Monday, March 17, 2014

The Dead Kennedys Were Right: Holiday in Cambodia

Skulls at the Killing Fields in Choeung Ek, Cambodia
This is a post I have been avoiding writing. I have had plenty of excuses - I had freelance work, we were doing lots of quick travel, it was too hot. But in truth, my experience at the Killing Fields in Choeung Ek, Cambodia and the former high school turned torture chamber and prison of Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, Cambodia were the most disturbing experiences of this trip. In Vietnam, friends of ours asked if we were going to the Killing Fields when we got to Cambodia. I didn't want to admit it, but I wasn't even sure what that meant. I assumed it had to do with the genocide, but that was how little I knew. Before traveling, my only real exposure to the Cambodian Genocide was from the Dead Kennedy's song, "Holiday in Cambodia" which I listened to in 8th and 9th grade. I had heard of it and knew it was bad, but just like when a song ends, my attention flipped and I didn't think to go back and actually investigate what I was singing along to.
Tree where speakers hung playing music to cover the screams
While the DKs were ripping apart the bored middle class suburban hippies of their beloved San Francisco bitching about wanting a revolution and a society where we all could be "one," there were also telling them there was a revolution happening in communist Cambodia where people were "one" or else. Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, and stormed Phenom Penh, something the locals were, at first, excited about. They welcomed the rebels only to find the same soldiers they were waving at waving guns at them forcing all urbanites to pack up and evacuate the city. Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge wanted an agrarian society, a throwback to the old country life. They refused foreign aid which they deemed "corrupt" and "influencing." They saw the farmer as the ideal Cambodian and forced people into hard labor in the fields. It wasnt long before Pol Pot's idealogy morphed into a murderous genocidal one- anyone who did not agree with "the mission" was quickly exterminated and soon anyone that the Khmer Rouge deemed suspicious or guilty was exterminated. The paranoia was so rampant that even members of the party ended up in the prisons and mass graves.
The Khmer Rouge took over buildings, turning them into prisons for all those who opposed Pol Pot's idealogy (like the Tuol Sleng prison -formerly a high school), but really it was anyone who was deemed a threat. Students, journalists, professors, monks...People were rounded up, beatedn, toturterd, forced to sign fraudeulent confessions about their work with the CIA or KGB and forced to give names of those working with them- neighbors, friends, families. Some of the torture included water boarding, ripping off fingernails and then pouring alcohol on the raw nail beds. Beatings, rape, electrocution. Some were even skinned alive. Many prisoners also died of starvation and disease.
The Killing Tree at Choeung Ek's Killing Field, Cambodia
The Khmer Rouge created a system where prisoners who "confessed" were then loaded into trucks and told they were moving homes. They would then drive out to one of the Killing Fields and be lined up along a ditch, or a mass grave, usually blindfolded. They would play propoganda music blaring from speakers that hung from a tree to cover the screams of the first batch. To save bullets, which were expensice, they beat people to death or hacked at their skulls and necks with machetes, or pierced skulls with iron rods - men, women and children. But perhaps the most upsetting was the Killing Tree. Mothers and babies taken to the fields were torn apart and then swiftly, a soldier would swing the baby by the legs and smash their skull against the Killing Tree. The idea was that it was better to wipe out a lineage so no one could come back for revenge.
The Cambodian genocide lasted from 1975-1979, just two years before I was born. It wiped out over 20% of the Cambodian population, a population that also included many Vietnamese who had fled American bombs during the Vietnam War. It struck me that these babies would be my age had circumstances been different. I walked around Phenom Penh looking through a different lens after that. All of the people over my age had experienced this genocide, first hand. Some of the people I saw hailing tuk tuks or crossing the street or selling fruit had lost family members, perhaps sons and daughters, parents. Some of them may have even been on the otherside. Maybe one or two of them were soldiers. Still crazier, the UN recognized the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia's oficial political party until the late 90s. The party wasn't dissolved until December 1999 and it wasn't until 2009 when some of the party's leaders were put on trial for war crimes. Pol Pot committed suicide in 1998, but all but one of the leaders have denied any wrongdoing. However, the man who ran Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison admitted to his crimes. During his trial he was taken to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and wept when he saw the Killing Tree. Unfortunately, the trials for the Cambodian genocide have been a huge failure with only five indictments, one conviction, and trials still proceeding.
Bracelets left at a mass grave
The effects of the Cambodian Genocide can be found in the current everyday life of the Cambodian people. As a traumatized nation stunted by staggering poverty, much of what keeps the country in third world conditions are the haunting experiences of what happened a little more than 30 years ago. PTSD, grief, mental illness, alcoholism, and a palpable hopelessness can make for a debilitating plague of epic proportions. There is no God in Cambodia, having been eradicated by Pol Pot. No temples, no religious ceremonies. No incense burning. At least not from what we could see. Sex trafficking is abundant while opportunities are infrequent. It is a dog eat dog society, which any tuk tuk driver can illuminate. It is a land still riddled with an estimated 4-6 million hidden landmines that were placed during three decades of war including the Khmer Rouge's reign. It is a society of amputees and blind citizens and disenfranchised youth.
The graves are still so shallow, the devastation still so fresh, that every monsoon season more bones and teeth and clothing rise to the surface in the fields. Mass graves are still being discovered. On the tour, the audio guide said, "It's as if the spirits of those who lie here will not rest."
Cambodia is unrested.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Cambodia


Carmen said...

so disturbing

Anonymous said...

holy shite.

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