Sunday, June 24, 2012

Cambodia underwent years of hell, and to phrase it as anything less wouldn’t do it justice.  From civil war to dictatorship (a.k.a. ‘Democratic’ Kampuchea) to civil war and now a supposed ‘democracy,’ but ask any honest Cambodian and they’ll tell you it’s no democracy.  I am only just delving into some of the recent history and can’t claim to have any full understanding, but I know that there is no reason to kill 1.5 million of your own people.

Today I come face to face with a side of humanity that is impossible to comprehend.  Last year I visited Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) and fell in love with Cambodia and found the people to be absolutely beautiful and even more so when you know a little of their recent, tortured history.  I knew I wanted to return soon and to see more of this country but I also knew to understand the place I would have to face that history.  I am left haunted by the faces that stare back at me, faces that still seem to breathe, faces that are far too young.

These are the faces of the ‘enemy,’ the ‘spies,’ the ‘traitors,’ the ‘guilty.’

S-21, otherwise known as, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was the scene of nearly 17,000 prisoners who passed through between 1975 and 1979, seven (7!) managed to come out alive in 1979 when the Kampuchea were overthrown.  Tuol Sleng was initially a school in the center of Phnom Penh before the city was forced to evacuate.  Most of the prisoners were taken to one of many killing fields, often forced to dig their own graves before being shot/beheaded/hung/beat/clubbed/slit…

Vaughn has visited S-21 several times and recommended it over the Killing Fields as it is more informative.  Here prisoners were photographed upon entering and after being tortured they were forced to sign confessions, usually false, and often greatly exaggerated accounts of their crimes.  There were dozens of international prisoners as well, including several Americans who signed false confessions, even claiming to be CIA agents (actually tourists sailing who happened to get too pass into Cambodian waters).  In full American-bravado style the last line of one of their statements claims that the CIA will never stop spying on Cambodia.

Many of the guards were not much better off than the prisoners and quickly executed for even minor mistakes.

I wondered why more prisoners didn’t attempt suicide with the conditions they underwent.  Barbwire kept them from jumping and they were carefully stripped and searched to ensure they didn’t have anything on them that would allow for that.

In the following picture are two interesting items, the first is a posting of the rules given to prisoners (typed below as well) when they entered the prison, the second was originally used by the students for exercise and is the tall posts and beam structure just beyond the sign with 3 large concrete containers below.  Prisoners were hung upside down until they passed out and then dunked in the containers filled with excrement to return them to consciousness quickly as part of the torture process used to get their ‘confessions.’

1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.

2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.

3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.

4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.

5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.

6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.

7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.

8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.

9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.

10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

Many Cambodians still come searching for faces of their loved ones.


I’m in the middle of a beautifully written book ‘When Broken Glass Floats’ by Chanrithy Him which is a personal account of the this very sad period of Cambodia’s history.


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