Friday, June 8, 2012


This isn't a book review.  Not long ago I was lucky enough to visit Thailand, Lao, Vietnam and Cambodia. A wonderful, beautiful, vibrantly colourful part of the world.

I knew about the history of the region. I grew up to the backdrop of the Vietnam War on the telly.  My country conscripted young men and forced them into National Service. Many lives were ruined and lost. As a teenager I supported the anti-war movement in that vague semi-informed way that young teens will do . Had my husband been just a year older he too may have been caught up in the draft.

We saw reminders of the war everywhere. The engine of a downed B52 in the middle of a pond in the cente of Hanoi.  The infamous Hanoi Hilton, the Cu Chi tunnels that were so effective in thwarting the US war effort, old bomb craters, but nowhere were these reminders of the recent past so stark and moving as in Cambodia.

I won't go into history here. I'm not an expert.  There are numerous sources that can talk about the what, why and when with far greater knowledge than I possess.

What I want to talk about is the effect Cambodia seems to have had on me. I visited in April as a tourist. In Phnom Penh we had what our tour guide dubbed  "misery afternoon" first a visit to the infamous Tuol Sleng, the High School in Phnom Penh that was turned into a "detention centre"  Photos of prisoners. Hundreds and hundreds of them. All of them "executed".  Men, women and children; staring out at us in black and white. Some wide-eyed with fear and panic. Others seemingly resigned. One young man even managed a slight shy smile.  On the tiled floor of the former classrooms are many dark stains.  The blood of those condmned to be sent there

It is estimated that between 17,000 - 20,000 prisoners found themselves in Tuol Sleng. Of those there were only 7 known survivors.. All but two of whom are now dead.  We were lucky enough to meet one of the surviving two the day we visited. He is now elderly and spends much of his time there meeting people, and selling books and magazines about the prison and his experience in order to supplement the all to meagre pension that was awarded to him by the Cambodian Government.

If I thought that was bad it was nothing to what confronted us when we visited Choeung Ek -one of the Killing Fields.  There are an estimated 20,000 bodies on this site. Serious excavation ceased some years ago, but because of the seasonal nature of the rains, remains are constantly coming to the surface. On our walk around the site we saw part of the top of a skull sitting on the ground. A partial lower jaw bone with teeth poking out of the surface, numerous fragments - probably from limbs, and rotting pieces of clothing.

There is a large pyramid-like structure there with glass sides; several stories of the remains of vicitms of the murderous paranoia of the Khymer Rouge/Pol Pot Regime.

Around the site are a couple of glass cases which hold other remains discovered since the completion of the main memorial. One of them; about the size of a fish tank, has clothing. The most poignant of which are a pair of intact purple shorts - child-sized.

You see, they didn't just murder men and women. Innocent children were killed as well. Mostly, it seems because keeping them alive was an inconvenience. They would have had to be fed and sheltered.

Most of the killing occurred under cover of darkness to a soundtrack of blaring loudspeakers to try and drown out the screaming. Not for them the quick bullet to the brain.  That would have made too much noise. Instead most were executed with sharpened gardening implements. Shovels, mattocks and the like. Some poor souls had their throats cut with the razor sharp-edges of sugar palm fronds.

There is a crater - an excavated pit where the bodies of several hundred women and children were found. Every one of them naked.

But the worst, the very worst was the tree. I can't remember what sort of tree. Its trunk is fairly substantial and snagged on the bark are hundreds upon hundreds of those colourful cord bracelets that are given out when being blessed by a buddhist monk. They are there to pay respects to many tiny ones who died at that spot. How? They were taken by their feet and their little heads bashed against that tree.

Tragic, terrible, brutal.  Horrifying to even contemplate, how can man do that to someone else? What makes it more horrifying was that most of those so-called executioners were little more than children themselves.  Removed from anything resembling family life and indoctrinated at an early age, they were the just right for the purpose.

It was awful at the time. It was upsetting but I was OK. I was OK yesterday and I suspect I'll be just fine tomorrow, but today for some reason its haunting me, and I feel compelled to write something down.

There is so much more I could say. I could talk about how just about everyone you meet in Cambodia lost someone near and dear to them. Numbers are irrelevent. In terms of per head of population the number of lives lost in the insanity of the 5 years of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge far eclipse the Nazis or Stalinist Soviet Union. 

Do I regret visiting those sights of these unimaginable atrocities? No I don't. I'm glad I went.  Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it..
Lest we forget.


Tobi-Jayne Lloyd said...

Brilliantly written Sunnie. I've always wanted to go to Cambodia, mainly to visit the temples, I had no idea about how many tragic stories lay in Cambodia, a downfall of my age I guess.

Sunnie Gill said...

Thanks Tobi-Jayne. Don't get me wrong. Cambodia was brilliant and Angkor Wat is truly a wonder. A bucket list item ticked off for me, but it is worth reading up on the country and it's history and in a strange way, what happened there in the 70's isn't completely out of context with the rest of its history.

A really readable book on the subject is The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop

Anonymous said...

Powerful, Sunnie.