Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Friday 17th September 2004

On Wednesday I renewed my acquaintance with the Mekong, arriving in Phnom Penh. That evening I strolled along the river front, a neat, well-kept strip. Flags and elaborate lamp posts line the water, while on the other side of the road, shops offer the usual services - 'Khmer Food Served Here', 'Phone/Internet Access', 'Welcome, Please Check Our Menu', along with the odd incongruity: 'We Make All Kinds of Coffin'. As well as the men lounging over motorbikes I had grown used to in Hanoi, there is also a proliferation of beggars and hawkers plying their trade - the majority of them children, or the physically disabled (or both).

Other parts of the city offer the same odd marriage between the grand and the destitute. Wide boulevards run the length of Phnom Penh, containing lofty neo-colonial facades and pleasantly landscaped pavements, while directly off these sprout small dirt tracks, cluttered with wooden shacks, cows and chickens.

Yesterday I rejected scooting around the city on a back of a motorbike, in favour of a taxi, which I commandeered for the day. The driver, Vannah, drove me 15km out of the city to the site of the killing fields at Cheoung Ek, the Khmer Rouge extermination camp closest to Phnom Penh - there are other killing fields dotted throughout the country. On walking into the site the visitor is immediately presented with the Memorial Stupa, a tall pagoda-like structure which contains a small glass box full of clothes and over 8,000 skulls. A path then leads to the site of the mass graves. Here, the track meanders around the edges of dozens of large holes, pits which have so far offered up the remains of nearly 9,000 people. Next to many of the graves are pots, into which newly unearthed bones are placed, some of them full. Half-buried pieces of coloured cloth liberally scatter the site, embedded in the earth, the remnants of the victims' clothes. And around the killing field children play and beg, offering to take tourists' photos ("Picture for money...1,2,3 smile, yes?") and cattle lazily chew the cud. As I was to realise later in the day, the real horror of Democratic Kampuchea can't be found here, despite the thousands bludgeoned to death. As another tourist I spoke to said, "Cheoung Ek is easy on the eye." He meant comparatively.

Vannah then suggested I should go and shoot some guns. I had read the Lonely Planet's disapproving lecture on the shooting ranges of Phnom Penh, which suggested these are underground organisations, where, for $100 tourists can machine gun a cow. That book is going straight in the bin. Although I felt a little uncomfortable given the morning's sight-seeing, I agreed with no reluctance and I was driven to a range near the airport on a military training base. I was unable to use the indoor range, as a delegation from the American embassy had booked it for the entire day, so, along with a Danish couple also there, I was to blaze away on a strip of land under the glaring sun, a long stretch of burnt grass leading up to a target depicting a swarthy looking gentleman advancing with a gun.

A man wearing the range's t-shirt, bearing the legend 'Mess With the Best, Die Like the Rest' handed me a K54 handgun. 8 shots later and the swarthy gentleman, apart from a wound in his shoulder, was looking a bit too healthy. The sights must have been off...

Then I was handed the AK-47 Kalashnikov, and with it 30 rounds. I lifted the gun to my shoulder - the metal was hot from the sun, and I felt the rawness as I lodged the butt into my still sunburnt shoulder. I lined up the sights and started shooting. Each time I pulled the trigger, a wisp of smoke rose from the weapon and I was greeted with the smell of cordite. The gun kicked back a bit, but not as much as I had expected, although when I took my t-shirt off later in the day, a small blotch of broken blood vessels showed where the gun had jolted back. After 10 or so rounds, I was having trouble - sweat poured into my eyes, and my right arm supporting the length of the AK was beginning to shake. The AK-47 is a lot heavier than any of the SA-80s or shotguns I have fired in the past, and eventually I decided to go down on one knee to shoot the remaining rounds, in order to support my weak arm. I have to admit that I wondered how the small child soldiers in the Congo handle such weapons. This time I was satisfied to get back a more impressively holed target, with some tight grouping around the chest area.

