he felt he had to try, so he looked around; when he felt no-one was watching, he popped the tiny crab into his mouth. Immediately a guard was at his side, hitting him with the butt of a rifle and screaming for him to open his mouth and spit out whatever he had in it. Tear knew if the guard saw either the crab, or him swallowing, it would mean certain death. Somehow he was able to get the crab down his throat, and open his mouth to show the guard that he had nothing in his mouth. This infuriated the guard, who continued to beat him, but did not kill him. When the guard eventually left Tear was bloodied and bruised, all for trying to feed himself a tiny crab.
When he told his story, you could see the pain and suffering in his eyes as they welled up; I would imagine no matter how many times he tells this story, the pain and horror of the indignities he suffered will never go away. In fact, when we arrived at The Killing Fields, Tear explained that he wouldn’t be coming in as the memories were too painful for him; so he stayed and waited for us on the bus. I can honestly tell you that this day is one that I will never, ever forget; I witnessed the very worst of what human beings are capable of, and met a man who survived the most unimaginable conditions, and it left an indelible black stain on my being. It’s been said that we can’t understand true goodness if we don’t have a reference of what true evil looks like ;- and that day, I witnessed true evil – or at least the remnants of it – first hand. And it was truly horrifying.
I’ll always be glad that I made this journey; I believe as people, it’s important that we see, remember and understand things from our history, be they good or bad. Memorials such as the Killing Fields and S-21 are sober reminders of what can happen when a control of a country is in the hands of one person; and that civilized people need to express political beliefs with fairness, dignity and democracy. They also remind us that we are all human, regardless of gender, race or class. Sometimes we need to be reminded of this fact, not just in Cambodia, but also at home.
Here are photos of these two remarkable memorials, beginning with Tuol Sleng Prison, or S-21:
The Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Pol Pot and The End of The Genocide
In 1978 Vietnam attacked Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge justifying it as an act of self defence. With the Khmer Rouge defeated, Pol Pot fled to an undisclosed location on the Thai border, where he received shelter and assistance from his still loyal followers. There’s much, much more to the story, but in the end, Pol Pot and his regime were defeated; and unfortunately, he was able to live out his life never paying for the atrocities or war crimes he committed, until his death in 1998. For more on this fascinating piece of history, click here.
It sounds weird to say this, but I hope this post and these pictures have given you a sense of this important piece of history – As I stated at the beginning, I was shocked that this horrific genocide took place during my life; and sadly, I’ve discovered many more have as well. The one thing I can say is that the day I spent at these two historic sights, and the pictures you see here, have made me appreciate how very, very lucky I am to have the life I get to live; and that I’ll never forget the things I saw at these two memorials for as long as I live.