2019 tour travel blog

Tuesday 8th October

We are on a tour today, it is just us, Shane and Joanne, with a guide and the driver who picked us up yesterday. We decide we will re-write the itinerary, as none of us want to see too much of the prison and the killing fields. We feel it will be another deeply disturbing day and that there is no need to spend too much time at the sites. We ask our guide how flexible things are, and he says as long as we all agree, he can sort something out. We four are all on the same wavelength, so that is not an issue. We tell him that we do not want to drag the prison tour out, nor do we want to spend too much time at the killing fields. When we ask him what the boat trip down the Mekong involves, he tells us it is just that, a river trip. No food or drinks included. So we ask if we can swap the river trip for a city tour, which he is happy to do. When we arrive at the first stop, Shane and Tony spot some women sweeping up sand from the gutter. There is a building site there, and sand is just piled on the ground, and has washed over the footpath into the gutter. We wonder what the workers are doing. Stopping it from blocking the drain? Or recovering it to use in the building work?

Writing this is very difficult, more so than about the tunnels we saw the other day. So take this as a warning and skip to the end of the day if you feel it will be too upsetting. What happened here is quite well documented (so they could prove to their superiors that instructions were being carried out). The prisoners' interrogations were recorded, they also carefully photographed the vast majority of the inmates. Barbed wire still surrounds the property, much of it having been left as it was all those years ago.

At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Security Prison 21 (S-21), we feel a bit like we are in school again with our guide, but he is trying hard to help us understand. In fact this prison used to be Tuol Svay Pray High School, before Pol Pot turned it into a torture, interrogation and execution centre. There is quite a bit of repetition from our guide, and it is hard enough hearing of the absolute cruelty the first time.

From 1976 to 1979, an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned at S21 (the real number is unknown), that this was just one of 150 – 190 prison centres makes it so much harder to comprehend. Prisoners were processed for extermination at the killing fields, but not before months of torture. Only seven people survived the prison, and we met two of those today. We could not help but wonder why they are still here, having suffered the atrocities we would have thought these guys would have got as far away as possible…

For those unfamiliar with Pol Pot, leader of The Democratic of Kampuchea and a former schoolteacher, it needs to be stated that over 2.5 million Cambodians, of a population of around 8 million), died from starvation, execution, disease or overwork under his reign from 1975 to 1979. His communist based party, the Khmer Rouge, first focused their killings on the preceding regime’s soldiers and government officials. Then, in an attempt to socially engineer a classless peasant society, the party extended killings to academics, doctors, teachers, students, monks and engineers. Even you merely looked educated (i.e., wore glasses), you were sent to the prison. Everything to do with western culture was abolished. These people ended up in prisons like S21, where “confessions” were forced from them using some horrific torture methods, and the victims taken to the killing fields (which we visited later today). Later, its paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to S21 prison and murdered. The prison was run by Kang Kech Ieu, better known as Comrade Duch. He was the first KR leader to be bought to trial, and was convicted of crimes against humanity. Initially sentenced to 30 years, he was later sentenced to life.

A few foreigners were imprisoned, including 488 Vietnamese, 31 Thai, one Laotian, one Arab, one Briton, four French, two Americans, one Canadian, one New Zealander, two Australians, one Indonesian, many Indians and Pakistanis were also imprisoned. No foreign prisoners survived captivity in S-21. Twenty-six-year-old John D. Dewhirst, a British tourist, was one of the youngest foreigners to die in the prison. He was sailing with his New Zealand companion, Kerry Hamill (brother of rower Rob Hamill), and their Canadian friend Stuart Glass when their boat drifted into Cambodian territory and was intercepted by Khmer patrol boats on August 13, 1978. Glass was killed during the arrest, while Dewhirst and Hamill were captured, blindfolded, and taken to shore. Both were executed after having been tortured for several months. Witnesses reported that a foreigner was burned alive; initially, it was suggested that this might have been John Dewhirst, but a survivor would later identify Kerry Hamill as the victim of this brutal act.

When the Khmer Rouge first took Phnom Penh, they lied to the locals (they were told the Americans were going to bomb the city) and had them evacuate the city “for three days”. An army of soldiers, some of them just children, marched into the cities and drove people out to the countryside where they were given plain black clothes and made to throw away possessions, burning anything of colour. Everyone had the same haircut, were given the same tiny food allowance and worked in the crop fields from dusk till dark. People died of starvation, torture, illness and exhaustion. Children were sent to child labour camps and separated from their families. With the city empty KR looted anything of value and destroyed much of the town. Those evacuated were then enslaved to work in the field. Intellectuals (Drs, lawyers, teachers,) were taken to the prison to confess their “crimes”, and executed.

