The ocean of tuk tuks, motorcycles, and pedestrians in downtown Phnom Penh parted around me like the Red Sea. An uneasy feeling niggled; something wasn’t quite right but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I returned a smile from a pajama-clad Khmer woman on her daily shopping rounds and suddenly realized that my face was the only one with wrinkles; of the Cambodians, not a single person on the street appeared to be over the age of 45. I puzzled over my observation a few seconds longer but then set aside my curiosity as I headed out for a day of sightseeing.
My first stop was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school that had been converted into Security Office 21 (S-21) during the Khmer Rouge years. From the outside, the dingy grey cinder block building looked very much like the school it had once been, but once inside the sinister nature of the facility quickly revealed itself. In some classrooms, brick walls had been erected, dividing the space into facing rows of 2.6 x 6.5 foot cells with no ceilings or doors. Windows in rooms used specifically for torture were paneled with glass to deaden the sound the prisoner’s screams, while the buildings exteriors were covered in barbed wire to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by jumping down. I wandered from room to room, examining photos of the 14 horribly mutilated bodies discovered in this facility on the day in 1979 when Phnom Penh was liberated and reading about the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and one of his most trusted cohorts, Duch, who was personally responsible for day-to-day operations at S-21.
Khmer Rouge forces, under the leadership of the despot Pol Pot, took Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, effectively seizing power over all of Cambodia. Immediately, residents of the capital were forced to evacuate to the countryside, leaving their homes and possessions behind. Though the Khmer Rouge painted this as a protective measure, telling people that American bombings were imminent, Pol Pot’s true intent was to impose a system of agrarian communism similar to that espoused by Mao Zedong. In the years prior to capturing Phnom Penh, Pol Pot had been frustrated by how quickly Cambodians, left to their own devices after Khmer Rouge forces marched on, would return to their capitalist ways. Sending city dwellers to the country was his means of ensuring success for the communist utopia he envisioned.
Dubbed the “new people,” these relocated urbanites were targeted for destruction. After being resettled in communes, they were forced to dig ditches and perform other manual labor, while being fed only two bowls of rice soup per day. Thousands died of starvation. Those seen as a special threat – Buddhist monks, teachers, intellectuals, ethnic minorities – were taken to S-21 for interrogation, using extreme methods of torture to extract confessions deemed useful to the government.
There are no exact figures for the number of Cambodians who perished in the four and a half years that Pol Pot ruled, but estimates range from 750,000 to more than three million. I thought about those numbers as I gazed through the barbed wire to the wooden pole in the yard that was once used for physical education classes but had been converted to an instrument of torture. Prisoners were stood with their backs against the pole and their hands tied behind their backs. The interrogator lifted the prisoner upside down a number of times until he or she lost consciousness, then dipped the prisoner’s head into a bucket of filthy water. This shocked the victims back to consciousness so that the torturer could continue questioning. One handwritten account from a guard described how he gave his baton to another guard when he grew tired from beating the man he was questioning so the torture could continue uninterrupted.
Intellectually, I was appalled. “What kind of animal must someone be to inflict such horrible things on another human being,” I wondered. Yet, I was strangely devoid of any feelings, even after viewing a glass display case containing heaped skulls and bones found at S-21 after the city was liberated. I had learned about a similar decimation of the population in Laos, when the U.S. dropped more than two tons of bombs for every man woman and child in the country during the Vietnam War years, and visited museums in Hanoi, Vietnam where photos of horribly disfigured corpses resulting from the use of Agent Orange were displayed. More recently, while visiting Peru, I learned about the brutal eradication of indigenous tribes by Spanish Conquistadors. “Perhaps I have seen so much incomprehensible evil that nothing shocks me anymore,” I thought.
Numbly, I left Tuol Sleng and hopped into a cyclo-rickshaw for the 10 mile ride to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, best known of the 300 Khmer Rouge Killing Fields that have been discovered around Cambodia. At the entrance I picked up a set of headphones for an audio tour around the mass graves of the estimated 17,000 victims, most of whom who were executed after arriving from the S-21 Prison. At each marker I listened solemnly to the horrific stories about the site, in some instances narrated by a rare survivor. At the far end of the field I stopped in front of a small fenced area surrounding a shallow depression from which 450 bodies had been exhumed. On the other side of the fence, similar depressions pocked the grassy field as far as I could see. At each of these pits, victims were made to kneel and then were bludgeoned to death with shovels, axes or clubs, since bullets were in short supply. As the recording spun out the grim details I kicked the barren ground in front of the mass grave with the toe of my sandal, kicking up a small plume of buff colored dirt. When the dust settled, a small shard of bone lay exposed at my feet. I picked it up and gently laid it inside the fence. More than 30 years later, bones continue to emerge from the ground after every rain.
Near the end of the tour, I joined a group of Cambodians gathered around a large tree covered in prayer bracelets. Three monks hugged bright orange robes tightly around their bodies, as if they were cold despite the 90 degree temperatures. One looked up as if beseeching heaven. Another gazed unseeing toward the horizon. The third read the sign in front of the tree: “Killing Tree Against Which Executioners Beat Children.” Hundreds of children were murdered here by bashing their heads into the tree. Though Pol Pot was never tried for his crimes and apparently never showed any remorse for his part in the genocide prior to his own death in 1998, this tree was the undoing of Duch, the mastermind of S-21, who denied any wrongdoing after his arrest until he was brought back to this very tree during his trial. He broke down and cried, begging forgiveness for his actions, claiming that he had not remembered any of it until seeing the tree.
Still bereft of feeling, I bowed my head and turned toward the Buddhist Memorial in the center of Choeung Ek to offer a moment of silent prayer, when I noticed scraps of colored cloth protruding from the ground in every direction. Curious, I squatted down to examine the faded material more closely and abruptly realized that they were fragments of the victims’ clothing, working their way up through the soil after all these years. I recognized a button hole and made out what looked like a piece of raincoat. Feeling as if I’d been punched in the gut, I gasped for breath. Those scraps of clothing impacted me in a way that the photos of heaped skeletons, the audio narration, or even the killing tree had not. Perhaps because the remnants were on the marked trail where visitors walked, rather in the mass grave pits, I finally understood the magnitude of the site. Bodies lay below every square inch of topsoil at Choeung Ek.
I looked up at the young Cambodians who had come to learn about their history and the final piece of the puzzle clicked into place. The dearth of older people in Cambodia is easily understood. According to the United Nations Population Division, nearly 82% of the population of Cambodia is under the age of 45. The older folks were all killed by the Khmer Rouge, and a whole lot of them lay beneath my feet that day.