Monday, 15 April 2013

... Indochina: The Cambodian Genocide

Genocide.

"The deliberate and systematic destruction of, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group."


I think we would be hard pressed to find anyone who has been to hell and back quite like the Cambodians (Khmers). From 1975 until 1979, via disease, execution, forced labour and starvation, Pol Pot (also known as Saloth Sar) and the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated 1.7 MILLION Cambodians. For a better perspective on what is an horrific enough thought, that equalled about a quarter of Cambodia's population.


I suspect that the overwhelming numbers of dead in events such as genocide (or war for that matter) are very difficult for the human mind to even begin to acknowledge let alone understand.  This reminds me of a piece my favourite comic Eddie Izzard did in regards to mass murder:

"Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people. We can’t even deal with that! You know, we think if somebody kills someone, that’s murder, you go to prison. You kill 10 people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick, that’s what they do. 20 people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can’t deal with it, you know? Someone’s killed 100,000 people. We’re almost going, "Well done! You killed 100,000 people? You must get up very early in the morning. I can’t even get down the gym! Your diary must look odd: “Get up in the morning, death, death, death, death, death, death, death – lunch- death, death, death - afternoon tea – death, death, death – quick shower…"

The sentiment is absolutely spot on. One death is a tragedy, Over one million? It becomes a statistic.

Cambodia became known as the Democratic Kampuchea. The goal of the Khmer Rouge was to transform the entire country into some brainwashed peasant-dominated mess, forgetting anything and everything that had gone before. Entire populations of Phnom Penh and other towns were forced to march into the countryside. Ill? Tough. Old? Next excuse. Infirm? Get someone to carry you. There they became slaves enduring 12-15 hour work days in one massive slave-labour camp. Disobey? Immediate execution. No if's, and's or but's. If you managed to escape execution then death was always waiting in the form of disease, malaria, dysentery, even starvation. Meals consisted of watery rice porridge twice a day. You'd be lucky to find a single rice grain in it.


Intellectuals were targeted next. The majority of Cambodia's Buddhist monks were murdered and nearly all the Wats were destroyed or damaged. Under the pretense of a celebration at getting the country back from the oppressors beforehand, Cambodians who had gone to live aboard for work, study or both were invited back to their homeland. They were basically tricked back to their death. Education and intellect had the increasingly paranoid Pol Pot running scared. If you had smarts you were deemed as a threat. Wearing glasses was reason enough to be killed. You MUST be working with the CIA/KGB in Pol Pot's mind. And even if you weren't you would be tortured until you broke down and agreed just to make it stop. It stopping would typically come via death. My guide told me his father, an engineer, escaped death by pretending to be of low intellect. It saved his father and their family. His aunt & uncle were not so lucky. Pol Pot soon began turning on his own party members and soldiers, convinced that they were traitors.


Year Zero. The advent of Khmer Rouge rule.


Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot's nutjob of a security force and transformed into Security Prison 21 (S-21). A place of learning became a place of pain, suffering and death. The largest incarceration centre in Cambodia is where former classrooms became torture chambers that bore witness to the inhumanity of mankind. These days it is now Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Just like the Nazi's, the Khmer Rouge leaders meticulously kept a record of their pure evil acts and every prisoner that passed through this hell was photographed. The haunting photos are devastating to look at, faces staring eerily back at you. Men. Women. Children. You will see the small temporary cells that were built and the wire fencing put across the front of that building block to stop any suicide attempts. You will see clothing, skulls and bones. You will wonder what the darkened stains are on the floor tiles.


When the Vietnamese army liberated the practically-empty Phnom Penh on 7th January 1979, 3 years 8 months and 20 days later they found only 7 survivors in this chamber of horrors. All of whom had used their skills such as painting or photography to stay alive.


14km southwest of Phnom Penh is a place called Choeung Ek. Upon my arrival the sun was shining and the birds were singing. Such a cruel irony. Most of the 17000 that were held at S-21 were executed here at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The Khmer Rouge didn't want to use their precious bullets and so people were bludgeoned to death. Children were smashed against the "Killing Tree" and thrown into a pond below. This tree is now covered in bracelets left in memoriam by visitors to the site.


The mass graves that have thus far been uncovered included bodies that underwent the most brutal of acts. There are literally human bones, jaws, skull fragments and clothing sticking out of the ground every where you go. Every time there's a heavy rain more rise to the surface and if that's not horrific enough there is still believed to be a huge area yet to be excavated. At the centre of the site there is a memorial that displays more than 8000 skulls of victims and their ragged clothing. By the time I finished at this site I felt like all the happiness had been sucked out of me. I had to come back to the hotel to shower, as if to wash my horror off.



Yet I believe these are vital historic sites to make sure that this terrible act has public awareness and that we learn from history. They are not for the faint of heart. You might find yourself wondering how on earth Pol Pot and his cronies managed to get away with this and what other blind eyes are still turning today.

What I saw today was, without question of a doubt, incredibly disturbing. The very essence of Cambodia lies in its people and their survival through something that I have spent today trying to grasp a concept of. I tried whilst visiting these sites and I had to choke back the tears. Prepare yourself emotionally and mentally. You will never be the same after you leave. I have never been more ashamed and disgusted in the human race than today upon seeing for myself the utter horror these innocent people became victims of.

Out of five Khmer Rouge leaders indicted by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC aka the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) in 2007, the court has so far completed just one case, sentencing former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, whose alias is 'Duch', to life in jail. The trial continues although ill health and natural death are starting to appear as get-out-of-jail cards for these evil people.

Pol Pot however was never brought to trial. He died in 1998 allegedly due to heart failure the day that the Khmer Rouge had agreed to turn him over to an International Tribunal. His body was cremated on a pile of tires before it could be inspected raising suspicion of suicide. Coward.

To all the souls so tragically lost, Rest In Peace.

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