The site has four main buildings, A, B, C, and D. Building A holds the large cells in which the bodies of the last victims were discovered. Building B holds galleries of photographs. Building C holds the rooms sub-divided into small cells for prisoners. Building D holds other memorabilia including instruments of torture and copies of the “confessions” of some of the prisoners.

Our first stop is building A, the torture rooms. Orange and white checkerboard patterns on the floor are badly stained, as are parts of the walls. We feel sick when we realise the stains are blood. There is a photo on the wall, showing the body of a prisoner chained to the steel framed bed. The only other furniture is the desk and chair used by the torturers, and an old ammo box that the prisoner used as a toilet. We see a couple more rooms, set up the same way. There is worse to come.

Next is Building B, we see some of the photos that KR took to document what happened here. Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. One photo of a shirtless man turns our stomachs when we see that his i.d. tag is pinned directly to his flesh.

In Building C prisoners were forced to strip to their underwear, their possessions confiscated, and prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls or the concrete floor. Those held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The shackles were fixed to alternating bars; the prisoners slept with their heads in opposite directions. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets. They were forbidden to talk to each other. The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to disobey. Almost every action had to be approved by one of the prison's guards, and that included having a drink of water. Some of the larger rooms are divided into smaller cells, the bricks laid by the prisoners themselves. Barbed wire encloses the balconies on the upper floors, this was done to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide.

Most prisoners were held for two to three months. However, several high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres were held longer. Within two or three days of arrival, all prisoners were taken for interrogation. The torture was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors. Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags. Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners' heads under water, and the use of the waterboarding technique. Women were raped by the interrogators, even though sexual abuse was against Democratic Kampuchea (DK) policy. The perpetrators who were found out were executed. Although many prisoners died from this kind of abuse, killing them outright was discouraged, since the Khmer Rouge needed their confessions. The "Medical Unit" at Tuol Sleng, however, did kill at least 100 prisoners by bleeding them to death. Medical experiments were performed on certain prisoners, there is evidence that patients were sliced open and had organs removed with no anaesthetic. In addition, there is also some evidence that inmates were drained of blood in order to study how long they would survive.

Building D has examples of torture, and we also read the “confessions” of some of the prisoners. In their confessions, they were forced to describe their personal background. Party members they had to say when they joined the revolution and describe their work assignments. Then prisoners would relate their supposed treasonous activities in chronological order. The third section of the confession described prisoners' thwarted conspiracies and supposed treasonous conversations. At the end, the confessions would list a string of traitors who were the prisoners' friends, colleagues, or acquaintances. Some lists contained over a hundred names. People whose names were in the confession list were often called in for interrogation.

We are shown some of the brutal torture implements, and disturbingly, some human skulls are on display. We weren’t prepared for that. We have seen enough, and as we leave we pass through a gift shop, but we do not want anything from here.

When Vietnamese soldiers arrived in 1979 they found five children, the older boy, Norng Chan Phal, aged 9, had encouraged the others to hide in piles of clothes because the KR were killing everyone before they themselves fled the Vietnamese. One of the five children, an infant who needed to be breastfed, later died from hunger.

We meet one of the adult survivors of S21, only two of the seven are still alive. Chum Mey was a mechanic, and up until his arrest in 1979 he would repair vehicles, loudspeakers, typewriters and sewing machines. While he was being relocated from the prison, he met up with his wife and infant son, who he never met. His wife had been kept in another prison, where his son was born. He does not know the fate of his two daughters. That night KR soldiers came for the family, and some time later he heard his wife and infant son were shot. He managed to escape and has since written a book about his experiences. He is very bitter towards the government, the war crimes tribunal focuses on the crimes, but no one cares for the survivors. Duch, the leader of the prison, lives in comparative luxury in prison, while he struggles from day to day.

Artist Bou Meng survived because of his paintings, now he sells his autobiography. His mental health is seriously affected, and we are told it is difficult to have a lucid conversation with him these days. With that we have had enough, and leave the compound. We know worse is to come later in the day, and we are not looking forward to it at all. We are told to leave the sadness behind, but that is easier said than done.

The Russian markets are nearby, and we are dropped off there for half an hour or so. At the entrance we see an ice seller cutting up huge blocks with a skill saw. The real name of the market is Psar Toul Tom Poung, but it’s been called Russian Market since the market used to sell tons of Russian goods during the Cold War. Today clothing, purses, material, modern trinkets and souvenir items are the main items for sale, Tony gets some chop sticks, and Cynthea finds some elephant pants. It is still difficult to find clothing that will fit bigger people.

We are taken out to Cheung Ek village, about 17km form the city, the site of the infamous and miserable killing fields. On the way we see where the government is undertaking a huge building programme of housing, mostly funded by the Chinese. There is a huge land reclamation taking place along the road built through the swamp. It all looks a bit dodgy to us, and we wonder how stable this land will be?

