kogatravel

Katja and Arne's travel stories

27.01.15 Killing Field and S-21

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We start the day with a run and some Kali in one of the parks. To great entertainment for the locals we do DAS classical and disarms. Good training, great fun. Then it got serious.
Note: This post include some serious and bad stories.
We are heading to the Killing fields outside of Phnom Penh today. Part of me want to see it, the other part of me don’t want to. Still, it has to be done.
Tiger come around as we agreed and meet us outside the hotel at nine. It’s a rather long tuk-tuk ride to the field and we make him take us to the Coffee bean as Tea leaves first. He is happy to get a ice coffee to go with the ride. All three are ready and we head out.
The roads we take are back roads and not where the big buses go. It’s bumpy and dusty, but we get through them. Yesterday we bought face masks because of this ride and put them on. We’re glad we did. The ride is made for sunglasses and face masks to keep the dust out of eyes, nose and mouth. Suddenly we’re there. A dreadful feeling fills me, but we get out after agreeing a meeting place with Tiger.


The Cheung Ek Genocide Center (the official name of the killing fields) provides an Audio Tour for those who wants it. We did, and I highly recommend it. The whole experience were connected through the stories we heard. And such stories. I remember hearing about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge growing up, but nothing came close to the atrocities we were told today.
It’s hard to find words to describe the regime, the genocide and the liberation without writing for a very long time. You can find it all on Wikipedia or on the official pages for the center. The highlights are as follows, and please forgive any shortcomings on my behalf.
April 1975: Cambodia has been in civil war for five years and Pol Pot with his army of uneducated farmers enters Phnom Penh. Living in extreme poverty they were told that these people in the city was to blame.
At first people in the city are happy for a peaceful time, but within days the new regime closed the schools, all the government’s functions and started their new program.
Everyone should be farmers and the rice production needed to increase threefold, over night. Impossible of course. And everyone was sent into the fields. Any person from the city was a leech and not worth anything. “To keep you is no gain. Too kill you is no loss.” This is just one of the many sayings.
If you were educated, worked in government, wore glasses or had soft hands you were destined for extinction.
Kids were taken from their parents because they might be corrupted. Instead they were indoctrinated in the twisted version of communism that was the front of Khmer Rouge. Some were even thaught torture and practiced on animals before being set to work on humans.
Pol Pot wanted the country to be self sufficient and people died of malaria because he would not allow import of medicine. People died of malnutrition in the fields as they worked endless hours without decent food. Men, women and children.
The regime killed somewhere between two and three million people, but held power for “only” short of four years. How such a thing is possible is totally beyond me.
The killing field we visit it’s only one of several hundred of its kind around the country. It’s a former Chinese graveyard and orchard. It contained a few graves of Chinese immigrants before the atrocities started. Now it’s estimated that somewhere between 10.000 and 20.000 people were killed here. In periods as many as three hundred a day.
My respect for the Cambodians grew even greater when seeing how they have manage to turn such a place into one of decency. Solemn and respectful are words that comes to mind.

It’s a lot of people here, but all move around quiet, most introvert because of the audio tour. The tour is made with stops with stories including testimonies from both survivors and prison guards. It’s heartbreaking to hear these testimonies. This happened in the 70’s. I started school during this regime. We celebrated a thirty year anniversary for the end of world war II. We should have learned!


Several places around the tour there are benches so you can sit down. Either to get your composure back, or to sit while you listen to the testimonies. I needed it for both. After visiting the mass grave of 450 victims I cried. Just writing this up the day after brings years top my eyes again. It’s common there to get reactions and it was good too just sit on a bench letting the tears flow.
The heaviest of it all was standing by the Baby tree. A huge tree next to a mass grave where they found women and babies. Babies who had been held by their legs and hit against the tree. “To trim the grass you have to take the whole root.” A saying to describe the fact that children could be seeking revenge for their family members in later years. This is one of the last stops on the tour and it’s next to the Magic tree. A tree used to hold loudspeakers who blasted out propaganda music to muddle the sound of the dying. It’s close to a Bodhi Tree, the kind Buddha mediated under. And the Magic is sarcastic and no magic appeared here.


Last stop is the memorial Stupa. A monument built to honor the dead. It’s beautiful, but morbid. Skulls of thousands of victims are placed here along some of the instruments used to kill them. No one was shot, that was too expensive. Clubs, bayonets, agricultural tools, anything that could smash in a head was used, then their throats were slit. The skulls in the Stupa are all categorized, marked as male or female, old or kid.
It’s strange that such a sight can be so peaceful.


