November 11th a private affaire for me this year. I watched remembrance ceremonies from Cambodia alone in my apartment thinking how important it is for Canadians to remember the sacrifice of those who fought for our freedoms. The longer I am here the more I struggle with my own ethnocentrism. For years I’ve taught children about the importance of remembering the fallen. I have a deeply held belief that we must honour those who made it possible for us to live freely. In the act of remembrance, we remind ourselves to never let it happen again yet the horrors of this genocide happened while many Canadians at home turned a blind eye to what was happening here. How do I reconcile my own value of honouring the fallen in a place where only 5 members of a maniacal murderous regime were ever brought to trial? Where the bones of the murdered now, 40 years later still rise out of the earth at killing fields across the country. Where the official government policy was to find peace and invite back into society those same men and women who obliterated almost 3 million of their fellow citizens.
Yesterday we visited both the Killing Fields and the S-21 prison. As with our visit to Auschwitz in Poland we left shocked and in pain for the unbelievable atrocities that occurred in both places. The 60’s saw a civil war in Vietnam influence conflict and civil war in Cambodia as well. The Khmer Rouge initially a communist group living in the northern jungles was little more than a group of guerillas until a military coup toppled the monarchy. Joining forces, the Khmer rouge claimed absolute power and began its plan to remake Cambodia into a glorious communist state.
Our testimony to these atrocities began with our visit to one of the killing fields just out side out the capital. It was as expected. Scenic and quiet, yet as our guide explained how soldiers of the Khmer Rouge went about their business of killing people the quiet became heavy and haunted. A boardwalk was built for people to follow. Not because the many visitors were wandering off where they should not go, rather so they would not further desecrate the bones and evidence the earth continued to release year over year.
Many of the mass graves have been exhumed, their contents now properly laid to rest but the entire area is really just one large mass grave. Palm and bamboo trees growing seem lovely until you learn they were used as implements of death. Victims sledged on the back of their neck with a bamboo pole then had their necks torn open with the edge of a palm branch. Thrown into pits full of dead and decaying bodies those who did not immediately succumb to their wounds had DDT poured all over them. The DDT served two purposes, to kill anyone who was not yet dead and to eliminate the smell of decay, something that might give up evidence to the work being done here.
Daily people were trucked out here from nearby prisons where they had “confessed” their sins. If you were guilty your whole family was put to death. This meant that there were children and babies sent here to be killed. They were shown no more mercy than their parents. Grabbed by their feet they were swung head first into a tree and tossed in the pit.
The soldiers who tended to these grizzly tasks were also routinely put to death so a true and accurate account of where all the pits are located remains unclear. There are killing fields all over the country and it is impossible to grasp the level of depravity of those in power leading this assault on humanity.
A 17-story pagoda filled with skulls and other objects of remembrance fill the inside. The number of stories is to recall the date of the 17th of April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. This group could be simply characterised as authoritarian and xenophobic. They strongly believed that a full return to an agrarian society was the ideal. These beliefs meant that intellectuals, entrepreneurs, people with mixed ancestry were immediate targets for the regime. Teachers, government officials and local business owners were arrested and taken to prisons all over the country.
The one we visited was housed in what was originally a school. I have to admit that since I love my profession this location was especially hard for me to internalise. In Auschwitz, the memorial tour began in what had once been the military barracks, here at S-21 this place had been a school. Four large three story buildings, I could easily imagine the sounds of children entering and exiting, the sound of their laughter and games. A courtyard to play and eat lunch, chalkboards and shuttered windows the whole space like so many that we’ve seen through our travels here. Yet walking into the rooms seeing a metal frame bed with shackles on it and photos on the wall of bodies, broken and bloody, was such a juxtaposition it made the horror of the trauma all the worse.
Anyone who possibly thought differently or had different skills from a simple farmer became, overnight, an enemy of the state. Government officials, intellectuals, monks…they were all rounded up and sent to prisons to be re-educated. These sessions were nothing less than torture. Lashed, strung up, electrocuted, beaten, finger nails pulled off…The photos of blood-stained bodies even in black and white offered grotesque evidence hung on the walls.
Barbed wire, bars and makeshift cells made it clear that this was not a place of care but one of madness and pure evil. Meticulous records were kept and images of those who came here were on display. Board after board of men women and children with numbers pined to their clothing starred at us begging for us not for forget.
For days on end prisoners were told to offer their confessions. Ultimately their stories would talk about being an agent for the CIA or KGB, they would name family members and friends who were also collaborators and they would invent plots against the Khmer Rouge. These confessions allowed the Khmer Rouge to round up even more people, their families and begin the process again.
The audio tour was not available and while I am certain that there was lots more to learn the depth of depravity was clear. Looking down one hall you could see through a row of classrooms cells on either side and a chalk board still hanging on the far end. My soul felt ripped apart, I am not sure I could have handled knowing more.
As we finished walking through the fourth building, we saw two men sitting at a table selling books. When we approached, he explains that he was one of the children who were found by the Red Cross here at S-21 when the country was liberated from the Khmer Rouge. We took a photo, but both Kevin and I were destroyed in the moment. A little way further an old man, a victim of this place also was selling his story.
Words were not possible. We bought both books somehow feeling that our money would help to remember and honour those who came here and never left. From now on when I attend ceremonies of remembrance on November 11th I will take some time to think of Cambodia and the nearly quarter of their people who died in the 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge Genocide.