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Insights into Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge past

I tend to visit high schools only when I have to conduct a training session for English teachers working there.  The one I go to in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, however, is no ordinary high school, and neither is my visit.  I am here to become one of the millions of people to pay respect to those tortured and killed between 1975 and 1979 by communist leader Pol Pot’s Security Forces – the Khmer Rouge.

Originally called Tuol Svay Prey High School, when learning left the place to torture in 1975, it was renamed Security Prison-21 (S-21) and is now more commonly known as Tuol Sleng.
‘When this was a prison, nobody learned.  When this was a school, nobody died,’ states one of many handwritten visitor comments on one of the school walls on the second floor where each classroom was divided into tiny cells, about 0.8 x 2 meters, and prisoners were shackled to the walls or concrete floors.

‘One life, live it’; ‘Breathe and smile’; ‘Love to everything and everybody’; ‘Replace Hate x Love’; ‘Life is what you make it’; ‘We never have no choice!’ are some of the other comments on the walls of Tuol Sleng, which literally translates, according to a visitor leaflet, into “a poisonous hill or a place on a mound to keep those who bear or supply guilt” toward Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea – a country he planned to turn into an agrarian utopia through an ultra-Maoist regime in 1975. When not shackled in their cells, the prisoners of Tuol Sleng were taken to torture chambers where they were interrogated using a variety of instruments and suffered unimaginable pain. 

The floors on the top floor, used as mass prison cells, now shelter the souls of these prisoners who died either here under torture or in the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh.  Each soul is attached to a photo taken before they were placed in the cells, now exhibited for the visitors.  The youngest is 5 years old. How did he conspire against Pol Pot’s regime?  He was ‘guilty’ only because his mother or father had dared resist and, therefore, his mind was probably considered ‘polluted’.

Earlier in the morning, I try to converse with some of these souls whose pictures I pay respect to in the museum.  It is, however, only bones and skulls I see. They were dug out of the mass graves in the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 14 km southwest of Phnom Penh, after Pol Pot’s regime ended in 1979.  These bones and skulls are but a small fraction of almost 1.7 million who are believed to have died during the Khmer Rouge period.
I stand and stare, for hours, at the stupa built to display them.  Automatically, uncontrollably, tears roll down my cheeks.  The soul of every skull and every bone has got many stories to whisper into my ear – life stories before and after the Pol Pot era that they might have never shared with anyone, their loves, their disappointments with life, their idiosyncrasies, and of course, the last moments of fear as they were being transported from Tuol Sleng to be executed with 3,000 other people – mainly intellectuals, ministers, monks, foreigners, and diplomats.

I wonder what these people’s last words to each other were – whether they did say anything at all; the unbearable pain they felt when clubbed on the neck with a hatchet (called voy choul), a thick bamboo stick, a digging hoe, a shovel, or an iron oxcart axle; the music blaring from a loudspeaker hanging from a tree to prevent the people working nearby hearing the moans and screams of those being thus executed; the mental anguish at seeing the executioners beating children against the tall ancient ‘killing tree’ still sadly surviving in the midst of the Killing Fields; their last breath when pushed naked down into the mass graves and of the suffocating smell of DDT scattered over the bodies to eliminate stench and disease.
I also stare endlessly at the longan trees with their tiny brown fruit surrounding the Killing Fields.  Each day, they face the same skulls and bones.  They might even have witnessed the executions.  These trees have thousands of stories to tell me, too.
For some reason, the longan trees remind me of a dream I just had on my overnight trip on a sleeper bus in Vietnam before arriving in Cambodia:  “Your father is dead, your father is dead,” my nephew, who never met my deceased father and carries his name, comes running to me, in tears.  Suddenly awakened, I sat up on the bed, a bit shocked, looking into the darkness outside my window.  My father left long ago.  He, too, witnessed events, reflected on many things, and had a great many life experiences but left little behind to let me know about any of his heart’s inner secrets, his fears, victories…  I will never fully find out what they were, just like the stories of the 1.7 million people who died in Cambodia.
Later in the day, I cannot stop thinking about the Killing Fields as I look at Boeng Kak, the plant-patched lake, from the roof balcony of my hotel in Phnom Penh.  I am deep in puzzling thoughts about how we human beings are capable of such atrocities, when Ceang, a 19-year-old Cambodian waitress, invites me to have lunch with her and a Cambodian man in his early forties.

