Today is 17th April, a particularly significant day in Cambodia. On this day in 1975, the nation’s civil war ended and the Khmer Rouge, under the authority of Pol Pot, captured the capital city, Phnom Penh.
Yesterday, in searing forty degree heat, we visited the S-21 prison camp and the famous killing fields of Cheoung Ek, both of which are now dedicated to preserving the memory of the horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge for future generations so that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.
Both genocide memorials provide audio guides in multiple languages so that tourists can wander round at their own pace, taking in as much or as little information as they desire.
It is not easy listening.
A Dark History
The Khmer Rouge, for those who are unfamiliar with the history, was a revolutionary communist group which had its roots in the Marxist movements of the 50s. Their vision was of a Cambodia free of institutions, like religion, banking and education. Instead they wanted to return the country to its agricultural past, or year zero as they called it; a dream which led them to force millions to leave their homes in the cities and relocate to the countryside.
Khmer Rouge leaders planned to triple agricultural production within a year, whilst simultaneously removing modern equipment and demanding that untrained city dwellers become farmers overnight. They believed that their communist ideal could be achieved without intermediary steps and anyone that opposed their goal would simply be exterminated.
Their policies ruined the country and saw roughly two million people lose their lives. Many were worked to death. Others, who didn’t fit the Khmer Rouge mould, were arrested, tortured and executed. These included teachers, bankers, doctors and religious leaders. People could be arrested for simply wearing glasses or having soft hands because it was viewed as a sign of being an academic.
As we walked around S-21, where thousands were processed and tortured, the audio guide tells us about how some prisoners were so desperate that they threw themselves off the higher floors of the buildings which were at one point used as a school. Torture was brutal and merciless and continued until the prisoner confessed to working against the state in some way, however insignificant. Even a tourist from New Zealand who strayed into Cambodian waters during a sailing trip ended up at S-21 where he was forced to admit to working with the CIA. In a forced written confession, before his execution, he named one of his co-conspirators as Colonel Sanders, the founder of KFC. The comic absurdity of his claim was lost on his captors.
In Phnom Penh’s killing fields many bodies remained buried and many of those that have been excavated cannot be identified. The audio tour explained the horrific way in which men, women, children and babies were driven to the fields in a truck and then systematically killed, often with blunt instruments to save on bullets. At the same time, music blared out over loudspeakers hung on a tree carrying a message of Khmer Rouge propaganda. It was the last sound that thousands heard as they went to their deaths.
Heading back to our hotel we tried to process the awful stories we have heard, some of them were too horrible to even write down.
Rebuilding a Broken Nation
Today Cambodia still carries the scars of that dark period of history although they are often hidden below the surface. The economy suffered greatly but the people even more so. Cambodia is still catching up with its Asian neighbours and there is a great need for growing business and better education.
We are in Cambodia to meet Rajana, a social enterprise that uses local artisans to make products from refashioned artillery shells. We are excited to be working with them to help them sell more of their products abroad thereby expanding their market. Rajana creates employment opportunities which are sorely needed in Cambodia especially in the wake of the devastation left behind by the Khmer Rouge.
There’s more on our work with Rajana to come in our next blog post. You can also read about their fair trade keyrings that we sell in the UK.