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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
This artical is about a museum in Cambodia that try's to document the madness and horror's of the Khmer genocide on the 70's. I remember back then on the total silence of the left and the democrats about this. Some of them even blame the US for the genocide. I pondered on what forum I should post this in, and I selected the "modern" era simply because this was the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war.

Looking at the slide show of some of the faces of the victims is haunting. Like looking at the pictures of the jews in the camps.

Portraits of Pain - Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone From Yahoo! News
Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam)

Portraits of Pain
The Khmer Rouge killed as many as two million people during its reign over Cambodia. But at S-21 prison its leaders ensured the legacy of their genocide.
By Kevin Sites, Mon Jul 10, 7:08 PM ETEmail Story IM Story

Note: Though Cambodia is not an active conflict, Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone believes it is important to examine the country's brutal past under the Khmer Rouge. In focusing on the lessons learned and the lingering problems, we'll explore how the conflict is reflected in Cambodia today.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - By the sheer number of photographs now displayed at the former prison known as S-21, it is clear the Khmer Rouge was very good at two things: killing people and documenting the lives of its victims.

Here, in what is now a museum called Tuol Sleng ("poisonous hill" in English), the faces of the Cambodian genocide are much more than memories.

Visitors walking through the hallways of this former high school turned prison must confront the pain, uncertainty and fear of thousands of victims looking back at them from the black and white photographs taken by prison guards. It was a methodical process. The victims were positioned in a specially constructed chair with a boom arm that steadied their heads before the photograph was taken.

Detailed histories were written for each prisoner, covering their lives from childhood up until their arrest. They were stripped of all their possessions and clothes, leaving them with only their underwear. Some were chained to the floor in tiny individual cells, forced to defecate in ammunition cans. Others were held in groups in open classrooms with one or both legs shackled to larger iron bars on the floor, similar to the method used to immobilize captives on slave ships sailing to the Americas from Africa.

But S-21 wasn't a killing factory. It was a holding area and a place to extract confessions.

True to the Khmer Rouge's communist utopian vision of beating the nation back into a purely peasant agrarian society, the killings took place in the countryside: extermination camps or "killing fields" like Choeung Ek just outside the capital of Phnom Penh.
It's estimated that as many as two million people were killed during the reign of the enigmatic Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, "Brother Number one." His regime lasted — as so many Cambodians know by heart — three years, eight months and 21 days, until the Vietnamese Army invaded, forcing the Khmer Rouge back into the jungle where they first began.

S-21, short for for Security Office 21, was one of the most secret departments of the Khmer Rouge regime. It had several branches, including the current Tuol Sleng location, where the primary purpose was the detention, interrogation and eventual extermination of suspected counter-revolutionary elements.

Most of the 17,000 processed through S-21 were killed. But those who perished on-site died from torture, sickness or disease. Those who lived long enough to "confess" were sent elsewhere to be murdered. The people held at S-21 were Cambodians of all ages, from all walks of life. Because families were arrested all together, this included children and even babies.

Foreigners were also imprisoned, including Vietnamese, Laotians, Indians, Pakistanis, British, Americans, New Zealanders and Australians. Like most Cambodians, 48-year-old Pen Palla, a guide at the museum (not her real name; she says she still fears Khmer Rouge elements in the government) had family members killed by the Khmer Rouge.

The litany of her personal loss is staggering. She says her husband was killed by a bamboo stake driven through his head; her infant daughter died from starvation, her infant son from illness; her brothers were executed in the killing fields of Choeung Ek. The burden of death still weighs on her heavily. In the strangely serene grassy courtyard of the museum she rubs her face with her hands. Looking into the darkness, the sadness of the past, she still finds little relief all these years later.

She says she began working at the museum as a cleaning woman in 1980 when it first opened, because her sister, then the director of historical documents at Tuol Sleng, asked her to. "I told her," she says, shaking her head, "I don't want to work here, it makes me too sad." But she says she finally relented because in the wake of the conflict, having no husband and no means of support, she needed the work. "I cried every day for the first eight months I worked here," she says, "remembering my daughter and my son."

As she began to learn English, Pen Palla says she transitioned into the role of a guide at Tuol Sleng, now making the cycle from the interrogations rooms to the holding cells, and past the faces of the victims over and over again. Tours cost $2 to $8, depending on the size of the group.

