Once upon a time - in May 1975 - a little baby was born. She was fat cheeked with a tuft of black hair and eyes so big, brown and round that her Uncle nicknamed her “boncuk” - (bead in Turkish.) They called her Dominique after some tennis player's girlfriend who was doing well in Wimbledon that year and fed, clothed and educated her for the best part of twenty years in a relatively safe, middle class backwater of South East London that is – like so many suburbs these days - considered leafy and “up and coming.”
One month earlier – in April 1975 – the Khmer Rouge under its leader Pol Pot - storm Phnom Penh. Babies, children, the old, the sick, the dying already and the soon to die - around 2 million of the mainly educated and middle class population are evacuated out of this arty and vibrant capital city and into slave labour camps. In April 1975, down the rabbit hole and half the world away: Year Zero begins.
Not for the first time on this trip I pause for thought and think: There but for the grace of God go I.
Over the next four years Cambodia would become home to one of the most brutal experiments in social engineering the world has seen, and result in the death through torture, execution, starvation and disease of between 1.8 and 3.3 million or at least a fifth of its population at the hands of its own people.
I arrive into Phnom Penh airport – and get a pimped up, doof doof music blaring tuk tuk to my hostel – The White Rabbit. I have no idea where it is in relation to anywhere else in town, but the bar that greets me on entrance is laid back and sociable. The helper on reception has dope heavy eyelids and floral tatts and the cat is called Alice...of course.
A couple of Spaniards start talking to me. Michel is a chubby, blonde haired translator from Madrid with dimpled cheeks and grey eyes that glitter with amusement, Antonio is his Eye-Ore counter part, a morose Catalan with hang dog expression and eyes hooded with a perpetual air of disappointment.
They have negotiated a $15 tuk tuk for the day to do Tuol Sleng - the genocide museum (also referred to as S21) )and former prison where members of the Khmer rouge imprisoned and tortured their captives, and Choeung Ek aka The Killing Fields (a rural location about half an hour outside of Phnom Penh where the prisoners would then be taken to be executed, post - confession. )
On the way to S21 we talk about food – myself and fellow travellers are homesick for home comforts. They talk about the tiny village in Northern Spain where Antonio comes from. They have parties in their cellars amongst the cool and dusty caskets of wine, and feast on stuffed squid and beans, lamb roasted with garlic in the oven for hours and fresh baked brown bread. Its just as well we get the chat out the way now, we won't have much appetite for anything later.
Prior to the Khmer Rouge taking over its premises, S21 was a school. The mustard and white checkered linoleum and large breeze block walls look as much. You could imagine the shriek of children's laughter and sound of little feet pounding the steps. The rusted iron frame in the courtyard was used for exercise – but then re-appropriated from Year Zero as a torture device. Men would be suspended upside down from it and beaten with pestles until they confessed.
In this building the larger cells are dominated with nothing but a rusty mattress and shackles. There are boxes on some of the beds, where prisoners hands would be contained while they prised their nails off. These were reserved for the Khmer Rouge's own cadres (a communist word for volunteer soldier) their own armed forces. Everyone came under suspicion as Pol Pot's paranoia grew so did the death toll. The smaller cells on the upper level were for other prisoners – tiny, dark brick shaped rectangles with blood stains still visible on the floor.
I'm struck by the similarities between Pol Pot's regime and the mythical dystopia that Orwell created in "1984" – i'm sure a thousand undergraduate essays have dissected as much. You wouldn't think this nightmarish vision were possible in any time but only some twenty years after Orwell created the faceless and all seeing Big Brother and Room 101 - Pol Pot 's psychotic vision for a pure and extreme Marxist society came into being – and death, torture, spying and informing on your neighbour in the name of “Angkar,”became the norm. The young were targeted particularly, encouraged to spy and inform on their parents, and trained in torture and execution methods on animals before becoming child soldiers.
S21 was not a prison for redemption and mercy. Whether you confessed or not (after enduring months of torture prisoners did always confess to anything Angkar wanted) you would be killed. Pol Pot's vision was to create an “agragrian” society; that elevated the poor and uneducated rural peasant class and made an enemy of the educated, middle class.
