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A day of tears in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Pic_1._Tuol_Sleng_Museum_former_prison_also_known_as_S-21"To destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain."

By Laura Bijnsdorp

After a long, bumpy bus ride we arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We made our way towards the Mekong River, where we heard the nicer hostels were located. Phnom Penh was huge compared to the towns we had visited in Laos. With our taxi we weaved through the chaotic traffic passing many high-rise buildings.

The rumored beauty that made this Asian city a "Paris of the East" before 1970 was well hidden. In between the shabby buildings and obvious poverty, once in a while we saw French-colonial-looking buildings popping up. The once wide boulevards and promenades envisaged by the French are now parking spaces and market stalls.

Luckily the hostel we were dropped off at looked promising at once. Walking in we saw two handfuls of backpackers having lunch in the downstairs area, full of chairs, tables, TVs and a pool table. After haggling for a cheap room we dropped our bags and enjoyed relaxing the rest of the afternoon by watching movies, getting to know other guests and chowing down delicious curries.

But relaxing in this capital city was not my priority. I had come to Phnom Penh to visit two places that would by far be the most heartbreaking along my travels: The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Museum.

We got up early the next morning and hired a tuk-tuk for the day to take us to both sights. Our first stop was the S-21 Tuol Sleng Prison, where the former Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over in 1975 by Pol Pot's security forces, part of the Khmer Regime, and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). This soon became the largest center of detention and torture in the country.

At first the prison grounds seemed actually quite ordinary. The school buildings, although a bit grey and somber, seemed plain. On the grassy area in front of the building children ran around playing a game of tag. But once I stepped inside the walls that feeling changed from unremarkable to horrifying. On the main floor the once huge classrooms were converted into small prison cells of about two square meters and attached to the cold stone walls were the metal foot shackles that were used to imprison supposed enemies of the Khmer Rouge regime.

After walking past dozens of these cells, I entered a room where hundreds of photographs were presented. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge leaders were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed and the photos depicted countless faces of people who had been imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death for mostly imaginary crimes.

Seeing what was going to be just the beginning of the horrors that happened in Cambodia I wondered: who was Pol Pot? What was the Khmer regime? I was embarrassed to admit that besides the names I knew little more.

The Khmer Rouge's name, and that of its main leader Pol Pot, contributed to a reality that is almost impossible to imagine for people who were not there. An estimated two million Cambodians lost their lives between 1975 and 1979.

The Cambodian communist movement emerged from the country's struggle against French colonization in the 1940s and was influenced by the Vietnamese. During the next 20 years, the movement took roots and began to grow.

From January to August 1973, the Khmer Republic government, with assistance from the US, dropped about half a million tons of bombs on Cambodia, which may have killed as many as 300,000 people. Many who resented the bombings or had lost family members joined the Khmer Rouge's revolution.

By early 1973, about 85 percent of Cambodian territory was in the hands of the Khmer Rouge. April 17, 1975, ended five years of foreign interventions, bombardment, and civil war in Cambodia. On this date, Phnom Penh, a major city in Cambodia, fell to the communist forces of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge began to implement their radical program at this time. They wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society. 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, stables, reeducation camps and granaries. There was no public or private transportation, no private property, and no non-revolutionary entertainment. Leisure activities were severely restricted. People throughout the country, including the leaders of the CPK, had to wear black costumes, which were their traditional revolutionary clothes.

During this time, everyone was deprived of his or her basic rights. The Khmer Rouge claimed that only pure people were qualified to build the revolution. Over the next three years, they executed hundreds of thousands of intellectuals; city residents; minority people such as the Cham, Vietnamese and Chinese; and many of their own soldiers and party members who were accused of being traitors. As the famous Khmer quote goes: "To destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain."

When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in early 1979, there were only seven prisoners alive at S-21, all of whom had used their skills, such as painting or photography, to stay alive. About 17,000 others who had seen the inside of the walls at S-21 had been taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek, our next stop.

Just like the prison, at first the killing fields of Choeung Ek did not seem very significant. Besides a large memorial building I saw green grass and trees in the distance. We picked up the sight's audio tour and were directed to the first post. The tour guide explained that after the Khmer Rouge was defeated, due to the immense poverty most of the buildings were completely stripped and broken down. After the introduction I spent the next two hours walking through the killing fields. For those two hours I cried.

Between 1975 and 1978 about 17,000 men, women, children and infants who had been detained and tortured at S-21 were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek in trucks around 8:00pm. The prisoners were then led to a small building, where they would be "verified" by a person in charge, who would have a list; this ensured that no prisoner was missed. Afterwards prisoners were led in small groups to ditches and pits that were dug out in advance.

They were told to kneel down and then bludgeoned to death by various tools to avoid wasting bullets, which were deemed too expensive. At times the soldiers would scatters chemical substances on the bodies, believed to eliminate the odor and kill anyone who might still be alive. I thought it could not get worse until I passed a large tree that was covered in colorful bracelets, paying respect. Young children were bashed against that tree and then thrown in the nearby graves.

Those graves now just look like wide dents in grassy peaceful fields masking the horrors that unfolded here less than four decades ago. When it rains small pieces of clothing and bones come up to the surface.

The number of prisoners executed at Choeung Ek on a daily basis varied from a few dozen to more than 300.

More than 8,000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memorial Stupa, which was erected in 1988. Survivors and family members of the departed often pay their respects here.

Choeung Ek was not the only killing field during that time. Analysis of 20,000 mass grave sites by the DC-Cam Mapping Program and Yale University indicate at least 1,386,734 victims of execution. Nearly two million Cambodians died from diseases due to a lack of medicines and medical services, starvation, execution, or exhaustion from overwork. That means that a quarter of the population at the time had been wiped out. Tens of thousands were made widows and orphans, and those who lived through the regime were severely traumatized by their experiences.

Millions of mines were laid by the Khmer Rouge and government forces that have led to thousands of deaths and disabilities since the 1980s. Several hundred thousand Cambodians fled their country and became refugees. A large proportion of the Cambodian people have mental problems because their family members were lost and their spirits damaged due to their experiences. I realized that this had happened not even four decades ago. Cambodians over forty years old whom I passed or met during my stay had faced this horrible regime.

A Vietnamese invasion eventually forced the Khmer Rouge to give up its control of the central government in 1979. Most of the group's leadership went into hiding in Thailand and the Western fringes of Cambodia. In the 1990s, after years of defections and infighting, the Khmer Rouge was a spent force. Pol Pot himself died in 1998, never truly explaining what had motivated the reign of terror.

Of the four senior leaders at the start, only two remain. Recently I read in the news that those two, former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan and former chief ideologue Nuon Chea, are appealing their crimes-against-humanity convictions. Thousands of former Khmer Rouge commanders are still free. It is unlikely, if even possible, that justice ever will be served.

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