Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

NOTE: The following pictures are a bit graphic, but it is a real reminder of how a government treated its own people. It is important not to forget the atrocities, but to understand them, so that this type of leader or government does not rise again.

Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Phen, has varying facets. It is dazzling but dirty, and has a tragic past but optimistic future.

The city has a number of dazzling temples.

It also had a number of dirty ghettos.

The National Museum contains many Khmer artifacts. Some from the temples that we had seen earlier this week.

As we traveled through Cambodia we really enjoyed talking to the people. They are filled with energy and life. It was pleasant to see all the smiles as we went about. With a very rough history behind them they look toward the future. They are extremely sincere and warm.

Everywhere we go we see creative ways of transport. It is amazing how everyday life for some can be such a novelty for others.

One of the most tragic parts of the Cambodian History was the Pol Pot regime. His reign of terror, 1975-1979, ruthlessly imposed a form of Maoist Communism onto the people resulting in a massive genocide. It is difficult to summarize the magnitude of the atrocities Pol Pot committed against his own people in an attempt to rebuild the once great Khmer empire.

Here is an excerpt from The Peace Pledge Union's website just to get you started.

"All political and civil rights were abolished. Children were taken from their parents and placed in separate forced labour camps. Factories, schools and universities were shut down; so were hospitals. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists and professional people in any field (including the army) were murdered, together with their extended families. Religion was banned, all leading Buddhist monks were killed and almost all temples destroyed. Music and radio sets were also banned. It was possible for people to be shot simply for knowing a foreign language, wearing glasses, laughing, or crying. One Khmer slogan ran 'To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss."

One of the prisons in which the educated were held and tortured can be visited today. It is known as S21 or Tuol Sleng. It was formerly a high school.

The old classrooms are pretty grizzly. The floor stained from blood, and the beds in which prisoners were strapped to and tortured still remain. Visiting places like this isn't always pleasant.

The guards were required to meticulously keep records of all the prisoners and treatments, just as the Nazis did. It is horrifying to review.

People were hung upside down and beat until unconscious, their heads were then dunked into vats of water so that they would regain consciousness only to resume the treatment. The regime forced people to admit that they were conspirators or had committed crimes against the party. The regime needed "evidence", which they extruded from the torture victims, why the

Photos of torture victims.

One thing that we were told to look for was the generation gap in the population. An estimated total of 1.7 million people were killed during a period which lasted about four years, this being about 20% of the population. Today as you ride down the streets in a Tuk Tuk it becomes strangely obvious that there is a generation of people who are missing. Individuals around the age of 40 to 50 are fewer and further between.

From the city we took a ride out to what is known as the killing fields. The Tuk Tuk rides can be a be a mixture of the pleasant and repugnant as the small three wheeled buggy is open to the street on either side with a canvas covering. This allows you to take in all the smells and sounds first hand. No AC here. Along the way we had magnificent views of rice fields, the aroma of street vendors food, sounds of children playing, and plenty of dust to dull all of the senses.

The equivalent of a general store:

A gas station and tire shop:

Bananas for sale:

Countryside homes:

Houses on stilts above rice paddies. Although scenic, it is quite sad to see the poverty.

We arrived at the killing fields which were situated a ways out of the city. This is where the prisoners from S21 prison were brought when they were tired of housing them. Many other civilians including women and children were also brutally brought, killed, and then dumped in mass graves at this location. Today a monument has been constructed which houses remains of the victims.

The skulls are stacked in layers.

Records reveal that often the execution was done by primitive tools in order to save ammunition. People were bound, blindfolded, and then beat to death.

A photo of the mass graves in the S21 museum.

The remains. Craters amongst trees.

Being that 1979 was not that long ago, remains continue to come to the surface as each rain causes the ground to settle. Clothes can be seen which have not yet fully decomposed, and bone fragments and teeth are scattered about. The reality of it all is very overwhelming when experienced first hand.

Clothes cling to the wall of the sunken pits. Research and excavations show that many were naked when buried.

We returned to the city after a moving afternoon. Visiting these parts of Cambodia was something that we really wanted to do. I believe the experience will stick with us for a while.

Next stop....Vietnam.


Jeff said...

That is heart-wrenching. Good for you for going there. Sometimes, the numbers don't sink in, and you have to be there to comprehend the scale of it. I'm still impressed by the memory of a synagogue in Prague the walls of which are filled wherever you walk with the names of Czech holocaust victims. It never ends.

My friends Rachel and Bailey are a week back from Vietnam. Too bad you won't run into them. They are quite capable travelers, too. Two years ago, they went to India to have Rachel's cataracts removed. That, and flights, and six weeks in India was still less than having it done here. !!Don't forget to try the foot treatment ... there are these tanks full of tiny fish into which you put your feet and the fish nibble away all your callouses, etc. A natural pedicure. They said it was weird but gave them young feet again. To balance that, the food was great in Vietnam ...

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