Since the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge, 40 years have passed, but the traces of terror are still all present.
The Khmer Rouge found support in the Vietnamese who used the Ho Chi Minh trail on Cambodian territory. This brought the Americans on the scene, who supported the coup by General Lon Nol against President Sihanouk, to extensively bombard large areas the northeast of Cambodia.
This bombardment killed some 200,000 lives and drove the rural population en mass into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, who wanted to set up an agrarian communism. The Khmer Rouge saw the causes of the poverty of the country in the differences between town and rural population.
Therefore, they wanted to strengthen the rural population. Moreover, they were highly nationalistic oriented and saw in every stranger (foreigner, a member of a foreign ethnicity) a creature that has to be destroyed.
The Khmer Rouge marched in into Phnom Penh under the jubilation of the urban population on April 17th. The jubilation vanished quickly when the order was carried out to vacate the city of Phnom Penh and all provincial capitals within 48 hours.
The population was deported in forced marches to the countryside, whereat already thousands died of the hardships. Besides the aim of turning the society into an agrarian society there was a simple reason for this command. Until that time, the Americans provided care to the population of Phnom Penh, that was under the rule of Lon Nol. The children army of the Khmer Rouge was not able to it. There was food only in the countryside. There was food only in the countryside.
Money was abolished, books were burned and a security system was installed. In 12-hour shifts, the population had to work in agriculture. Teachers, merchants and intellectuals were executed. Banks, schools, hospitals and industrial and service companies were also closed. Religious practice was banned.
Since the target specifications pursued too ambitious goals, the population had to save when it comes to food. By a famine and missing medical support hundreds of thousands died. Also the fight against Vietnam resulted in many failures. The leadership reacted paranoid on the missed goals. Many leaders and members of the army disappeared due to sabotage and were executed.
During the 4-year rule of the Khmer Rouge, almost a third of the population of Cambodia lost their lives through forced labor and execution; these are approximately 2 million people.
S-21 (Tuol Sleng)
Everywhere, security offices were installed. These were prisons where the prisoners were interrogated and forced under torture to sign the most absurd confessions.
The most significant was S-21 Phnom Penh. One uses the buildings of the former Chao Ponhea Yat Highschool and the Boeung Keng Kang Primary School. The buildings were surrounded by a high wall with barbed wire and power lines. Screams of torture victims could not penetrate into the public, since Phnom Penh was a ghost town without inhabitants.
In one of the buildings, the covered veranda corridors had been equipped with barbed wire grids after some occupants were able to commit suicide by jumping into the deep. The interrogation rooms consisted of a metal bed with leg irons.
The cells were small with raw bricks and without inventory. In the courtyard stood a great gallow, where prisoners were pulled up, with their hands tied at the back, and were exposed headfirst in big containers with waste water to waterboarding.
Organizationally, S-21 was put under the authority of the Ministry of Defense. The Minister was Son Sen. The heads of S-21 were Dutch, Khim Vat aka Hor, Peng, Chan and Pon.
Especially intellectuals, political prisoners and party cadres were brought to S-21. As a rule, the arrests were not carried out publicly, most on a pretext, e.g. one shall go to the high school.
The persons were interviewed and photographed. Everything was logged and recorded in the files. Subsequently, the arrested person was handed over to the next unit, which was responsible for interrogation and torture. This unit was again divided into three units (cold unit, hot unit, chewing unit). The first interrogated and tortured, while the second and the third unit tried to lead the person with false claims to contradictions.
During the interrogations it was above all a question of who were their relatives and friends. Usually, the Khmer Rouge wanted this to kill all family members, because they feared a later revenge.
After the protocols were signed, the prisoners were released for execution. Approximately 14,000 people were imprisoned here. 7 of them survived the horror.
Today, S-21 is a genocide museum and a memorial place. Pictures of prisoners, victims, injured persons and interrogation practices make the anguish palpable in these premises.
During our visit we had the chance to meet 2 of the 7 survivors.
Chum Mey and Bou Meng
Chum Mey and Bou Meng both have a booth in S-21 and sell biographies which describe their lives. We purchased them, not without letting them sign the book.
Both men have lost their wives and children under the Khmer Rouge.
Chum Mey’s original profession was car mechanic. However, he could repair every type a technical equipment, e.g. typewriters, which were important to the Khmer Rouge. Bou Meng was a painter and could create lifelike portraits very well.
Both men owe the fact that they survived S 21 to these abilities. But it is interesting, that both have processed their experiences in different ways.
Chum Mey tries it more the Buddhist way. He has forgiven his tormentors. He argues that they only executed orders and if his tormentors would not have acted, they had also lost their lives. He adheres to the Khmer proverb: “If a mad dog bites you, don’t bite it back”.
Bou Meng fights, that the responsible parties of these massacres also are called to account. A first success for him was the international tribunal. In his book, he also calls many perpetrators by name and shows where they live today.
We tend to the opinion of Bou Meng. It can not be that no one is responsible for all the horror. It is not enough to condemn only a few leading cadres. The fact that many perpetrators live unmolested in the population, they are encouraged in their opinion that they did the right thing. Widespread corruption is a consequence of this action. The former victims will also be the victims in the new system.
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