Did you know hiding behind the smiling faces of what I would perceive to be the happiest and kindest nation I have encountered so far, is a history so brutal and tragic, it is difficult to comprehend?
Writing about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Killing Fields was something I wanted to do but also found incredibly difficult to summarise.
How can you put such a catastrophic, heart wrenching, violent historical event into mere words?
I didn’t want to write about it as I wasn’t sure I would able to accurately describe the effects the Khmer Rouge had on Cambodia, it’s people and the profound effect learning about it had on me. But I feel like I need to say something about it.
It has to be recognised and acknowledged.
There are authors who have released books about this dark period in Cambodians history, personal accounts written far more eloquently than I could ever write about them. Whilst in Cambodia I read “And first they killed my father” which I would recommend to anyone going, anyone who has been or just anyone who is interested in learning about one of the worst genocides of the 20th century that received such little attention in the West.
Before arriving in Cambodia I knew very little about the Khmer Rouge regime and prior to arriving in Asia I had never heard of it.
However, I remember the moment where what I had read about in The Lonely Planet became very real and it is a memory that will always stay with me. I was traveling to Cambodia overland from Vietnam when one thing became abundantly clear. From the outskirts of Phnom Penh, as I stared out the bus window into the bustling roads and streets, absorbing the sights of motorbikes weaving through traffic, street vendors selling locals goods and laughing children playing by the side of the road.
I noticed there was something missing.
Everyone was young.
There were no elderly people, I couldn’t see anyone that looked older than 40.
A whole generation was missing.
Once I began to understand the implications of this, I wanted to learn more. There are certain places you can go in the capital to learn about the Khmer Rouge, these include “The Killing Fields” which is the place where hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were sent to be executed. Then, there is S21 which today is a memorial museum but was once a school and became a prison during the Regimes time in power. This was a place so brutal it is estimated that only 7 people out of the approximately 20,000 who were imprisoned there survived. Visiting both of these places was very emotional and moving, for me it was incredibly difficult to comprehend how one person could inflict such pain and suffering on another.
Walking through The Killing Fields, listening to what happened exactly where I stood a little over 30 years ago and seeing the piles of bones, clothing and especially children’s clothing was truly harrowing. We were told every time it rained, bones would rise to the surface of the ground. Walking along the paths you could see bone fragments through the dirt, which would later be collected by a guide and added to the massive, haunting display. Just imagine, bones had been rising to the surface and been collected for over 30 years, yet still more appeared. This in itself illustrates the number of victims of the Khmer Rouge.
These bones were people. They were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. They were good, hard working people who had their lives cruelly taken away from them, and those who survived will bear the scars for the rest of their lives.
There really isn’t anyway to soften the facts nor cushion the impact of what happened in this country. This is what I know.
- The Khmer Rouge, led my Pol Pot, was in power from 1975 until 1979.
- During those 4 years they claimed the lives of up to 2 million people.
Just take a second to digest that.
2 million people brutally murdered in a 4 year period.
In the 1970’s.
Pol Pot wanted to wipe out Cambodia and its people and start again. He believed in complete communism and wanted to create a country with no influences from the West. He renamed the country, and anyone deemed to be intellectual was executed. People who wore glasses or spoke a second language were top of the list. He wanted to rebuild the country by his own rules. Schools and hospitals were closed down as they represented a part of Cambodians past that Pol Pot could see no room for in its future, instead they were turned into prisons and torture camps. Music and reading were banned, as were all modern appliances such as fridges and air conditioners. Money was removed from the country. Cambodia was to become completely self-sufficient.
Whole families were starved, overworked and executed. And what made this genocide all the more horrific was the fact that this was a political group mass killing its own people.
Cambodians killing Cambodians.
The Khmer Rouge were eventually overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979, although this should have been a somewhat joyous occasion; the people of Cambodia were finally free from this evil regime, they had already lost too much. It was estimated that every single family in Cambodia lost at least one member. Pol Pot was also never brought to justice for his crimes and he passed away peacefully in his sleep 1998.
Cambodia is still rebuilding it’s nation and It will take many years before the Cambodian people truly come to terms with what happened in their country and I don’t believe they will ever fully recover from their grief. However, one thing I am completely sure of is, that despite everything they have faced, they remain to be the most welcoming, honest and hardworking people I have ever met. They are resilient and strong and beautiful and they will ensure Cambodia’s future is a bright one.