Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Dark History of Cambodia

Parents, this post is in no way appropriate for young kids. It may even be too graphic for weak stomached adults. Please be advised.

In the West, when we think of genocide, we tend to think of the holocaust, for good reason, but in the east there was, in my opinion, an even more horrific attempt at genocide in the late 70s. For those who don’t know the history of Cambodia, which I didn’t before I decided to come here, in 1976, the Khmer Rouge communist regime took power in the country and started Cambodia down a long road of pain, suffering, and death. The Khmer Rouge were led by a man named Pol Pot, who used his education and speaking skills to appeal to the uneducated masses in rural Cambodia. With the promise of equality for all, why would poor rural farmers not want to support the Khmer Rouge. That equality came at a terrifying cost, though. Three million to be exact. The Khmer Rouge began their hostil takeover of the country by forcing every citizen out to the rice fields. Everyone had to prove their worth to the country’s by their physical labor abilities. Education was the enemy. In fact, the educated were the taget of the regime. Teachers, doctors, businessmen, and more were immediate targets in the killings. These people were smart enough to question the regime and form protests. In the eyes of the Khmer Rouge they needed to be eliminated. And they did just that. Once in the forced labor camps, the often young, teenage soldiers, tried to weed out who was educated and who was not. Life was meaningless to the cruel soldiers. Once an enemy was found they were sent to a torture prison for interrogation and eventually killed. The tortur, in my opinion, makes this event worse than the Nazi holocaust. The stories are disgusting, horrifying, and unlike any other torture I have knowledge of. The regime was poor, and therefore the soldiers used whatever instruments they had at their disposal to beat, mange, and torture their prisoners. First hand accounts of survivors are beyond belief. Stories of fetuses cut from their mothers and hung from the ceiling of the prison were among the tragedies being committed. 

I did months of research on this part of Cambodian history before leaving the states. I was fascinated by the unimaginably inhumane treatment of Cambodians - and even more fascinated that I had no knowledge of the events. The Khmer Rouge killed nearly a quarter of the population over just a few years. 

Yesterday we had the opportunity to visit the location of much of this killing. Our first stop was one of many so called killing fields. A location of torture and death. There were several pits which were mass graves of over 20,000 mostly unknown people. This experience was hard. Having read several biographies of people who were in this filed, I could imagine exactly what happened and how it happened. It was almost too much to bear, but I wanted to see it and learn from it all. The pictures below show why it was so hard. 

Inside of the memorial in the photo above. When the government opened the mass graves, the bones were collected and placed in this stupa out of respect for the victims. The sheer number of bones was absolutely overwhelming. 

Everywhere you see a dip was a mass grave

After rainstorms, bones frequently are drawn up to the surface. There were random human bones littered all over the field.

Teeth are also frequently uncovered by rainstorms. This is a collection plate of teeth people have found during their walk through the field

Absolutely horrific site. As the sign states this was a killing tree where children’s heads were smashed until they died. Their lifeless bodies were then thrown in a mass grave directly next to the tree. The bracelets you see were placed there by tourists as prayers for the afterlife and hopes for reincarnation of the kids to a better life. 

We also had the opportunity to visit Tuel Sleng (s21) prison. The sheer existence of the prison was hard to comprehend. Before the Khmer Rouge took over, s21 was a public high school. A place of learning and exploring. The army claimed the school in their name at the start of the war, though, and transformed it into a place of torture and death. It was, in itself, a metaphore for what the Khmer Rouge was doing to Cambodia. 

The classrooms from the old school were modified with new walls to create cells for the prisoners

Cells on the upper floors were wooden to reduce the weight being put on the bottom floor

The cells had no doors, but the prisoners were shackled to the floor. The box in the upper left corner is what they were given as a toilet

These markings showed the low level of intelligence of the soldiers. They did not know how to write numbers. 

A high school turned to a prison...

Some of the tools used for torturing prisoners

The young people in these photos were Khmer Rouge soldiers who performed the torture. So young. Most were under 18

Please keep in mind the only crime most of the prisoners here committed was being educated. 

If you made it this far into the post I commend you. These events are horrific and must never occur again. 

If you are curious of learning more about this horrific regime, there are many books written on the topic and a movie actually will be released on Netflix September 15 about the experience of one Khmer girl during the takeover. Its based on a biography and titled First They Came For My Father. I urge you to inform yourself about this war. The Cambodians urge you as well. Their history must be understood to prevent it from ever happening again. 


  1. Fascinating! Watch the movie "The Killing Fields" when you get home. It's based on the events you described here in your blog. When I first started teaching social studies in the 1980s, this region was known as Kampuchea named by the Khmer Rogue regime who controlled the country. Thanks for taking me back in time and the photos of history unknown to many.

    1. I actually read an autobiography called Survival in the Killing Fields by the actor who played in that movie! He was a doctor in Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge and recounts his horrific experience from beginning to end. It's a fascinating read, although tough at times.