Travel Journal Extract – July 2006
“Visitors to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, are able to visit the Killing Fields and the S-21 Genocide Museum, based in the school which the Khmer Rouge used for torture, detention, interrogation and murder. People held there were usually intellectuals – teachers, doctors, anyone – even those who wore glasses – all apparently posed a threat to the ‘revolution’. As the Vietnam War spilled over the border, the Khmer Rouge seized control in 1975 – declaring it ‘Year Zero’, they banned money, suspended the mail, closed the country down and killed 1-2 million people, a quarter of the population. Those who survived were worked to the bone in labour camps, underfed and diseased, often starved to death. As per Orwell’s ‘1984’, they brainwashed children who grew up to be amongst the most brutal members of the regime. One of the reasons that the infrastructure remains so bad today is that the middle class was wiped out between ’75 and ’79, until Vietnam invaded and occupied the country for 8 more years. It is this latter reason that many Cambodians still dislike their neighbours – it was a bittersweet ‘liberation’.
Visiting the S-21 genocide museum was a solemn experience – more numbing than emotional, it used to be a high school. It was filled with photos of detainees – like the Nazis, the regime kept meticulous records – often with before-and-after photos of tortured prisoners. You can see the fear in some of the faces, many were children – some even babies, every last one butchered, often beaten to death to save on bullets. I also viewed the torture rooms which were furnished only with a metal bed frame to which ‘traitors’ were strapped down onto. Displays of some of the instruments they used and the wooden cells were open to visitors, though you could tell it was terribly underfunded. Why an anti-war charity of some kind isn’t sponsoring the place, I don’t know – it’s seems a very necessary exhibit and similar, later atrocities in Darfur and Rwanda show how we never seem to learn.
The Killing Fields are just out of town and feature a big memorial full of skulls reclaimed from the mass graves – a few graves have been left untouched and you can walk amongst them if you’re brave enough to tread amongst the bones and pieces of clothing which float around in the muddy slush. It’s horrible. Absurdly, hostels advertise a tour of the killing fields and S-21 school in the morning followed by an underground ‘shooting range’ in the afternoon. Soldiers wanting to supplement their meagre incomes (civil servant wages start at US$20 a month – what I spend in 2 days) welcome tourists to try out a few weapons – ranging from an AK-47 to grenades, to a rocket launcher – all at a price. You can also kill various farmyard animals from your regular chicken all the way up to a cow (which’ll set you back $200). Awful, damaging to Cambodia’s image and somewhat sick after you’ve visited what should be the one of the world’s biggest anti-war statements.”