The man looks very muscular and healthy – healthier than many local Cambodians I meet.  I feel he is not a permanent resident.  He introduces himself as Sophal – ‘good result’ in Cambodian.  He does in fact live in France, and my immediate and abrupt question is when he immigrated to France.  When I hear the date 1980 fall out of his lips, I cannot help blurt out, “So you were here during the Pol Pot regime…”
He confirms, with a serene smile, my perhaps unexpected and untimely comment.
“Let’s first order and then I will tell you about the Khmer Rouge,” Sophal continues calmly.  There is nothing I can do to stop the goose-bumps running up and down my skin every time I hear the words ‘Khmer Rouge’ – Pol Pot’s killing machine used to raze and restart everything from scratch to create a classless society.
“When Pol Pot took over in 1975, my father was taken away like all the other intellectuals and was executed because he was a soldier in the American army stationed in Cambodia at the time,” Sophal tells me, still very calm.  It is obvious he has never forgotten his 37-year-old father but has made peace in his heart with this tragic fact of his life.
“We saw a lot of bodies in soldier uniforms, and we knew my father was dead,” he continues and then describes how his mother started crying uncontrollably when she and her eight children, including Sophal, witnessed the pile of bodies in the streets of their hometown, Battambang.
The whole family, including Sophal’s grandmother, walk for about one week or two (he is not sure about the time period) from Battambang in central Cambodia to a town called Sisophon and finally to Kralanh, a smaller village in the north.  This is no leisurely walk through the jungles of Cambodia – the one many tourists take nowadays to see the unbelievable 5th-century temples like Angkor Wat built by the Khmers, still standing against the eroding forces of nature.  The family’s march is tough, it is stressful, a journey with perhaps no end.
Sophal is 11 years old, the oldest of the eight children, and a boy.  As such, he must replace his dead father and stay strong.  They walk through the dense jungle, finding places here and there to sleep, eating only rice or anything they find along the way.  One of Sophal’s little brothers drinks dirty water somewhere and gets a severe case of diarrhea.  A short while later, the family finds they have to abandon the little boy’s dead body behind.
When they arrive in the small village of Kralanh, they have to become a part of the ferocious Khmer Rouge system just to stay alive.  Sophal’s mother is sent to work in the rice paddies from 6 a.m. to late into the night.  As for Sophal, a mere child of eleven, he is placed in a ‘mobile troop’ called kong chalat to work on distant worksites to build dikes and dig water channels around the rice paddies.  Those older than ten are to work harder and be role models for everyone, both emotionally and physically.  Their workday begins at dawn and extends to 11 p.m. or later, if necessary.
Sophal’s sisters and one remaining brother, too little to work, are taken care of by those appointed by the Khmer Rouge.  Sophal stays away from his family for exactly “3 years, 8 months, and 20 days” – a period deeply carved in his memory, never to be eroded again.  Sophal sees his family perhaps once a year when his troop happens to pass through the village where they live.  At times, he does not want to visit them, for fear they might not be there anymore – taken away and killed or sent somewhere else by the Khmer Rouge.  During one of his visits, he finds out that his brother has died, fallen off a tree trying to pick fruit.  His mother is now left with six children only.