Under the Khmer Rouge all the strands of society that elevate and refine us as human beings - all love, passion, family, respect, etiquette, art, language, knowledge and faith were unravelled. To be seen indulging in any of them was to be “against Angkar.” Families were split up and destroyed, Buddhist temples were smashed and monks killed, sexual unions banned. The delicate hierarchies of respect shown to elders in Cambodian society ( one 22 year old I meet informs he will call me “older sister”) are destroyed. Everyone is “comrade.” Language is rewritten. Rural terminology such as “mae” for mother replaces the educated version “mak.” The word “nostalgia” in reference to a time pre Angkar becomes “memory sickness.” To speak of it is a crime punishable by death.
Like all of the most paranoid and oppressive regimes knowledge was feared and abhorred. To have been to university, speak English, teach, or just wear glasses – were crimes punishable by death.
This is ironic considering at S21 you also learn the background to the leaders of the Khmer Rouge - Pol Pot and his cronies almost without exception came from privileged backgrounds – with links to the royal family. They studied over seas in Parisian lycees, and some became professors.
Part of the lower exhibition concentrates on paintings of the torture methods used by the Khmer Rouge followed by the printed confessions of the inmates along with their mug shots. Row after row of mostly Cambodian faces – stare out in black and white, sometimes insolent, mostly just empty eyed. But this was also an ethnic cleanse with Khmer seen as the purest “Aryan race” of the Asians. Chinese, Vietnamese and sometimes Cham minorities were purged as well. One of the shots I find most heartbreaking is of a Vietnamese prisoner. His lips are curled into a tentative smile, his eyes alight with hope. Unlike many of the other captives here, he hasn't yet realised that this is a prison where no one gets out alive.
A very few British and Australian men had the misfortune to wander into enemy waters and find themselves in hell. No mercy was shown for foreigners. One white face with long 70's hairdo stares back at me. His confession reads that he is from Newcastle, his mum was a secretary for the shop Fenwicks – as I read on it becomes more and more unbelievable... he is a CIA agent, he is working for the Japanese. These are confessions extracted after hours, days, sometimes months of torture. A desperate last ditch attempt at gaining freedom perhaps, or just to make the pain stop.
All the women staring back at me have the same bowl haircut. In earlier Cambodian society - great emphasis had been placed on long hair as a sign of feminine beauty –this was another thing undone by Angkar. Seen as a sign of egoistic individuality and sexuality, women were forced to cut their hair short.
The last thing we see are the enormous iron shackles made to transport the prisoners to the Killing Fields. Great iron bars with holes for arms and legs that would confine long rows of men twenty at a time to be led blindfolded to the vans that would transport them to their death.
The Killing Fields “Choeung Ek” are one of many mass graves around Cambodia that the Khmer Rouge used to transport and then execute its prisoners at. Set in a former orchard and Chinese graveyard, the area is mainly grassy fields, with a lake in the background, and large stone memorial in the foreground. You show yourself around with an audio guide.
Many of the structures that were here were destroyed at the end of the regime so the huts where paperwork was carried out and the like are replaced with simple signs . Prisoners were told that they were being relocated when they left S21 and when they arrived sometimes given hoes to dig their own grave. They would then be bludgeoned to death by pick axes. It saved on bullets. An innocent looking palm tree is pointed out, and on closer inspection you can see the razor sharp spines along the branches that were used to cut men and to kill them.
Along the way there is the opportunity to hear survivors' stories from the regime. When Phnom Penh was emptied of its educated middle class, they were forced into slave labour camps to try and meet the unachievable objective of tripling Cambodia's rice production a year to achieve self sufficiency. The majority of people who were forced to work 12 hour days with little to no food or water were city folk with no farming skills. Famine and disease were rife. One man talks of how the Khmer Rouge didn't need to kill people. Starvation and the disease did that along with the new diseases that the regime nurtured. Hopelessness and Loneliness. They split up families, they killed loved ones. They wore away at people through the creation of slogans such as:
To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.
How did this man survive? He tells of a dream that his mother had where he escaped to the jungle and became a great man. For him, this dream kept him going, when everyone else around him had been taken away – that glimmer of hope that one day he could make his mother's dream a reality drove him to live.
There are two trees in the camp. One is called “The Magic Tree,” it looks like a Bodhi tree – the one that Buddha gained enlightenment from, but this tree has no healing properties. Inside are sound systems that pump out music. The audio guide asks us to imagine the prisoners' final hours; arriving blindfolded to this camp, the smell of death and decay, the groans of those being killed and above it all the scratchy, tinny cheery blast of the Khmer Communist anthems that tried to block out the screams of the dying.
