Saturday 26th January. Processing the Pol Pot years

Today was a rather odd day and somewhat of an emotional roller coster. We spent the morning at the Genocide Museum, a memorial to the terrible Pol Pot years 1975-1979. This heartrending place had a brilliant audio tour which calmly led you round the High School that became the notorious S21 torture prison. The fact that the buildings were clearly school buildings running 3 sides round a peaceful shady courtyard emphasised the terrible contrast of what went on inside even more. We spent 2 hours slowly going round, not shirking any of the items. By the end we were completely emotionally spent.

The memorial stone at S21 – fittingly funded by the German Government in solidarity for past genocides

We sat and had a cup of coffee while we tried to start processing what we had seen and learnt. By terrible coincidence I was also in Rwanda just 3 months ago, going round the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, that similarly took you through the build up and the terrible 100 days of mass slaughter by Hutus or the Tutsi ethnic group (or anyone perceived to be or sympathetic Hutus). It is hard to comprehend such inhumanity. It was a ‘must see’ to put Cambodia into some sort of context and made it all the more amazing to see what has been achieved since then (albeit with the current political situation – see David’s blog yesterday).
We carefully cycled back to the hotel, aware that our brains were not functioning on full alert. We could not decide what to do with the rest of the day. We weren’t in the mood for sightseeing. In the end we decided the only approach to take was that life is for living and went out for a lazy lunch. We found a great restaurant run by a Frenchman but offering a really interesting menu from across continents. He had only been open a few days and we were one of his first customers. The food was delicious.

Later we took a last stroll around Phnom Penh. The world was out strolling along the riverfront on a Saturday evening, families were having picnics on the grass in front of the royal palace and a row of fortune tellers were predicting the future to eager young people. We hit a part of town with neon bars full of young Cambodians. We managed to find a slightly quieter one for a beer before strolling back to the hotel.
The events at the Genocide museum had affected us deeply but we were determined to have a positive day and did so, our final day in Cambodia.

While we were resting at the hotel I wrote the following to help me make some sense of the what the genocide meant. I include here for anyone who is interested.


Where does this terrible inhumanity come from? The German Holocaust of the 30’s and 40’s, the Cambodian Pol Pot years of the 70’s, the Serbian genocide of the 80s, the Rwandan genocide in the 90’s, the Rohingya genocide just last year, just to name some of the terrible instances of people’s inhumanity against other groups. Has the world learnt nothing? It seems to show that dehumanisation and brutality are possible in any era and any culture if the circumstances are right. None of these came out of nowhere but occurred because of circumstances over years or decades that engendered hatred to such a degree that the subjects of that hatred are not seen a human beings. Some come from understandable beginnings . In Rwanda there was huge inequality between the minority Tutsis who had power and wealth and the majority Hutus. Throw in the influence of colonialism, that over decades promoted the idea of difference between ethnicities and a media that promoted a propaganda of hatred. In Cambodia the US had carpet bombed swathes of the country in the name of the war in Vietnam, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people and riddling the country with unexploded ordinance that has killed a further 40,000 people – fertile ground for a hatred against the west and desire to formulate a new society.

What changes an understandable beginning into a brainwashed psychopathic madness? How can we prevent this? Bearing witness to these events, remembering, constantly promoting human rights, freedom of speech, fighting for dialogue and respect for all peoples is a start. The frightening things is that the world is turning in the other direction. Even Cambodia, with such recent history, is rapidly turning from a supposed democracy to a one party start riven by corruption and oppression of any expression of opinion against the ruling party.
Pol Pot shows how a political ideology can quickly morph into something so incomprehensibly bad. The idea of year zero and starting a new society was an understandable starting point. They observed the failing years of the Mao cultural revolution and concluded that the Chinese had not implemented the ideology enough, rather than concluding it was a terrible ideology in the first place. Therefore this time the intellectuals and everyone associated with them had to be slaughtered (with an intellectual being defined so widely it even encompassed anyone who wore glasses). To justify this the people first had to be tortured in camps such as S21 to coerce them into signing a confession. Great care was taken to keep people alive during the torture and anyone who died during torture was seen as a failure as the confession had to be sought. Once this was obtained it was therefore justifiable to authorise their execution. 20,000 were taken from S21 (0ne of 200 similar camps across the country) after the torture and executed in the killing fields.
All others from the cities and towns that were not targeted for extermination were forced into the fields to create and class-free agrarian society. Pnomh Penh was a city of up to 3 million people and was virtually emptied within 3 days of the Khmer Rouge marching in (under the lie of being taken somewhere safe as the city was about to be bombed). Neither the city folk or the Pol Pot elite had any idea how to till the land (Pol Pot was a maths professor). Both the urban and peasant peoples were worked as slaves for up to 19 hours a day and many millions died through starvation and disease. Overall one in four Cambodians lost their life. Ironically it was only the intervention of the communist Vietnamese who brought the Khmer Rouge to a halt.

These events are not things of the past. The Rohingya genocide tells us this and torture goes on unabated in many countries of the world. In my work at Freedom from Torture I have heard the testimonies of many torture survivors and recognise the conditions people were held in and all the torture methods described at S21 in these testimonies from men, women and adolescents. We have to keep fighting, keep talking, never compromise or turn a blind eye to torture or genocide in the name of a greater economic good. The incredible people I have had the privilege of speaking to directly as survivors of torture have taught me the immense resilience of human beings. Of course the scars are there for life but they have shown me that people can come through with their own identities and humanity intact, still believe that there is good in the world and even have the power to forgive. It is incredibly humbling and gives me strength not to despair and to try my best to redouble whatever individual efforts we can make, in however small a way, to make the world a better place.

6 thoughts on “Saturday 26th January. Processing the Pol Pot years

  1. Thanks Bernie for writing about genocide. The Congolese are going through a protracted nightmare of millions dying over decades and are currently seeing their hope of change and an end to mass violence through a democratic election being fraudulently stolen. I see the deep deep sadness in Congolese human rights activists but they keep going and I have learnt how important it is to show support and solidarity. I think invisibility of tragedy can be unbearable which is why nadia murad, the yazidi young woman winner of the nobel peace prize is compelled to speak out.

  2. These thoughts are so important to be recorded.
    Both of you have contributed so much to the right things being done. I feel privileged to be part of the family. A raw experience for you. God Bless. Mum

  3. This brought back so many memories I had tears in my eyes. It felt wrong to just traipse round like a tourist. Not a day you would say was enjoyable but one that I am grateful I experienced.
    On another note, hope you are enjoying the heat, we’ve just parked up the camper in Samoens – it’s cold, was snowing, but just turned to rain – 2 nights ago it was -9.5 in Les Gets

  4. Thank you for those words Bernie, it is more than important to repeat and repeat…..
    I’ m so glad I met you

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