It is a sobering experience for the fifty or so visitors that come to the museum each day. Many that I spoke to said they didn't know much about the genocide but felt it would be wrong to visit Cambodia without paying respect to its tragic history and the victims of its genocide. For some, it also raises questions both about the past and the present.

"When this was going on," says 23-year-old Canadian Aaron Johnson, "it makes you wonder why the world wasn't more motivated for some kind of humanitarian intervention."

"And the question of genocide seems to keep coming up," adds Gabrielle Donnelly, 23, also of Canada. "What about places like Darfur? After World War II, we said we wouldn't let genocide happen again, but it seems like it's still with us."

At Tuol Sleng, remembering the victims » View

And like other past genocides, the question of how this could happen still hangs over Cambodia. Although there are few clear answers, there are some clues provided by S-21.
Many of the prison guards here were just children themselves, usually between the ages of 10 and 15, sometimes picked out from other camps. Literature from Tuol Sleng says the children usually started out quite normal but increased in their remorseless cruelty towards those they were charged with minding. Eventually these children were often killed themselves by other children that replaced them.

Prisoners had to ask permission to do anything — from going the bathroom to even moving their bodies. Failure to obey immediately would result in savage beatings with electrical wire or electric shock. The regulations were posted in each cell, some of them even detailing how prisoners should behave during torture. For example:

"Rule #6 - While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all."

And torture at S-21 took all forms.

"Sometimes victims would be shackled to the floor," says guide K. Eolundi, pointing to a painting by Vann Nath depicting the torture. Nath was a former prisoner at S-21 and one of the few survivors. "The guards would cut off their nipples with these clamps."

Nineteen-year-old Megan Sanders, from the United Kingdom, winces at the description.

In the same room is a large wooden box in which prisoners would be shackled face down. Then, the box would be filled with water until they could no longer raise their heads high enough to breathe.

On the grounds outside there is what looks like a large wooden goal post with pulleys on the crossbeam. Here, the guide says, prisoners were hoisted up by the back of their arms, which caused excruciating pain, often dislocating the shoulders. According to the placard beside it, if prisoners still refused to talk, the guards would force their heads into a large clay urn filled with animal excrement.

At the end of the tour, Sanders says she's shocked by what she's seen. Her traveling companions agree. "We didn't really learn about this in school," says Lisa Frost, 18, also of the U.K. "What little I did know mostly came from seeing the film 'The Killing Fields.'" The young women said they had read about Tuol Sleng in Cambodian guidebooks, but the primary reason they came was because other travelers had told them about it.

With the thorough documentation of their victims, the Khmer Rouge themselves ironically helped to put a human face on the atrocities they perpetrated. But now time itself has become an enemy. Without proper chemicals and temperature-controlled storage, many of the documents and photographs of those who passed through S-21 are beginning to yellow and fade. Museum directors say they fear that without adequate funding to preserve them they could eventually be lost — and the history with them.

The museum is seeking international support to refurbish the decaying buildings and preserve the historical documents it contains.

While the memories of the Cambodian genocide have been burned deeply into the minds of those who lived through it, like Pen Palla, many here feel that future generations will need a reminder: unforgettable images like those at Tuol Sleng, faces of victims captured by their killers, reflecting the horror of their time.
Here is another story about the killing fields of Cambodia.

The Killing Field - Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone From Yahoo! News

The Killing Field
Choeung Ek was only one of many killing fields during the Cambodian genocide, but its pagoda full of skulls has become the most poignant symbol of justice delayed.
By Kevin Sites, Wed Jul 12, 1:02 PM ETEmail Story IM Story

Note: Though Cambodia is not an active conflict, Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone believes it is important to examine the country's brutal past under the Khmer Rouge. In focusing on the lessons learned and the lingering problems, we'll explore how the conflict is reflected in Cambodia today.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - The staggering crime of 17,000 murders could not be buried in the orchards of Choeung Ek for long, although the Khmer Rouge did try.

Here in a quiet field 15 kilometers from Phnom Penh, the ground is pitted with 129 mass graves where men, women and children were tossed after most had been killed by bludgeoning with rifle butts, bamboo stakes and logs — to save bullets. It is difficult to fathom, but some who were there and survived describe babies being tossed in the air and caught on the end of rifle bayonets by sadistic Khmer Rouge executioners.