There was not enough room in the Stupa to hold all the bones uncovered. There are several large graves that have not been opened, and both clothing and bones resurface, especially during rainy season. There are signs saying “Don’t step on bones!” And there are guardians constantly picking up the remains to treat them with respect.
It’s a horrible place, but an important place to remember history. This is a important memory for mankind in line with the termination camps in Germany and Poland.
To think that the Khmer Rouge was having a seat at the U.N. That it was recognised by UK, USA, Germany and others even after the liberation is undeniable. The Vietnamese were instrumental in overthrowing the regime and the aforementioned countries were desperately “fighting communism” at that time. Pol Pot himself did never faced charges for his actions. He fled to Thailand and led the Khmer Rouge until his death in 1998, possible poisoned. The Khmer Rouge was completly dissolved in 1999.
There is a small museum there that focuses on the leadership of the Khmer Rouge. Only one seemed to have received a verdict, while the others are in holding. It’s taken the country many years to get started with the trials and hopefully this can be of some help too close the wounds.
As we leave we meet some of the new arrivals in the other direction. It’s easy to see who has been inside already and who is going in. There are no cheerfulness in the people leaving.
We find Tiger and we all go for lunch at the tuk-tuk cafe. It’s liberating to talk about nothing and shut out the thoughts and glumieness for a while.


Back to town on the back roads made for for a bumpy ride. Suddenly Katja bursts out:”Where are my sunglasses? Did I forget them at the restaurant?” I look at her and say calmly:”They’re on your nose. You’re wearing them.” Don’t tell her I said this, but is she getting old?

Next stop on this day is the S-21. Security center 21. A former school turned jail and torture chamber by the regime.
Like several other killing regimes everything is document with pictures. All the people who came in here accused of being undermining the regime or for just being intelligent or educated, were photographed. Everyone got a file and it contains photos of them before the torture, and in some cases afterward as well.
The prison lack the educational touch they have at the killing fields. It’s rough and with little information, but with a lot off pictures of the victims that went through here. It’s estimated that less than two hundred survived, out of the twenty thousand that went through this prison.
There are drawings and pictures of some of the torture methods being used. I don’t judge anyone at a lower level in such hierarchies as they do what they need to stay alive themselves. But the creativity, in lack of a better word, displayed in the torture is just sick. Some people thrive under such circumstances and that’s just sad, wrong and dreadful. It has happened in so many different countries, in different continents that it’s just a scary part of the human mind. In Chile, Argentina, Germany, Vietnam and here. And it’s happening today in Syria and the Middle East. This is what happens with -ism’s. Whether it be communism, Nazism or Islamism. People find ways of letting their inner demon run free, and if there is no-one to stop them it goes horribly wrong.


After visiting most of the prison it’s simply too much death and destruction. We need to leave. To get back to normality. To escape. We did what the victims couldn’t; we left S-21 alive. They were taken from here to the killing field instead.

Right outside the prison gate we sat down and bought a fruit juice. Something that tasted sweet and good. By tuk-tuk we got back to the hotel, but stopped at at barber first. It’s time for my tune up, and I got cut down to “number zero” on top, and “number one” on the beard. “No number 2. To much! Number 1 good.” Not only the beard, he equally hard trimmed my eyebrows to, with number 1 on the machine. Looks better than it probably sounds. We spend some time in the hotel room digesting it all. Cooling down and talking about what we’ve experienced today.

To get our mind into a more pleasant state we go to dinner at Black salt. An Australia restaurant where they serve Australian beef. It’s the first white table cloth dinner since the tour started, if our memory serves us right.
We had the place to ourselves as the other guests left as we came in. Was it something I said?
We had two big steaks, six beers, two desserts and it all came to fifty dollars. Extravagant, but once in a while we deserve it. We try to go native as often as possible and eat where the locals do. “Get in there and taste the soup”, as HF wrote me in a chat we had this afternoon. Loved that quote. (HF is our friend who let us stay in his statement in Hong Kong in case you’ve been shipping some posts so far)


We took a Tuk-tuk back to the hotel. As I was actively not thinking of the killing fields, I finally feel asleep.

Author: arnber

Humongen! The big guy! The man, the myth, the legend! And then theres' me. The nice guy in the house. The man without cooking skills, but with five stars on the Playstation. Boss at work, relaxed at home. What you see is what you get. Life is good. I choose it to be.

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