History smells blood at the Khmer Killing fields – Cambodia

Nationalism is often intoxicating. A drop of it in the holy thought of a leader and nations have been swept over by the spirit of its hangover. People, who have resisted this dope, have often been termed traitors and punished.

The worst affected have usually been the people from the backward strata where the level of education is usually minimal. This is the society which has always reached out for help and therefore most vulnerable.

For all, who might be thinking I am penning down an anti-nationalist prelude to my blog, let me clarify with a ‘No’. But just like there are good drinks and their bad substitutes, the colour of nationalism too change with the way it’s put into use. For sure – there is good nationalism and its bad substitute. While good nationalism upholds its very purpose – humanity; bad nationalism upholds – fanaticism and fascism.

Abraham Lincoln was a nationalist and so was Hitler. Whatever they did and when they did, they felt that they did for a cause. Their deeds impacted the world in ways that would never ever be forgotten. But while the former helped heal the world by transforming humanity, the later gassed innocents in his secret chambers.

Those were some thoughts doing rounds in my mind during the early morning of August 24th while on a Tuk Tuk being driven to the Khmer Rouge mass graves often referred as ‘The Killing Fields’ about 8 kilometers from the Cambodian Capital – Phnom Penh.

It had rained the day before and the weather was humid. By then, I had already been alerted by Kim, my friend and a native that the impact of what I see there – will remain in my mind for the rest of my life. Kim was born merely about 40 kms away from the graves. I still remember him saying, “Till some time back, smell from rotten human carcass made it difficult to go near to the graves. Kids often questioned the reason for such a smell to which the parents would normally reply with silence. Often – with tearful eyes.  Almost every second family has lost someone during what was probably one of the darkest chapters in world history – The Khmer Rouge”.

Rain had swept parts of the top soil and soon after we entered the area we could see human wearables showing up from the graves. They still appeared fresh (may be the rain water was responsible in making the clothes appear prominent by taking away the mud) and reminded me that while all this massacre happened, (1975-79), I was alive and as children we didn’t have a whiff about it.

We came across human wearables that surfaced from the grave. They were scattered everywhere.
Between 1975 and 1979 almost 2 million people have been executed by the Pot regime and almost every second family in Cambodia had lost someone. A large number of them were children. This picture shows, toys and friendship bands being put on the fencing of the tree which was once used for executing children.

The entire area comprising of the graveyards had a strange silence. While visitors were asked to remain quiet, this silence had an element of suffocation infused in it. It was also coupled with a heavy feeling of helplessness erupting from this entire experience – which in reality was remains from a pseudo-nationalist outrage from a concocted and venomous human mind of a self-proclaimed Communist. Pol Pot (as Saloth Sar preferred to be known post his French honeymoon with Communism) claimed that he was inspired by Mao.

As we walked around the graveyards, audio instructions narrated the chilling story of how people were brought from their homes mostly in trucks, documented, chained, imprisoned and then finally killed in those government run factories of mass murder. When they were picked up, the reason cited was possible bombing by US during the Vietnam war and were assured return. (It’s an open secret that when the US was fighting the Vietnam war – they were bombing the Kampucheans too – a war that was fought ‘secretly’).

When Pot took over, mass killing was adopted as a nation building tool. Pot believed he was on a journey to change Kampuchea and make it self-sufficient.

As we walked, we suddenly embarked upon a tree used to execute children. Kids often accompanied their parents as they were brought to those camps and were immediately separated from them after the initial documentation and were systematically killed in the most brutal ways that often included holding them by their foot and hammering their heads on that tree trunk. The process was often repeated till they were confirmed dead. The ones who were a little heavier would be blind folded and made to sit facing the tree and then killed by hammering their craniums with a heavy instrument. Usually, the instruments included hand held ploughs from the paddy fields and hammer.

While the kids were being killed, the adults were first blindfolded and made to sit near the graves. Then the sepoys would kill them too by hammering their skulls before finally burying them. In most cases, the victims were asked to dig their own graves before dates on which their killing was due. So, every time prisoners got selected for digging activities, they knew that their life was short lived. Soon after the prisoners would arrive at a concentration camp they would be handed over a number as their identity. That would remain as their identity till the time they would be executed.

Like all other communist dictators, Pol Pot preferred seamless execution of his orders. For everything that his men did, there was a drafted process drawn well in advance. Killing was then a part of central activity and therefore that too was conducted with impeccable precision and with utmost confidentiality. Every victim had to undergo a rigorous numbering and documentation (including photograph) process before execution. As the executions took place, a loud speaker tied to a tree would play patriotic songs to cover their screams. That tree was called ‘The magic tree’.

As we moved around, we came across more wearables showing up from the ground. Human skulls, bones, teeth and bullets lay scattered. The present government has turned this place into a museum. In the middle, they have constructed a beautiful temple that preserves all human skulls that have got excavated. The list of which is ever increasing with more skeletons getting discovered every second day. The local belief is that there would be hundreds of similar locations scattered around the country that haven’t got discovered yet. Almost every skull bore a hole or a crack stating the style in which the executions must have taken place.

Heaps of human teeth that was found after the mass grave was discovered.
Heaps of human bones that was also found after the mass grave was discovered.

There were innumerable such fields discovered in Cambodia post Pol Pot’s regime. Official execution estimates claim that during those fateful years almost 2 million people got executed. Khmer Rouge trial confessions claim that Pol Pot never accepted his deeds barring a mere mention of ‘some’ mistakes being committed. Like Hiter, Pol Pot too always put nationalism on the top of his agenda. The ethnic cleansing was then also considered necessary as the wand for social change. Cooking at home was considered a national crime and people were supposed to consume food at public kitchens. An exception to this rule was rewarded with execution. Foreign medicines were banned and people died from diseases as basic as malaria. The educated population – lawyers, doctors, engineers were made to work in paddy fields as forced labourers. Any resistance was countered with imprisonment, torture and execution. For majority of those who landed up in the fields and couldn’t bear the sudden change in their life style perished in no time. All such steps were being undertaken to attain economic self-sufficiency.