We cannot use the main entrance to the killing fields, and we have to drive through the village, along a rough, narrow track. Dogs are close to the car, and when one starts yelping our guide quickly tells us that the owner is beating it. Hmmm, we think we ran it over!

The Khmer Rouge had turned the peaceful and beautiful Cheung Ek village into the infamous and miserable killing fields. The Pol Pot regime slaughtered people in the thousands and buried them in mass graves, nearly 9,0000 bodies were discovered here.

Given the way that the Ultra Khmer Rouge Regime was organized, a decision for murder was most likely ordered by Pol Pot. Everything had to meet with his approval, even though there is no written proof. Son Sen, who was responsible for National Security and Defence, and Duch, commandant at S-21, were directly responsible for killing the prisoners at S-21 and Cheung Ek Killing Field.

After getting an instruction to kill from the Central Committee of the regime through Son Sen, Duch ordered his deputy, Hor, to produce a list. Taking orders from Hor, and Suon Thy who were in charge of the documentary unit, the list was prepared. The list was submitted to Duch for his signature. Then, the signed list was sent to Peng, the head of Defence unit. Peng had the keys to all of the cells in the S-21 prison. Based on the list, Peng ordered the guards to remove the prisoners to be killed.

The important and special prisoners like Keo Meas ( a veteran revolutionary), Ney Saran ( Secretary of Agriculture), Hu Nim ( Minister of Information), Kuy Thuon ( Secretary of Northern Zone), Cheng An (Deputy Minister of Industry), Von Veth ( Deputy prime Minister), and foreigners were killed and buried at the S-21 prison. As for foreigners including a New Zealander, Canadians, Americans, Australians and British, guards were ordered to kill them and to burn their dead bodies so that no bones were left.

Passing through the gates we arrived at what we thought was a temple, so Tony took some photos, but was horrified to find the Buddhist stupa is a memorial, full of several thousand human skulls. We are shown the sites of the mass graves, and told of the chemicals, e.g. DDT, used to keep the smell of rotting bodies down, so the villagers did not suspect what was happening. The chemicals also killed victims who had managed to survive and were buried alive. Loud speakers were installed in trees, the noise from them intended to drown out the sounds of victims being executed. Bullets were rarely used, they cost the equivalent of 30 kg of rice each. Victims were killed by sharpened sticks, axes, wooden clubs, anything that could be used as a weapon.

We visit the mass graves, where human bones are still visible. The company in charge of developing the memorial is not allowed to disturb the remains still present in the fields. The worst grave is that for babies and children, the way that they die is heartbreaking. They were picked up by their legs and swung against the tree trunk before being thrown into the graves. At this point we became overwhelmed and soon ended the tour. We drove back into town for a late lunch.

It was hard to shake off the sadness of the day, despite our guide telling us to leave it all behind.

We are taken to a buffet restaurant, huge variety of food to choose from. We get the drinks menu and there is a light moment when we see that “crush coffee with crap” is available. It is an iced coffee, with whipped cream, and…. Crap. Tony orders one and hopes the crap is actually chocolate sprinkles. We have quite a long time here, really needing the time out.

A city tour replaces the planned trip down the Mekong River, which looks a lot cleaner here, not flowing upside down like it does in HCMC. We visit the Royal Palace, where a guard in the sentry box looks to be asleep. But no, he is checking Facebook on his phone! He is not the least bit concerned that we busted him, nor that Tony took a photo. Cynthea gets a photo with the other guard. As we head back to the car we crack up at the “Free WiFi” sign on the side of a tuk tuk.

Wat Phnom (mountain pagoda) sits on a hill top in the city. Built in 1372, at 27m it is the tallest religious structure in the city. There certainly is a great view from the top of the man made hill. There are a few cats at the temple, we notice, not for the first time, that the cats’ tails are deformed, either twisted or shortened. There are a couple of playful kittens attacking our feet.

Back down we see a sign, there is a charge for foreigners, but our guide tells us he told them we are just taking photos up there. A woman sits with several birds in cages, you buy them and release them, and they fly back to her to be sold again! The tree across the road is loaded with bats. Our guide and driver bring us back to the hotel, we are told the driver will be here at 7.15am to take us to the bus.

We are in need of a swim, and a beer or something stronger. So we head up to the rooftop to relax. We are in the pool when Steve and the girls (boat people) arrive from HCMC. We have tea at a restaurant in our street, and on the way home see our first rat. We thought we would have seen more rats, and well before this.

Next door at the sister hotel, Queen Suites, it is obvious that koi in the are fed by hand. They look quite comical as they rush over to us, mouths gaping thinking they will get a feed.

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