Man's Inhumanity To Man
April 17th, 1975. I was only 8 years old. I think we were living in Fort Monroe VA at the time. That's the day Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and began the systematic torture and killing of millions of people. I probably heard about it at the time, but it's not covered in most US history books (I don't think my AP History class got beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis). So I had heard about it, but I really didn't understand it like I understand the Holocaust.
When on a trip like this, it's easy to do the fun stuff, drinking cocktails on rooftop bars, visiting temples, go shopping in local markets. It's hard to do the not fun stuff. But it needs to be done. We are all witnesses to history in one way or another and it's our responsibility as human beings to learn about the atrocities that are committed so we can make sure they never happen again.
When Pol Pot came to Phnom Penh, he emptied the city. He forced the city people out into the countryside to work in labor camps, tearing up families in the process. Many died as part of that process, but that was just the beginning of the horrors that would descend on this country. Not far from my hotel is the Tuol Sleng Museum. It's a former high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a "security center". S-21, as it was called, was one of the most infamous torture centers in the country. Between 14,000 and 20,000 Cambodians were imprisoned and tortured here. They were beaten, electrocuted, hung by their wrists behind their backs until they passed out and then "revived" by dunking their heads in big urns filled with waste water and sewage. Some of them were tortured three times a day and there were medics there to make sure none of them died before there were supposed to. The Khmer Rouge made them write confessions to being Vietnamese or CIA spies or whatever they wanted. And they kept good records. There are rooms filled with pictures of the many victims who were tortured here. It's heartbreaking. And S-21 was just one of almost 200 "security centers" across the country. When the Vietnamese liberate Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, they killed almost all of the prisoners at S-21. Of the thousands of victims, there are only 7 known survivors. Seven. At the museum, there is a small area with 14 white tombs that hold the remains of the last 14 victims of S-21.
When the prisoners were scheduled to be executed, they would be taken by trucks at night to Choeung Ek, one of the almost 400 Killing Fields in the country. In the beginning, there would be 300 prisoners for execution a month. Then it became 300 a week. And then 300 a night. They would play loud propaganda music to cover the sounds of the screams. Bullets were expensive, so the executioners would use farm equipment like knives, axes, machettes, clubs, to kill their victims. They would be tossed into mass graves and then covered in DDT which helped mask the smell of the decaying bodies as well helped kill any who might still be alive. Over the course of the Khmer Rouge's reign, almost 3 millions were killed. Out of a country of 8 million. Over a third of the population. Gone in less than 4 years.
At both Tuol Sleng and at Choeung Ek, you can hear stories from both the survivors and the Khmer Rouge guards/executioners. The survivors tell of their fear, their torture, the loved ones they saw beaten, raped, and killed. The former Khmer Rouge? Many of them were uneducated child warriors. I'm not saying that to excuse them, but to provide a frame of reference. They spoke of how they were ordered to do the things they did. How they didn't have a choice. Which sounds hauntingly familiar with the stories I've heard from former Nazi's after the Holocaust. How do you become so desensitized, so unable to see your fellow man, your countryman, as someone deserving of life? How do you accept orders to execute another human being? Over, and over, and over again?
When Pol Pot marched into Phnom Penh, I was only 8. Fairly certain I was already wearing glasses by then. If I had been born in Cambodia, not the U.S., I'm fairly certain I wouldn't be alive today. Wearing glasses was a sign of being an intellectual, of being soft, which would make me an enemy of the state. So my skull would probably have been one of those crushed by a hammer or machete before my body was tossed into a mass grave.
I hope and pray that we as human beings will learn from these horrible examples of man's inhumanity to man. One way we can work to prevent future genocides is to remember and honor all of the victims who lost their lives. It's been only 40 years since Cambodia was decimated by the Khmer Rouge and it's amazing to see how they've recovered and grown. But it's still a very dark shadow that's not too far in their past.