Building number 2 of the prison S-21 covered with barbed wire.

As I walked around, my mind was flushed with strange similarities in which dictators rise and their similar thought processes. Hitler in his book ‘Mein Kampf’ has written about his beginning and how desperately he tried to pursue academics in fine arts and architecture before being dumped by every college. Similarly Pol Pot too had returned back to Cambodia after a series of academic failures in France. Like their operational styles, their fates too were also very similar. While Hiltler’s controversial death occurred when the dictator committed suicide inside his bunker, unofficial sources claim that Pol Pot too died after being poisoned by his own confidantes while under house arrest. (official records however, claim Pot’s death as natural).A few kilometers away from the Killing fields, is a school which later got converted into a prison camp (known as S-21) by the Pot brigade. Currently the government has opened it for public viewing and calls it the ‘Genocide Museum’. A visit would make one experience and visualise torture of unsurmountable proportions. It’s hard to believe that such heinous acts occurred while the rest of the world slept at peace.

Wooden prison cells on the top floor of Building -2. Different floors had different cells each with a different design – for a different purpose.
Before S-21 came into existence, the building was a primary school. These chalk boards have remained since then. They are still there inside the torture centres.

As we moved from one room to another, we could still notice the chalkboards which were once used to teach young minds. The same rooms were later converted by Khmer regime into prison cells. The wooden swing poles where the students once used to play were later converted into gallows by the jail administrators. The entire campus was cordoned off with barbed wire and the inmates were expected to maintain ‘pin-drop’ silence to keep the entire activity out of the public glare. Noise if made by any inmate was rewarded with extreme torture.

As mentioned earlier, Pot believed in flawless planning and execution. The same approach was visible even inside this prison camp. There are three buildings inside this campus and every building had a purpose. In fact, every floor had a different planning with it. Some floors were used for mass imprisonment where hundreds of inmates were put into one room barely leaving a place to move. Legs of inmates were jointly shackled which prevented them to stand. The inmates were provided with a wooden box where they were supposed to pass their biological wastes all within the same room. Modesty was then – a farfetched dream.

A torture centre inside building number 1 of S-21 with an iron bed where the victims were shackled and a table and chair where they were made to sign their confessions. If they refused they were tortured. Once they would sign, then they were executed.

Other rooms were used as single occupant torture cells where the inmates were tied with iron shackles and were tortured on regular intervals every day. Since the norm was to maintain silence, the inmates had to be careful with their shackles. Often as an effect of extreme pain the inmates tried to change their sleeping postures to avoid pressure on their injured parts resulting into noise from their shackles – and invited further torture. In case, the inmates passed out outside the box, they were asked to clean it with their tongue. The inmates were also not allowed to cry or shout during lashes or electrification torture sessions.

Iron shackle where victims legs were tied throughout their tenure in the torture centre.
Writing on the wall by a convict
Writing on the wall by a convict
Writing on the wall by a convict
Writing on the wall by a convict

An article by Dacil Keo, a prime witness and author to the executive proceedings that later took place states – “Although prisoners often had no idea why they have been arrested, interrogators forced them to confess their crimes. If they did not confess, they would be tortured. However, after confessing they were marked for execution. Initially prisoners were killed on the grounds of the prison, but as the mass and stench of the corpses rapidly increased and became unbearable, prisoners were then transported to the killing fields at Choeung Ek.”

As we moved around the location, we were guided by a recorded voice. As per the guided voice, one of the common torture methods to make convicts sign the confession draft was by hanging them upside down and then suffocating them by forcing their heads inside man size tumblers filled with human excreta. This process continued till they were ready to confess.

Iron shackle with which convicts were chained inside their cells.
A child convict who was later executed.
This is a rare photograph of a convict during her initial photograph session at the time of entry in the prison. Its said that during this session she had her child on her lap. Soon after the session was over, the child was removed from her and was executed. After some days and torture she was executed too.
A little girl convict who was executed too.

About such 20,000 inmates were taken into custody in S-21 out of which only a few survived. During my visit, I was able to meet Chum May one of the surviving inmates. Chum was is also a key witness at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal – a joint special tribunal supported by United Nations to try senior leaders and those “most responsible,” like Kiang Guek Eav, known as Duch, on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and other charges.

Chum May’s official confession to the Tribunal an excerpt after the judge pointed out a missing nail on his toe – “And the nail was gone?”- (the judge asked) – “Yes, the nail was completely detached from my toe. They twisted the nail with pliers and as it didn’t come off, they pulled it out”. Then the judge further asked – Do you mean the whole nail was pulled or only part of it? – “The whole nail” – Chum had responded. Chum in his book has also mentioned his own story where he had heard his pregnant wife scream while being executed. He was in hiding and had to run for his life as a capture would have earned him the same fate. It now might appear selfish – but suppression and scare of abnormal proportions often turns the human mind numb.

With Chum May, one of the survivors who was lucky to have escaped death at S-21.

Such were the days during Khmer Rouge. Historically whenever human oppression has been adopted as a nation building process, it has always been counterproductive. If one pays heed to lessons learnt from Germany and Cambodia – the only form of productive nationalism is probably the one that upholds humanity. I surely agree with Kim. This experience will always be hard to forget.