Yet there is an even worse tree here. The large trunk is strung with multi-coloured bracelets that travellers have left as a sign of respect. Next to it is a pit. The man that discovered the pit tells his story on the audio guide. He arrived in the field once the Khmer had fled. He saw the broken bodies of children and their mothers in the pit, the blood, the skulls, the limbs. On the tree he saw bits of bone, and brain. This tree – The Killing Tree - was used to kill babies and children. They would be picked up by their ankles and swung against it until their brains were dashed out; often in front of their mothers.
As we walk around the path the grass around us rises up in hilly mounds and falls again in soft ditches. These are the mass graves. On closer inspection you can still see the white shards of bone and teeth that nubble the surface. There are transparent display cabinets around the grounds filled with pieces of skull, and bone. Every day, every hour, the dead rise to the surface and volunteers place them in cases. But even in the minutes that I am there it is as if they cannot keep up. More and more rise to the surface, broken hinges of jaw bone and yellowing teeth are plucked from the ground and placed haphazardly on top of the cabinets in plain view. Its too much to deal with, the spirits are restless, they won't stay still for long. Next to one of these cabinets is a little wooden structure that looks like a bird house. Animism is the other main religion in Cambodia (along with Buddhism) and this is a house for spirits that have not found rest.
A final part of the tour ends with time for contemplation. There is a large, shaded lake set in front of the green rice fields. Its hard to believe such horrors happened here, yet the lake is home to hundreds more bodies – it was decided to leave those in the lake in peace, rather than dredge them up. There are seats by the lake where you can listen to more survivors stories and a moving orchestral piece that has been composed for the grounds that provides a gentle backdrop for contemplation.
It is thought that 17,000 bodies were found at this site. A memorial at the centre is filled with some 7,000 skulls. You make a donation to the man outside to leave flowers or incense and then pay your respects.
And yet for all the gruesome details - they save perhaps the most shocking for last. Pol Pot's reign ended abruptly with the invasion of Vietnamese forces in 1979. However the Khmer Rouge retreated to the countryside and held a seat in the United Nations (supported by both the UK and the US) until the early 1990s. Pol Pot was later put under house arrest by one of his own armed guard but died in relative comfort and safety in 1998 depriving the country of seeing him brought to justice for his crimes. As recently as 2007 The ECCC – The Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia was set up to finally bring leaders of the reign to trial, and eventually “Duch” the head of S21 prison was given life imprisonment.
A repercussion of the genocide is how young the population is. Walking on the streets of Phnom Penh I hardly see any faces older than mine. I make the crass mistake of asking a gentleman I meet later who is around my age if he was affected by the regime. He turns away and his eyes fill with tears. He is unable to answer me but he doesn't need to. Of course he was. Such was the extent of the mass murder it is unlikely that any of the older surviving generation have not been touched by it. The majority of the population however are too young to know about the events that happened in the 1970s and yet up until 2009 they were not educated about it either in schools. These days S21 does do school trips yet a couple of weeks later when I am Siem Reap, an Australian history teacher warns me to be careful when I speak about the Khmer Rouge – I should speak quietly or not at all in case of who might be listening.They still hold positions of influence in today's government.
How could something like this happen? More recently America's role in allowing the Khmer Rouge to gain a strong hold has come under scrutiny. Although Cambodia declared neutrality during the Vietnam War it was still subjected to massive carpet bombing from the U.S which weakened the country, drove their leader to seek help from the Khmer Rouge ( at that stage a guerrilla faction living on the outskirts of town) and caused the people to unite in fear against “American imperialists.” Pol Pot's men were able to evacuate 2 million of the capital's population overnight into slave labour camps by telling them to leave their homes and possessions immediately for only a “couple of days” because the U.S was about to bomb the city.
This is one of the most difficult exhibitions I've experienced, the details are extremely disturbing and I found it very, very upsetting. And yet if you can make a visit it is also one of the most important things I have done. The audio tour is excellently compiled with just the right amount of sensitivity, clarity, and time given to pause and reflect. It casts an unwelcome light on exactly what human beings are capable of doing to each other. I've debated in the past my belief that human beings are essentially good. Never has something caused me to internally reflect on that so much. But I still can't give up on this belief, because however warped our essential nature becomes - to not believe in that, is to accept the alternative. Having glimpsed down the rabbit hole of this dark parallel universe where love and faith are replaced by hate and fear, hope with despair and knowledge with ignorance, is there any other choice but to reaffirm at the least, the type of human being I want to be and the values of love and kindness that I choose to follow?