Later in the day I visited Tuol Sleng, the former high school the Khmer Rouge turned into S-21 Prison. It was from here that the dead at Cheoung Ek started their journey, although many never got that far, and after 1979 hundreds of bodies were exhumed from the grounds around the prison. From the outside the prison looks like a grim inner-city school, except more so, its walls dull and stained, the paint peeling. Once through the gates I was offered an English speaking guide to accompany me around part of the place. I'm glad I accepted as, although many of the rooms and pictures speak for themselves, the captions are in Khmer only and my guide explained them and gave extra information about S-21 and that time, including that her father and brother had been executed by Angkar.

The first classroom we entered set the tone for the whole compound. In it is a bare metal bed and resting on it some shackles and a jerry can. Above the bed on the wall is a large photo, taken by the invading Vietnamese forces in 1979 when they discovered the prison. It depicts the same bed, identifiable from unique bends in the metalwork. On the bed is the twisted corpse of a man, and on the man two birds peck away at his insides. In the other classrooms in this wing there are similar beds and similar images. By 1979 Khmer Rouge had started killing Khmer Rouge, the natural conclusion to four years of auto-genocide. The 14 bodies the Vietnamese found were the last inhabitants of the jail, and all Khmer Rouge.

Other buildings in Tuol Sleng contain instruments and descriptions of torture, including water barrels, scorpion and centipede cages and electric cables. Elsewhere remain the tiny cells the prisoners were kept in, shackled to the floor. One block remains exactly as it was, the front of the building covered in barbed wire, a crudely made wooden gate for entry - the wire was to stop prisoners jumping from the upper terraces to kill themselves. On the third floor of one building I watched a documentary about the prison and the rule of Angkar. As well as featuring an interview with one of the only 9 survivors of the prison and a former guard, it focused on a couple of inmates there, a husband and wife, and interviewed their ancient relatives in remote parts of the country, who until the making of the film were never certain what happened to their son and daughter.

But perhaps the most terrifying indication of the brutality and horror of S-21 and the Khmer Rouge's years in power are the photographs of the prisoners. Over 10,000 people were incarcerated here, and their photos are arranged in part by gender and age. The faces stare at the camera, some in open terror, others confusion. A few squint into the light, their blindfolds obviously just having been removed. Many appear to puff their chest out to the camera. Closer examination reveals this is because their hands are tied tightly behind their backs, while their heads are pushed forward, kept upright with a special adapted contraption. A woman, the wife of a former minister, cradles her baby, and looks morosely into the lens. If you look closely you can see a tear trickling down her face. In one section are the pictures of children, heart-rending photos of scared or oblivious faces; all the little girls, like the women, have their hair cut at shoulder length, in accordance with Angkar's instructions - Pol Pot was an ardent supporter of Mao's China and ordered the women to cut their hair as the Chinese communists did. The regime killed whole families, including children, so no one could seek revenge.

On other walls there are pictures of the foreigners tortured here, mostly businessmen caught out by the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. Other foreigners include Vietnamese soldiers captured towards the end of the Khmer Rouge's reign - a beautiful Vietnamese soldier looks defiantly at her photographer. She is distinguishable as Vietnamese on account of her long hair.

I went to Auschwitz a few years ago, a chilling place, despite the sunshine and the singing birds. But somehow here is more immediately horrifying. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it is because with unshaved heads, the Tuol Sleng victims are less dehumanised. Or maybe because this all happened so recently, or perhaps because this holocaust seems more base and earthy - most of the victims were bludgeoned to death with rifles or spades, sometimes sticks. This was to save ammunition.

In the evening, feeling sombre and also slightly chastened for my Rambo antics earlier in the day, I quietly ate a Khmer dish of fried rice and a pork sauce, which I had to eat with my hands. I chatted to the waitress as lightning silently flashed over the river.

63 - posted at 05:17:50

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