This article in 20 seconds:
- Between 1975 and 1979, approximately one quarter (!) of the entire Cambodian population got killed by the regime of the Khmer Rouge.
- Secret prisons were used to torture arrested Cambodians into confession of fictional crimes.
- After a forced confession the prisoners were transferred to the Killing Fields. There, the skulls of the prisoners were smashed with iron bars, hammers and spades.
— Read more about the Killing Fields underneath —
The two main touristic attractions of Phnom Penh (Cambodia) are the Killing Fields / S21 and the local shooting range. This combination strikes me. After walking through the Killing Fields, where approximately one quarter of the entire Cambodian population was systematically murdered, I actually didn’t want to have anything to do with weapons at all.
The killing happened between 1975 and 1979.
Within four years, 1.7 to 2.5 Million Cambodians were systematically tortured and slaughtered, on a population of only 8 Million. Innocent men, women and children literally got their skulls smashed by fanatics of a political party called ‘the Khmer Rouge’.
Warning: This article and its pictures are not for the faint-hearted.
In a time American bombings were spilling over the border of Vietnam, and a civil war was destroying the country, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge gained a tremendous amount of popularity amongst Cambodian farmers.
Pol Pot promised to serve the Cambodian people and nation, instead of their own personal interests. The Khmer Rouge convinced the farmer communities that the cities were the enemy. It were the cities that tried to keep all the privileges for themselves, it were the cities that were bombing the country. Therefore all Cambodian cities had to be captured to give the power back to the people.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge finally captured the capital city: Phnom Penh.
Just hours after seizing power over the capital city, all residents were evacuated to the farms outside the city. The Khmer Rouge convinced the residents the city had to be evacuated because of the threat of American bombings. They had to leave the city for just “two or three days”. The residents that refused to leave their homes, got killed immediately and their house were burned down.
Within a day, Phnom Penh was nothing more than a ghost town. Its residents were transferred throughout the country, to work on the rice fields for 16 hours a day, just like the farmers themselves. Currency got abolished.
Courts, schools and mail services got closed down indefinitely.
The borders were closed.
Pol Pot started to restructure Cambodian society in rapid speed. He announced a ‘Year Zero’ policy, in which the whole Cambodian society had to be destroyed to start a new life from scratch.
The entire population had to subject themselves to forced labour, while living on a few small portions of rice a day. Stealing food from the fields, would lead to cruel dead penalties. Starvation was on the rise: Cambodians literally had to work until they died to make the quotations.
S21: Pol Pot’s secret prison
The Khmer Rouge didn’t accept resistance to its regime. All intellectuals got arrested for several fictional crimes. Wearing as much as a pair of glasses, was a sufficient sign of intelligence – which had to be terminated. Having smooth hands, would be a sign of higher education as well: as labour in the fields would have made them rough.
Once arrested, the people were blindfolded and taken away by trucks. Arriving at one of the 70 secret prisons throughout the country, the blind fold was taken off and a picture was taken. The prisoners would be stripped down until their underwear, and got subjected to interrogation.
S21, how it looks today
They would then be chained to the walls and floor, and got tortured until they confessed into several fictional crimes. After confession, usually the wives and children of the prisoner would be killed within 48 hours. The prisoners were then tortured into giving several names of persons who had been involved in the fictional crimes. They too, would soon be arrested.
The most crucial prison, S21, was located in a former high school in the deserted city of Phnom Penh. Of the 40,000 Cambodians entering this secret prison, only seven survived.
Untill this day, the prison is open to visit. Untill this day, blood stains are covering the walls and floors.
I have been there, walked around through the buildings, and it is absolutely horrifying what happened inside.
The individual cells in S21
The Killing Fields
When no more names of other ‘suspects’ could be squeezed out of the prisoner, they would be transferred to the Killing Fields. In the middle of the night, they would be blindfolded and taken away by trucks. The prisoners were told that they completed their sentence, and that they would be reallocated, to prevent the prisoners from screaming or trying to escape. In fact, after entering the Killing Fields, all prisoners would be lead to a certain dead within 24 hours.
At night they would arrive in one of the Killing Fields, surrounded by high walls. Nobody exactly knew what happened inside those walls. Loud revolutionary songs were played during the night, to cover up the screaming of the victims. In this particular Killing Field near Phnom Penh, audio systems were hung into the ‘Magic Tree’ just next to the mass graves.
Pits were dug out, and prisoners – still blind folded – would be put down on their knees at the edge. To save bullets, their skulls would be smashed in with iron bars, hammers and spades. The prisoner would fall into the pit, which contained hundreds of rotting bodies. The last thing the victims would hear, was the noise of aggregates running on gasoline to support the lamps, combined with the loud noise of revolutionary songs.
Bones and rotten pieces of clothes were still sticking out of the ground everywhere I walked. Pits were dug out everywhere I looked. Needless to say, I felt depressed, sad and angry all at the same time. But nothing of all this would prepare me for the most horrific part of this location: the Killing Tree.
Bones and pieces of clothes sticking out of the ground
For small children and babies, they had a different method to smash their skulls.
A pit was dug out next to a large tree. This tree was called the ‘Killing Tree’ and located right across the ‘Magic Tree’, where the audio systems were hung in. Children and babies alike would be lifted up by their small legs, and would be swung with their heads against the hard trunk of the tree. Their skulls got smashed – brains and blood covering the tree in a dark red colour. The remainder of the bodies would be thrown carelessly into the pit next to it.
Some of the soldiers laughed out loud as they beat the children against the tree. Not to laugh, could have indicated sympathy, which made themselves a target as well.
The tree is covered with colourful bracelets nowadays. I happened to wear one that day, and hung mine on it for the kids – while fighting back tears. I will never forget the impact it made on me.
What happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 was horrible. The daily deadcount of this particular Killing Field started from a few dozen, up to 600 people. On the second of July in 1977 for example, 150 children got their skulls smashed in – on one single day.
Skulls that had been found in the Killing Fields (picture taken by Ginny)
International support for the Khmer Rouge
Now here comes another horrifying part of the story: even after discovery of the Killing Fields in 1979 by the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge remained to keep their seat in the United Nations until 1993. The political leaders of the USA, Brittain and China insisted on it. The Khmer Rouge, as an enemy of Vietnam, had to be taken care of.
From 1980 to 1986, the USA spend over 85 Million USD to make sure the Khmer Rouge party members were well taken care of. They forced the World Food Program to hand over 12 Million USD worth of food to the Thai army, to pass it on to Khmer Rouge party members. Now this is probably not the thing you would read in Western history books.
After the failing tribunal, most fanatics of the Khmer Rouge actually weren’t punished for their crimes against humanity at all. The tribunal came too late, and did do little justice for the Cambodian people who had suffered during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot finally died in 1998 at the age of 72, most likely by committing suicide.
It is happening again.
You might wonder how it all could have happened. But in fact, something similar is happening at this very moment in North Korea. Everybody knows it, but not many people care that much.
Will it ever stop? Will we ever live in a world where all people take care of all people?
I sincerely hope so.
For now: never take freedom for granted.