Remnants of a Genocide

Trip Start Sep 18, 2006
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Thursday, December 21, 2006

We travelled back to Phnom Penh with our favourite taxi companions, Ingrid and Rob.  When you talk about a taxi Cambodian style, the orthodox seating arrangement is - four in the back, two in the passenger seat and one on the driver's lap. After our shared experience of battling with taxi drivers, we made sure that we negotiated a price up front for the whole taxi.

The roads are incredibly poor in Cambodia - amongst the worst in the world - as a legacy of war and lack of maintainence. We've seen a lot of signs claiming that loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are being spent on roadworks, but apart from the occassional steamroller, there is very little evidence of much being done. 

We had left two more things to see as we went through the capital - the two memorials to the Cambodian genocide in the city, the S-21 Tuol Sleng Extermination Centre, and the Cheung Ek Killing Fields. These two sites are a memorial to the victims of a horror that defies belief which occurred between 1975 and 1979 in Cambodia. After the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, the country closed its doors to the outside world, and a purge occurred that saw an estimated 2 million Cambodians murdered - 30% of the population.

The one emotion that the visits bring out in you is one of utter despair. Tuol Sleng was formerly a school, and upon arrival in the serene, sunlit courtyard, it looks perfectly innocuous. You only have to turn the corner to see a whole building covered with barbed wire, the gallows set up in the playground, or enter one of the classrooms to see a horrendous torture device devised from an old metal bed.

The Khmer Rouge had turned this into an efficient killing centre, which processed 20,000 people. Only seven survived. Their ordeals were meticulously recorded by the officials who ran the centre, and the most enduring and haunting image is of the thousands of pictures of the faces of the victims plastered on the walls throughout the school buildings. Photographed upon arrival and sometimes after torture, the expressions on the faces range from down-right terrified to hysterical.

The Killing Fields is where many of the prisoners at S-21 were sent to be executed. The sites of the mass graves were preserved - these muddy red ditches held hundreds of bodies of Cambodians viciously murdered in the night. A elegant white stupa now holds the bones and clothes of many of the bodies excavated at Cheung Ek.  

Memorials such as these are suppose to prompt us to remember the lessons of history to prevent systematic mass murder in a civilised world. However, since Cambodia - Rwanda, East Timor, Bosnia, and the ongoing situation in Sudan are reminders of the continued failure to check the darkest, most evil impulses of the human soul.
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