If you’re of a certain age and British, you’ll remember first hearing about Cambodia in the context of the Killing Fields and Pol Pot’s murderous regime in the 1970s. In my own case it was principally through the children’s television programme Blue Peter, which in its long history has never shied away from introducing adult themes to the very young. There were various fund raising campaigns on the back of that programme, the Bring and Buy sales across the country included a couple organised by my mother, which either points to it affecting me at the time, or more likely my mother – and parents up and down the country – seeing the reports and having the desire to do something to help.
Many visitors to Cambodia do seek out the memorials to what happened, when anything up to 3 million people died, some from the catastrophe of disease and famine that followed, many if not most deliberately murdered in the name of a fanatical doctrine of agrarian socialism that was intended to reset the clock to year zero.
It’s easy to be cynical about the wish to see the evidence of such hideous events, or to consider it a form of voyeurism, but it would be wrong to do so. It surely speaks to the very essence of humanity to wish to understand what happened, and in the smallest possible way to pay tribute to the victims and express the revulsion of the normal person at the barbarity that sadly so often plagues our species. Genocide happens when people cease to be people and become things, to be disposed whenever the whim arises.
There are two sites that tend to be the most commonly visited. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the centre of the city wasn’t a place where people died, except inadvertently, but it was the interrogation centre and torture facility known as Security Prison 21, or S-21. The cells have been largely preserved as they were prior to the Vietnamese invasion that halted the genocide in 1979. Of the approximately 20,000 people who were sent for interrogation, it’s thought that only seven survived the genocide, a figure that in itself is simply staggering. Only two of those are thought to still be alive and can be seen near the exit most days selling their books of the experience. Lest this be thought to be somehow cashing in, these are now old people, and it’s their means of contributing to their families. There’s no social security support to be had here, there’s just nothing else for them to do.
Perhaps the most haunting element of what’s there is the seemingly endless display of photographs of those who were put through the ordeal. Knowing all of the faces across the wall were murdered is chilling and shocking.
The second site most often visited is the Choeung Ek extermination camp, about a 50 minute drive from the city depending on traffic. It was here that was located one of the hundreds of Killing Fields so notorious of the time, in this instance where nearly 9,000 were murdered. Perhaps most striking is that despite so many people coming, there is near silence. Conversation is in whispers, particularly in the memorial Buddhist stupa built to commemorate those who were killed and which displays thousands of skulls with coloured dots denoting how they were killed. These people have never been identified. The mass graves across the country themselves still yield items of clothing or remains, particularly after heavy rain. It is a place to feel both deep sadness and extraordinary anger.
If the two sites weren’t enough, I was there in company with a Cambodian colleague who was a child during the period in question. He fled with his family but they were separated as he was told by his father to run. He’s never seen any of them since and despite regular trips to Kampot to try to determine their fate, has found nothing. Put to work on a farm he subsequently lost his closest friend to sickness as the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed. He’s built a life for himself, because what else is there to do? But as a guide taking visitors to these sites he must re-live the hell of the times repeatedly, something that is hard to contemplate. As we talked to each other and became firmer friends he explained his experience. He didn’t go through the interrogation camps and certainly not the Killing Fields, but the desperation of never knowing what happened to his loved ones was more than clear forty years later, as was the deep distress I caused him when he related the story to me. For that, I felt and feel dreadful despite his determination to tell the story, a single question that led to a 20 minute explanation, filled with anger, bewilderment and tears. Yet he said that it was important to him that the story be told especially to foreigners, and I think by that stage he trusted me enough to tell it.
There was no embellishment, no experience other than the same gone through by hundreds of thousands of his peers. That in itself makes it even worse if possible, and one of the most harrowing listens of my life. Yet my own sadness and tears would not help anyone, and perhaps the only thing I can do to recognise it is to pass on his story, and say that I like this man immensely and am filled with admiration for what he has achieved as an adult.
There’s a coda to this. That afternoon Phnom Penh time the British and Irish Lions kicked off the first Test against the All Blacks (this is rugby union for the uninitiated). He came with me to an Irish bar to watch the first few minutes. The haka had him smiling and laughing, the game itself utterly entranced. Liam Williams’ extraordinary counterattack finished off by Sean O’Brien had him leaping in the air with delight, and a new rugby fan was born. It may seem trite to note the contrast in moods, but the simple joy of life is perhaps the most important thing there can be.
There are no photographs of my visit to the two sites. I don’t think there should be. Tourists will go, and so they should. It’s not enjoyable in any way, it’s not even interesting in the normal sense of the word. But perhaps it’s a moral obligation. And overall, I think that’s about right. If you go to Phnom Penh – and you really should for all the right reasons – this is the part of it that is a human duty.