Whenever Sophal musters enough courage to visit his family, his mother secretly gives him food – fruit and eggs.  The only food Sophal eats when away in the paddies is watery rice.
“I was reduced to skin and bones,” says Sophal, pointing to his muscular and healthy body that gives no indication that it was once famished during the Khmer Rouge regime.  “It was the same food each day – rice cooked in big pots,” Sophal sadly remembers.  He and others in his situation would sometimes try to catch fish or lizards to eat.  If caught, they might get killed.  They now lived in Pol Pot’s classless society and therefore, food also had to be ‘classless’ – the same for everyone.
“They would come and get rid of any tomato plants you tried growing outside of your house,” Sophal tells me.  Cooking at home was outlawed, and everyone in the village had to eat together in communal dining halls.
Sophal had four good friends he could trust when working in the paddies away from his family.  One was his cousin Palek but the Khmer Rouge did not know that Sophal was related to Palek.  Family during the Khmer Rouge regime had become a very different concept.  Angka, the ruling council of six, including Brother Number 1, Pol Pot, was now to be everyone’s family, everyone’s mother.  The family was no longer to exist in any other form.  ‘Familyism’ – kruosaa niyum – was to be forgotten.  Even missing one’s family was a crime, often punishable by death.
“Children were being trained in ‘re-education meetings’ to spy on their mothers and fathers,” Sophal explains. “Some even killed their own parents, if they so much as talked against the Khmer Rouge.”

“I could have started killing people myself if I had stayed longer than four years under Khmer Rouge,” adds Sophal.  He is certain that brain-washing children is the most effective tool for shaping the future of societies.
“We were born by virtue of the sexual passion of the parents, so we don’t respect them.  If the parents do something wrong, we must kill them,” was one of Angka’s principles, and it was implanted into young minds.  They were told not to love their parents and not to depend on them.  It was the Angka who supported them and it was Angka they were to love so that the country could be prosperous.
It is not easy for all to forget their family. One of Sophal’s good friends, when visiting his village, goes to see his family.  They are no longer there, and he knows that they were taken away and killed, perhaps for a simple reason like eating fruit from a tree.  He is devastated.
“We were being watched by the Khmer Rouge soldiers all the time and felt stressed throughout the day,” Sophal still talks with calm serenity.  The nights are perhaps the only time they are left alone with their thoughts.  But that is also when they are all dead asleep, exhausted from the long day’s hard work.  Rice and rice and rice is all they ever work for.  Yet, they do not even know where all the rice goes.  Perhaps to the capital, Phnom Penh – to feed those responsible for creating a classless society in Cambodia.
I ask Sophal about marriages during that era.  When people fall in love, they have to get permission from the Khmer Rouge chief of the village they live in.  The men cannot propose to just any young woman.  If granted permission, they get married with the blessings of the Khmer Rouge or the mother of the country – Angka.  Sometimes Angka forces people to marry even though they have never seen each other before.  This way, people with power, such as the Khmer Rouge soldiers, are able to molest girls and young women. Adultery, love affairs, and flirtations are grounds for execution.

“And rape must have, of course, been common,” I comment to receive Sophal’s reaction, disturbed as usual whenever I think about those powerless against those who terrorize them.

“Not only women, but men and children were also raped,” Sophal responds with sadness mingled with anger, almost making fun of my ignorance, my forgetting that the labels of gender or age cease to matter when helplessness under brutal regimes is concerned.

