The hot sidewalks are strewn with grated chairs and tables. Khmer waiters from Cafe Central take orders in French and quickly serve tables bustling with tourists gabbing about the Khmer Rouge. Sweating glasses of iced coffee are brought out in batches and given to customers. Local Khmers rickshawing lumber, produce, livestock, and grains dizzy the nearby street. Suddenly, a few meters away, an explosion erupts rocketing the surrounding visitors and local folk in every direction. Blinding smoke dissipates and disembodied people can be seen laying next to their warped chairs and cycles. Masses run away while a handful of journalists approach the remains. A child wearing a dress covered in dusty blood with fresh tears on her cheeks yells for her mother while sitting alone on the back of a truck. The Khmer Rouge have arrived in Phnom Penh.
In April of 1975, the militant dictatorship of Pol Pot had turned back the clocks of time to Year ZERO. A social experiment was beginning, and potentially the most horrific years of modern Asian history began in the small country of Cambodia. Communism was slowly spreading, including neighboring Vietnam which in addition to China helped to support the efforts of the Khmer Rouge (KR). Unfortunately, the leaders of the KR had a more revolutionary disastrous regime planned for their country. A regime, which put up curtains blinding the eyes of foreign cognizance, allowed a dark anarchy to turn the country into a massive collection of detention centers and concentration camps.
The leaders of the KR, lead by Pol Pot, who studied to become intellectuals in France, later turned against their own kind. Their new doctrines forced an initial wave of systematic executions of all intellectuals by specifically targeting people who wore glasses. Evacuations of grand scales led people out of the cities and into the rural countryside. They separated children from parents, and imprisoned anyone questioning the new methods.
“They [KR] wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people, and no exploitation. To accomplish this, they abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture. Public schools, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons…”
When Ankur and I visited Phnom Penh, we had a chance to visit the school converted prison of S-21 followed by the Choeung Ek Killing fields. Classrooms were emptied of their desks, chairs, and left stark with just bed-frames, chains, and buckles used to interrogate and torture the innocent.
The prison was comprised of several buildings surrounding a field previously used as a playground. Within that area was the above sign with the regulations of the new regime.
Given it was still the rainy season in Cambodia, it was also the low season for tourists. As a result many of the hallways within the prison felt empty, dark, and cold on a humid Southeast Asian day. The ghosts of this massacre were still roaming about the prison.
After imprisonment, interrogation, and torture persisted within the walls of the once-upon-a-time school, the innocent were thrown into a truck where they were told they would be brought to a farm, presumably to work as the rest of the population was expected to do. While blindfolded in the bed of a truck, they rode along the same roads we took after finishing our prison visit. After a 30 minute drive, the victims were guided out to rural grounds with the sounds of national anthems echoing beyond the trees. Little did they know that the anthems being played on loud speakers were used to blanket the howling and dying voices of their fellow countrymen. They had arrived to the infamous Killing Fields.
The new regime was so menacingly anarchistic, that families members were turned against each other, and children were trained as guards by being brainwashed with the new doctrines and to ignore any form of compassion. The educated, rich, religious, and outspoken were slowly wiped away. As all forms of import came to a halt, the new regime attempted to turn the entire country into rice producing farms wrought on via slave labor of the Khmer people throughout the entire year. Unfortunately, rice production was limited to half of the year when the country was not in dry season. The consequences of this failure were paid for by the citizens by rationing even less food, and killing the sick along with newborns.
At the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, the above tree was covered in bracelets. This tree turned out to be the location of potentially the most brutal killings. Newborns and young children were ripped away from their mother’s arms and bludgeoned to death against the trunk of the tree.
The gravest genocide since the Holocaust continued for the next four years in Cambodia. In 1979, small battles between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese caused the neighboring country to intervene further. Vietnam overthrew the regime’s hold over Cambodia. By that time, over 2 million Khmer people died as a result of starvation, overworking, and systematic killing. Before 1975, the population of Cambodia was over 7 million; in other words, the years between 1975-79 wiped out over a quarter of the country’s population.
Although, I have more to write, I’ll need to pause here. Stay tuned for more….