But nature, it seems, was a witness to these deeds, not an accomplice. The shallow graves easily exposed the horrors beneath. One year after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, 86 of the graves were eventually dug up and the bodies of 9,000 people exhumed. Most were blindfolded and bound. Forty-three other graves have been left untouched to this day.

The people that were executed here primarily had been transported from the infamous S-21 prison, a former high school in Phnom Penh that the Khmer Rouge transformed into a gallery of horrors, photographing their captives for documentation, then shackling them together or placing them in stalls like animals. They tortured them horribly to extract confessions, then sent them here, to Choeung Ek, to be executed.

From 1975 to 1979, until they were driven from power by the invading Vietnamese Army, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated two million people in killing fields like this across Cambodia. To this day no Khmer Rouge leader has ever seen the inside of a courtroom for these crimes. An international tribunal, long in the making between the Cambodian government and the United Nations, is just now being formed.

So justice, it seems, painfully slow to be served, must be buttressed for now with symbols of remembrance and respect for the suffering of so many. In that effort, Choeunk Ek, like S-21, has been turned into a memorial to the genocide. It has become the nation's most unforgettable, because of the brutality that was done here. Mao Thel lost his mother, father and uncle in the Khmer Rouge killings. He says it's possible that his own family is among those that were killed and buried here.

He has worked for years at Choeung Ek, giving tours to the dozens of people who visit here every day: foreign tourists mostly, who, like at Auschwitz or Buchenwald, are quickly confronted by the magnitude of the inhumanities that took place here. Standing amidst the shallow pits, now covered with grass, is a white pagoda covered by glass on all four sides. It looks to be at least 70 feet high. Inside the pagoda are ten separate wooden platforms, stacked to the top of the structure. Arranged on these platforms, according to sex and age, are the skulls of eight thousand of the 17,000 victims murdered at Choeung Ek.

"This one was killed by electric wire," says Mao, pointing out skulls on the first platform of the pagoda to six young men and women from the United Kingdom. "This one was killed with a bamboo stake through the head and this one by a (garden) hoe." He raises the last skull to show how it was split completely in half.

The tourists look at the skulls in stunned silence. It is almost impossible to stop looking at them, to first take them in as a whole, a mass of textures. Rows and rows of round, brown, white and gray are an army not of soldiers but of victims — an army of death.
I watch the tourists as they look up and down the platforms, trying to comprehend that there are nine more levels above the one in front of them — the skulls of children and adults, girls and boys, women and men.

On the floor beneath the first platform are some of the clothes the victims were wearing when they were killed. It reminds me of a memorial at a school in Rwanda I visited early in the Hot Zone project. There, victims' clothes were hung across a wire near where their bodies were exhumed following that genocide. The smell of the clothes somehow forced me to see people when looking at the remains — not just bodies, not just victims.

Inside the glass-lined pagoda, the clothes and skulls are open and exposed on their platforms. You can touch them, pick them up and stare closely if you feel the need. There is little separation from the living and dead. Standing inside the pagoda I begin to understand that whether intended or not, this memorial is not a museum piece. Detaching yourself from this tragedy is not an option.

Here, inside this place, while you look at them, eight thousand skulls look back at you from empty eye sockets, asking you to see more than just their deaths, but their lives. They once knew laughter and breakfast, the feel of rain and the taste of tea. It was these things they were robbed of and these things they seem to ask you to remember, so that they are more than statistics of a heinous crime, more than skulls on a platform.

In the landscape around the pagoda, other visitors walk between the graves from small shrines filled with bones and teeth to placards, explaining in Khmer and English what took place at the specific locations. One placard reads that a tree stump is the site where Khmer Rouge soldiers smashed the heads of children. Another, called the "magic tree", reads that microphones were draped over the branches to amplify the moans of agony from those being killed.

It is hard to walk away from Choeung Ek unmoved, to know what has happened here, to see the evidence, to honor the loss — but also to wonder, almost three decades later, if justice lies amongst those bones.
Yeah and all the mutha f#ckers that previously said the domino theory was nonsense were whistling and looking innocent.

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