Written still on the faces of the people, the horror of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime will outlive many of the 80 or so gruesome memorials to those years of ideological madness.
While Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng – the former high school known as S21- is, appropriately, the most educational memorial to four years of genocide, memorials big and small, garish, crude and poignant can be found in every region and province of Cambodia. This (opposite), like many, in the grounds of a small village temple, bears witness to the unimaginable: skulls staved in by the blunt end of coconut fronds so as to conserve ammunition.
From a population of less than 10 million, estimates of the terrible toll of death from this ‘experiment’ in creating an agrarian utopia between 1970-1979, range from 1.7 to 2.1 million people. Some fine, and remarkably restrained, memoirs of survivors describe life in the Killing Fields – the gulags of men, women and children who were evacuated from cities, towns, and villages in 1975. They attest to the fact that the horror was not of interrogation, torture chambers and gruesome death – though these were known of, and spoken about in terrified whispers – but that of the unremitting misery of months, years, living and working in the open – wet, sick and underfed, ones’ parents and children dying daily from over-work, malnutrition, malaria and exposure.
When Pol Pot’s cadres entered Phnom Penh in April 1975 they found the city crammed with hundreds of thousands of refugees from the countryside. These were the survivors of years of civil war, followed by US bombing strikes (in attempts to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail), that destroyed villages and irrigation systems with impartiality, and subsequent ground fighting which put an end to the safe-conduct of the business of everyday life.
It was a tragedy built on a tragedy, but the greatest tragedy of all is that, after 30 years, many of those in power today seem to have the same disregard for the rights of the masses as the devastatingly sincere Khmer Rouge ideologues, the only difference being in the amassing – rather than dissemination – of wealth.