Monday, March 9, 2009

The Killing Fields

Fun was not the right word for these few days but a rather interesting day as we visited both the S-21 detention center that has been turned into a museum and Pol Pot’s infamous Killing Fields. 

The sheer brutality and cluelessness of the Khmer Rouge absolutely shocked me. 
To sum up the past, the communist Khmer Rouge came to power after a civil war in Cambodia in 1975.  They told the populace that the Americans were going to bomb and that everyone had to leave the cities.  They marched everyone to the rice fields and forced hard labor for the next four years.
They believed that all loyalty should be to Angka (the party) and destroyed all reminants of the past.  Families were considered wasteful and people were grouped with similar ages, most families being ripped apart. 
A large percentage of the population died due to starvation, lack of medical treatment and outright genocide.  Crimes that would get you sent to “re-education” included being in the former government’s army, thinking too much about pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, missing your family, humming a non-revolutionary song, having an education or having a family member do one of these.  Everyone who had done something besides farming was suspect.
“To keep you is no gain, to lose you is no loss” was a common slogan.  Another was that they’d rather kill 10 innocents than let one guilty person go. 
As a result of all this, a good percentage of the population died.  Because they could brainwash children easier, a good percentage of the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge army were children with little memory of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia.  This is how they attempted to erase everything
The Khmer Rouge fell in 1979 as the Vietnamese took the country.  Unfortunately, the US still had a vendetta against Vietnam so Reagan and Bush refused to recognize the new government, actually providing military and financial support to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge through both administrations.   Pol Pot was never brought to justice and died of old age.  He ordered killings as recently as 1997.
We began our day of morbid tourism at 10 by getting in a tuk-tuk with Dana (pronounced like Donna) before heading to S-21.  S-21 was a former high-school where people were sent for reeducation. 
A sad movie told the story of two lovers that had been seperated.  The husband went to work for Angka, but even he was not allowed to take his wife with him as families were abolished.  Eventually, both were accused and sent to S-21.  They never saw each other again, even tough they were imprisoned about fifteen feet from each other.  They never knew. 
Numbers on the side of the walls were numbered 1-9 on one side and 10-18 on the other.  People were lined up on their backs with iron rods shoved through shackles amongst their ankles.  Four rows of 9 people were lined up for 36 people locked on their back for months on end.  They could not talk, eat or move. 
Another room had pictures of survivors, who were the guards.  Their stories were highlighted as they can still tell the stories.  Only 7 people entered S21 as a prisoner and lived. 
People were taken from the mass rooms to either individual cells or torture rooms where confessions were forced out of them.  Eventually, they’d be told that they were to go to another work camp to work and were rounded into a truck.  At that point they’d be taken to the killing fields.
People were taken to the killing fields blindfolded and put on their knees.  Where they were killed and thrown into mass graves.  This was often done with blunt objects as the Khmer Rouge did not want to use up bullets.
Land mines were planted by a combination of the government, Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces, but how many and where is still unknown.  As a result, the country is littered with land-mines and people living with amputations.  
The legacy of the Khmer Rouge can be seen today.  I was one of the oldest people in the country as almost everyone was younger than me.  There are still massive amounts of young people who do not have parents.   Almost nobody over the age of 30 has an education.  As a result, the economy is having difficulty recovering. 
Children are organized into a small labor force to attempt to sell books and other trinkets to the tourists.  Tourists think they’re doing something helpful by buying a book from the kids, but they’re not. The kids don’t get to keep the money and you’re encouraging child labor.  I did end up buying a book and a bracelet from some men who had been victims of land mines. 
It’s absolutely heartbreaking what has happened to many of the people of this area.  When asked what the children want to do when they grow up they give answers like “live with other people”. 
ChildSafe International is an organization that is doing what they can to get children off the streets and into schools as well as battle child prostitution, which is still an issue in lots of the world.  Check their work out at
We did not spend all that much time in Phnom Penh as the end of the trip is getting ever closer and we wanted to head on, so as a result, I’m writing this from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) on the bottom floor of a small homestay.  The Mai family has a grandma, a couple about our age and a newborn.  They have 3-4 rooms and free internet :) 
Today we’re going to do the “loop”, which is a walk around some museums, markets and the like.  We’ll talk more about Vietnam later . . . . but not until after Leslie wakes up. 

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