Sophal is now 44 years old.  He looks very much at peace with himself and at ease in his skin as we drink the $3.25-dollar Tomb Raiders “initiated by the actress Angelina Jolie” on the balcony of a restaurant called the Red Piano on one of the main streets of Siem Reap.  This place is apparently Jolie’s favorite, and she likes these cocktails with tonic, lime juice, and Cointreau.
Facing us are other French colonial buildings with two floors turned into restaurant and karaoke bars, one called Funky Munky and the other In Touch.  The latter plays Madonna tunes all night long as mainly Japanese tourists unskillfully sing them. It is one of the loudest places on the street where mostly all buildings have been turned into bars and restaurants for tourists visiting the nearby Khmer temples.
“Seven years ago, all you could see were beggars on the streets and poverty all around,” Sophal tells me as we spend the whole night at the Red Piano watching all kinds of people walking the lively Pub Street.
The constant population of the street catches our attention – tuk tuk drivers and four transsexuals.
“But how do they find the money to get an operation?” I ask Sophal, surprised that it is even possible in this very poor country.  “They usually go to Thailand,” Sophal tells me, although he also reminds me that anything can be arranged in countries like Cambodia where there are no rules or regulations.
The transsexuals, in tight clothes wrapping their tall and slim bodies, try very hard to tempt the Western men, mostly older, strolling on Pub Street.  From far above, we cannot hear what they say, but their body language clearly lets us understand the promise of a wonderful night.  It is a long night, and luck favors not one of them.  Tonight perhaps the westerners are not in the mood for transsexuals dressed in white stockings, red tops, and skin-tight blue jeans.
“Tuk tuk drivers know everyone and everything that happens in these streets,” Sophal tells me when he catches me watching them.  “Those my age,” he says, “did not get any education other than being brain-washed during the Khmer Rouge regime so most of them can only make a living driving tuk tuks.”
I think about the 27-year-old Kavy, the tuk tuk driver who took me around for three days to see different temples around Siem Reap.  He did not live through the Khmer Rouge era.  He is slightly luckier as he is now in university, studying tourism.  He has two more years left and wants to be a tour guide.  Tour guides can make as much as 300 US dollars a month – a lot of money in Cambodia.
As we have our lunch of chicken with ginger somewhere near a temple, I watch Kavy’s young face and can sense his tired spirit.  He has to work over ten hours a day to make enough money to support himself, pay 350 US dollars a year in tuition fees, and send money to his family who lives in a village.  He had to pay 400 US dollars for his tuk tuk.  He proudly wears his blue shirt and cream driver vest stamped number 5501 and is certain that if he can make it through the university, he will better his life in what he calls “a very bad country.”
“This life does not belong to me,” says Sekla, another young Cambodian man, who works 24 hours a day in a guesthouse, like many others his age in Phnom Penh.  He makes 50 US dollars a month, sleeps and eats in the same guesthouse, and does not get any time off.
“Except during a one-day festival,” he tells me, very seriously, which is quite unlike him.  Like many Cambodians, he loves joking.  I call him Sekla or Sila-the-Joker. This 21-year-old man is sharp like a whip, runs the whole guesthouse owned by a Chinese man, and cracks jokes every five minutes in his impeccable second language, English.
Sekla’s dream is to be a singer.  But he thinks it is impossible in a country like Cambodia where he has to give much of his earnings to his family.  He cannot just up and leave his job.  There are many people who need jobs like this.
“I need a machine to make me taller and a lotion to turn my skin white,” Sekla reminds me of his desire to be a singer each time he loses himself in a Cambodian song.  This is mostly when he has enough energy to joke around.  If he has not had a chance to take his usual nap at 12 on the guesthouse rooftop overlooking the lake, it becomes very difficult for him to do the job, which occupies his every waking minute.
On the same rooftop, the restaurant’s only waitress is 19-year-old Ceang.  When there are no customers, Ceang writes and draws in her notebook covered in old Christmas wrapping paper.  She draws a tree for me in blue ink with beautiful roses.  The tree is host to blue and red butterflies.  Some of the leaves lie on the ground, in blue and red and a crescent moon hides behind clouds surrounded by stars.  “I Love U – from Ceang – your sister,” she signs her art with two red hearts.
A charming young woman, fingers decorated with silver rings and arms covered with bead bracelets of all kinds, Ceang wears a cross on her necklace.
“I like it,” she says, explaining that she is a Buddhist, not a Christian.
Naïve, attractive and beautiful, Ceang easily draws people to herself. When I invite her for ice-cream, she looks at the price list, says “Too big”, and chooses a 69-cent yoghurt instead.  Over the next couple of days, she joins me for yoghurt and enjoys it like a little child – a child I want to protect from evil people.
Like for many young Cambodians, the day starts at 6 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m. for Ceang.  She has no holidays, earns 30 US dollars a month, and cannot go to school.  The guesthouse is her home, her life.

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