Trompe le Monde: A Round the World Tour Diary

An online travel diary so people can keep up to date with what I'm doing and where I'm going.

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Location: Home, United Kingdom

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Monday, January 31, 2005

Phnom Penh and Khmer Rouge Prison S-21

Still in Phnom Penh, but since I didn't really have a chance to say what it's like yesterday, having only just arrived, I feel that today I should remedy this. After all, I've now been here for just over 24 hours, more than enpugh time for snap judgements!

So far, PP (as I will hereafter be referring to it) seems pretty damn run down, but also strangely expensive. I don't really understand how food and the like can cost quite a bit more here than it does in Vietnam, yet the roads and so on are generally in a state of disrepair, only main roads being anything more than dirt tracks. The plus side, though, is that there is more variety and better tasting food here than anywhere else in the region. Where before we've survived almost exclusively on a diet of noodle soup, here I've been eating fried shrimp with noodles, spicy eel with rice, and all manner of other weird and wonderful dishes. It's been dead good.

Thusly Phnom Penh is ugly and expensive, but has lots of hidden beauty. Like Wayne Rooney. Perhaps.


Right, on to the next. In case anyone is unaware, from 1975 to 1979 Cambodia was ruled by ultra-Maoist organisation the Khmer Rouge. Under the command of "Brother Number 1" Pol Pot, they instigated a shocking and brutal regime, attempting to transform Cambodia into a Communist Agrarian Collective almost overnight. This involved forcefully transporting millions of people out of cities and putting them to work on farms. It also involved, as these things generally do, mass murder of many innocent people. During the four years they were in charge, it's estimated that the Khmer Rouge butchered somewhere between 750,000 and 3,000,000 people. A large number on it's own, but when you consider the population of Cambodia is only about 13 million today, it must have been a large proportion of people. Many of them were executed by being beaten to death with clubs in the fields just outside of Phnom Penh, their bodies rolled into unmarked mass graves. Most of those victims would have been incarcerated first at Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21 (the S stands for secret) Khmer Rouge prison. Today we went there, to see the museum they have now set up in the grounds (which used to be school grounds before 1975) to remember and honour the dead and attempt to bring those responsible to justice.

When you first arrive at Tuol Sleng, it's very hard to get a sense of the horror of the interrogations and torture that occurred there. All you see in Block A is bare rooms with beds in them, and of course, these items in themselves are not horrific. The horror comes from the actions that took place in the rooms, not the rooms themselves.

Block B, however, starts to bring it all home. This contains hundreds of mugshots of prisoners, taken by the Khmer Rouge before the prisoner was incarcerated, tortured and eventually killed. The photos are in black and white, and feature just the head of the victim, facing the camera, generally expressionless. Every one of the people photographed is now dead, having been tortured and possibly (in the case of the women) raped by the security guards. What is most upsetting about the photographs is the eyes. Looking at a board covered with hundreds of pictures, their faces begin to look alike, they all blur into one mass of humanity. But the eyes speak out clearly, looking straight back into the camera and, thirty or so years later, at the person looking at the photograph. All that now remains of the people in the pictures is the hollow glare of the windows of their soul.

Blocks C and D contained the cells used to hold the prisoners, varying in three types. Brick cells, hastily built in the classrooms, around 1m by 3m in size, on the bottom floor. Wooden cells, slightly smaller than the brick ones, on the middle floor. And, on the top floor, the mass detention cells, just classrooms with iron bars in them, to which up to 20 or so people were manacled. The rules were, basically (there were a lot of them but they tended to repeat themselves) lie still, shut up, do what I say immediately, or suffer the consequences. Prisoners weren't allowed to shift position in order to be able to sleep more comfortably on the bare floors without asking permission of the guards, who themselves were generally children with guns.

The paranoia and fear that cause man's inhumanity to man is a powerful force, and it's a somewhat sobering thought that human rights abuses such as those that took place here still go on in the world today (Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib?). It's places like these that remind me how lucky I am to live (usually, I mean) in the relatively stable environs of Western Europe, while also feeling sorry for the mass of people crushed under the feet of tyranny and opression throughout history, leaving nothing but a pair of eyes staring out accusingly at a world that didn't do enough to protect them.

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