In the early 1970′s little Cambodia was in the middle of civil and international war–intricately tied to the Vietnam War. But on April 17th, 1975, the existing, American-backed government fell to the revolutionary regime, the Khmer Rouge (“Red Khmer,” Khmer being the predominant ethnicity and language of Cambodians and Red being the color of Communism). They walked into the streets of the capital Phnom Pehn, and residents greeted them with cheers and celebration. The fighting was over. And the Khmer Rouge was to escort Cambodians into a new era of peace.
But like waking abruptly from a pleasant dream, the Cambodian people were jolted into the cold, grim reality that things would get much worse before they got better. A day after the cheers, the Khmer Rouge troops ordered the capital to be evacuated–immediately. Sick? Old? Awaiting amputation? Didn’t matter. Go.
Imagine a city larger than Duluth or Fargo or even St. Paul being completely emptied and you, the resident, having to leave all your belongings. Some pushed their cars; most just trudged a suitcase or two. All were on foot and would suffer a bruising journey to the countryside. Before April 1975 had ended, the capital was a ghost town. This was all according to plan. The evacuation of all large cities was the first step in a series of extreme measures taken.
The Khmer Rouge ideology was based on a disdain for Western influence and the idea that all would be wonderful in their society if equality was forced. This led to two extraordinary goals: a return to their agrarian roots and a removal of anything or anyone who was tainted by the ways of the West. Pomp wealth and arrogance would be eradicated as all would know what life was like in the fields. No classes would rank the members of society.
Any nobility seen in these motives would be irrelevant, as it doesn’t matter how good you think your idea is if what you have to do to see it through is evil–or turns you evil.
Troops relished and exploited their authority. The educated, wealthy, and former party members were eliminated–shot on spot. They were luckier than some. A seemingly dark drive to see others suffer motivated torturous actions. And paranoia of suspected non-followers and traitors led to accusations, imprisonment, and death to thousands upon thousands more. The worse it got, the more people wanted out, the more traitors there were.
Those who escaped suspicion didn’t escape the difficulties. The Killing Fields is the name given to a book and film depicting the long hours, no days off, few tools, and no medical supplies typifying the conditions on the farm camps. Also typical was constant fear of death, as fellows would be taken away in the middle of the night by soldiers never to be seen again.
Out-with-the-old revolutions are nothing new, but the difference here was the amount of blood used to try and clean the slate. Today, there exists two sites in Phnom Pehn that memorialize the genocide.
The remains from mass graves have been unearthed and are on display at Choeung Ek Memorial and museum just outside Phnom Penh.
Inside it holds stark reminders of what had been buried here:
They put body on the bones:
This vessel held 8000 skulls of all ages.
Some of the mass graves are still underground. Visitors walked among this graveyard.
Others have been unearthed.
Some bones here were unearthing themselves.
This location basically became a killing factory in the late ’70s. Housing had to be built for executioners and grave diggers. Thousands were brought here to be executed. Most were shot, but bullets were pricier than using a machete or a knife.
Many of the victims above were former prisoners at an institution known as SR21. Today, it is known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Accused spies, conspirators, and other untrusted people were held here for forced confessions. Around 17,000 people were imprisoned.
Twelve are known to have survived.
Visitors are allowed to walk inside the cells.
Other buildings showcase photos of what went on.
They also share those who died in this complex. The prison kept records of its inmates.
Walls of faces looked back at you, revealing to you a scale of the eradication. But it seemed life was stripped away from the people even before death became them.
Perhaps she knew her and her baby’s fate.
As was the fate of all of these little faces:
One young woman looking at these faces near me started to cry. I wished to say something comforting. I’ve thought about it since, and if given another chance, I would’ve said, “They’re not suffering anymore.”
Humans actions require human explanations. Internal and external variables here in the late 1970s were arranged in such a way to create a regime and individuals that could somehow twist morality into justifying their atrocities.
While this went on, the leaders of the Khmer Rouge also expressed concern for their people. They talked with other countries about the problems they had with high malaria and lack of medicines. They even broke their own rule and accepted medical aid from the West.
But the organization became a breeding ground for all the hate and inhumanity that its members could muster. The dreams of a Khmer Utopia literally turned into a killing contest, soldiers inventing new ways of causing death and torture. Animals may be more apathetic, but humans’ capacity for sympathy and compassion has an opposing potential that destroys. Roughly 2 million of the country’s 8 million died as a result of less than four years of Khmer Rouge rule.
In January 1979 Vietnam invaded and ousted the leadership. Today, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal court continues its 18+ years of trying former Khmer Rouge leaders. They’ve imprisoned three.
All the rank and file members live with the public today.
Less than 40 years removed, practically everyone middle-aged and older has a story to tell. In Battambang, my tour guide’s parents were killed. This is normal. Yet somehow so is the positive demeanor among the Cambodians, it being written about in my guidebook and discovered myself upon my arrival.
The healing is uplifting; the apparent ability for normal people to ravage humanity is unsettling; the darkness that became this country and the anguish its people went through is unforgettably haunting.
It’s hard to juggle the mixed feelings one has visiting and learning about the Khmer Rouge. The only certainty is walking away a changed person.