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The Killing Fields of Kampuchea

Imagine you are just seven years old, a young boy and an only child in a quiet Cambodian village, it is a normal day, you have waved goodbye to your parents as they leave for work in the fields, you are still too young to work, and you are getting ready for school.

The seven survivors, CambodiaImagine being grabbed from behind by two black uniformed soldiers carrying guns; imagine having your tiny childlike wrists shackled by sharp cruel hand cuffs; imagine a harsh cloth blindfold being strapped over your eyes, and just imagine being thrown into the back of a truck and driven for ten hours, to who knows where to meet God knows what fate.

Imagine being seven years old and being taken from your home, your family and your life one quiet morning and never, ever, seeing any single member of your family or your village again.

Some days you hear a story that is so bad that you know that every single word of it is true; this was one of those days.

“Buntha seems a bit tense this morning” my wife Margaret had said to me as we boarded our bus for the tour to S21 (The Tuol Seng Genocide Museum) and the Killing Fields Memorial. I think my flippant answer was something like “perhaps he had a bad night”. Buntha was our local guide for the Cambodian leg of our trip on the RV Amalotus up the Mekong River to Siem Reap. He had hosted us around Phnom Penh the day before and was now our escort for our morning tour on day two. Some fifteen or so minutes later we learned why he was perhaps a bit tense.

Buntha with his box

Buntha with his box

We were standing in cell block A, in a ground floor single cell, one that most probably housed high level political prisoners; there was an iron framed bed in the centre of the room, on it rested sets of leg and wrist shackles and an old tin box. Buntha explained about the life of a prisoner in this infamous prison. Over almost four years, from the 17th April 1975 to the 7thof January 1979 this former high school was known as Security Office 21 on the direct orders of Pol Pot and it housed, over that period some 17000 prisoners. Just seven (all men) survived, seven of 17,000 prisoners, men, women, children, and infants; monks, politicians, teachers, businessmen, journalists, and ordinary citizens of Cambodia who were deemed to be a danger to the Khmer Rouge and the reign of Pol Pot.

Buntha told us all of these facts and figures and then he talked about the tin box, and that was when the story became intensely personal; that was when the reality kicked in. The tin box was the toilet Buntha told us, and then he said; “every day for six months I had to empty one just like it in another security centre; I was just seven years old.” He went on to tell us how he was taken from his village that morning and how he spent two years in forced labour (from seven years to nine years old) at the security centre.

See at seven you can be brainwashed, you can be educated and influenced into a certain way of thinking, educate a child from seven to fifteen years and they are yours forever, he told us. That is why he was not killed, that is why he was forced to work because the Khmer thought that he could be educated to be a follower of the regime. Under seven, the process takes too long; so kill them. Once they are over fifteen they already have their opinions and you cannot change them, so kill them. At seven they serve a purpose and they can be educated; so spare them, make them work and teach them to kill.

Display of skulls, CambodiaSo Buntha was put to work and his first job was to empty the toilet box; at seven, empty the toilet box. He saw the torture, he saw the suffering, he saw the pain and the despair, at seven and he emptied the toilet box.

He graduated after six months to other areas of the security centre, he was taught to shoot a Kalashnikov Rifle, not by firing at a target mind you; but by firing at a running man. He tells us that a gun was held at his head and he was told shoot the running man; or run himself. If you run I will shoot you he was told, so he fired the gun! He was made to spy on people in the local village and report those who did not work “hard enough”, he was given menial and dirty tasks and his re- education was commenced. Luckily for Buntha liberation came in time and he was both rescued from the system and restored to a “normal” life at the age of nine.

He never saw his parents, relatives or any of his friends from his village again, they simply disappeared, they were assumed murdered and buried in the mass graves of the killing fields. During his time in the security centre he was called Kim and for five years after his release he thought his name was Kim. Then he was found by a cousin (ten years his senior) who saw a photograph one day and recognised him. When they met his cousin said; “your name is Buntha!” He told us that he asked his cousin; “what were my mother and father like?” His cousin responded and said “look in a mirror – you are your mother!”

An ultimate survivor, Cambodia

The last survivor

So we completed the tour of Tuol Seng, the photographs are horrific and the scale of suffering and punishment is difficult to comprehend. The cells are miniscule, the walls and floors made of brick and the regime of torture, three times a day Buntha tells us 7.00 to 11.00; 1.00 to 5.00 and 7.00 to 11.00; just simply unimaginable. The fact that it happened, and happened here in a land of such gentle, smiling and friendly people is even more stunning. At the very end we met one of the seven survivors, the sole remaining survivor we are told, he was near the exit gates, an attractive well-dressed man, selling a book of his story.

Then we headed off to the Killing Fields themselves, or as Buntha pointed out one of 300 plus killing field sites where the bodies of millions have been found. The scale of the killing is almost impossible to comprehend. The site that we visited was the site that was attached to S21, so far 8000 plus bodies have been found here and identified (7 foreigners, the rest native Cambodians) and their bones interned in the memorial tower. So that means that there are around 9000 still to be found. It is a gruesome sight, skulls and body parts on display, mass graves everywhere with an eerie sort of quiet hanging over the place; but it is a memorial and a very special one. The Killing Fields sites are a moving testament to the recovery of the nation from a period of tyranny, evil and violence. The country has moved on, they have forgiven but not forgotten, (will never forget Buntha told us). Amnesty was given to all but the ringleaders, the King restored to his throne and the country has set about the long and painful process of rebuilding.

Cambodia's Killing Fields Memorial

Cambodia's Killing Fields Memorial

There is a moment as we reboard the bus after the stop at S21, when a number of people, moved by Buntha’s story told him they were sorry. He responded quite simply; “why are you sorry? I have got my life back, I have moved on.” So he has, he now has a wife and two children aged eight and four, I figure from the time line that he is now in his early forties, and he appears to be a man happy in his work, with a satisfying life and with a future in front of him and his children.

He said at one point; “I have not shown my son (the eight year old) Tuol Seng yet.” “One day he will ask me about his grandparents, and then I will bring him, tell him and show him!” Until then this gentle, friendly and smiling man with a very personal story will continue to bring tourists like us to this house of horrors and the Killing Fields of Kampuchea.

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