Before I came to Cambodia, I had heard of the Khmer Regime and their leader Pol Pot. I knew that his leadership and goals resembled someone like Hitler, but I did not know the details of it. I was only 5 months old when his reign started and was just over 4 years old when he was overtaken (April 1975-Jan 1979). There were Cambodians who had miraculously snuck over the border to Vietnam where they received help from the Vietnamese Military and were able to run him out. Amazingly enough, Pol Pot escaped to the middle of the jungle and surrounded himself with land mines--no one was able to get to him to arrest or execute him. He died of a heart attack in 1998. He was an incredibly hardened and evil person.
S-21 was the name of an interrogation prison as well as a torture chamber. This is where people were sent if they had been in leadership positions in the military before his reign. They were there if they had family members who had been in leadership positions. They were there if they could read or if they wore glasses. They were there if they were educated or if they felt that they were a threat to Pol Pot’s power. Over 20,000 people were sent to this prison for 3-6 months at a time to get information out of them. Only 7 survived to tell about it. (One of which was there and we got to meet him)
Botevy’s father was killed because of his ranking in the army. Before he was killed he told his children to act stupid. He told them to pretend they could not read. Botevy’s mother acted crazy for the full 4 years to spare her life-- she should have been killed as well because of who her husband was. Pol Pot spared no one. He even killed members of his own family if he thought they were a threat to his power.
There were hundreds of other prisons spread out all over Cambodia, but S-21 was the worst of them all. We left our younger 3 children home because we had heard that it was quite graphic. Botevy decided to come with us. I was so glad that she was coming, but also nervous for her as S-21 used to be her old high school. This would only be her second time going back in over 30 years. We went by Tuk Tuk and arrived at a typical school building right in the middle of Phnom Penh. When Pol Pot took over he had the entire city of Phnom Penh evacuated. Millions of people were forced out to the country to work in Pol Pots “work camps.” Within 3 days Phnom Penh was a ghost town, with only prisons left. The once bustling streets of street venders, children, mopeds, cows, water buffalo, cars, horns, and people were now silent and empty.
We walked through the doors to an open courtyard. I felt my stomach drop. You could just feel a sort of eeriness in the air. I kept glancing over at Botevy making sure she was okay.
Your mind wonders instantly who could ever do such a thing to another person. The hardest thing for these people is that this genocide of killing 3 million Cambodians was done by one of their own. This was not done by an outsider. Pol Pot was a fellow Cambodian killing his own people for no reason.
As the tour guide was speaking to us about how brutally they were treated I noticed that Botevy was not in the room anymore. When we walked out I saw her standing there looking out at her school wiping her eyes. I went over to her and put my arms around her and just held her as she sobbed in my arms. Oh how my heart ached for her. She whispered in my ear that 3 of her family members had died here.
I just cried with her and told her how sorry I was. It was a solemn experience to be in that moment with her. I knew all that she had been through in her late teens during Pol Pot’s regime was coming back to her. I am sure she was remembering how it felt to have her father killed and to be torn from her home and separated from her family. I am sure her feelings of being woken up every single morning for almost 4 years at 3 am to work in the rice fields and labor camps under the hot sun until 8pm at night and given only 1 bowl of rice a day to eat was fresh on her mind. The feelings of not having a change of clothes, being forbidden to talk to anyone, and wasting away to 88lbs was a memory she did not want to have in the forefront of her mind.. I thought to myself, “Bless her. Bless her for being able to forgive and not have a bitter seed in her heart. Bless her for sacrificing the rest of her life to help children in need. Bless her for moving forward and not looking back.”
She took a minute to herself while we continued on looking at all of the different preserved rooms with horrid pictures on the walls.
|Babies were torn from their mothers and either hit against a tree or thrown in the air and shot|
Botevy soon joined us again and we walked into a “classroom.” It was divided by brick walls that were no more than 3 feet by 6 feet.
They were handcuffed with their hands behind them and then hung from an old exercising bar until they lost consciousness. They were then dipped into a large barrel filled with fertilizer and sewer water until they came to. I just sat there with my mouth open wondering who on earth thought of these things and who on earth could do that to another human being.
We were then explained a little bit about who the people were who carried out these orders. Pol Pot went out to the small provinces and countryside and recruited uneducated 14-15 year old boys to join him. They were then brainwashed over and over again until they also became cold and disheartened. So sad, and so unfair. They were killed if they refused to follow, they killed others if they joined. A no win situation for these confused boys.
|This is how young the boys were carrying out these orders|
We walked into another classroom and Botevy told us that this used to be her classroom. She had once run around these halls with her friends and now they were covered with barbed wire still left over from the regime. I can’t even imagine that. I tried to put myself in her position. I imagined myself walking into good old PV High after it had been turned into a torture prison and remembering how three of my relatives had been killed there.
Unbelieveable. I admired her courage, and after touring the whole facility I realized even more how hard coming here must have been for her. I wish I could adequately describe all the pictures, the tools used to torture them, the inhumane way these people were treated. This happened in our lifetime.
|The list of rules when they were brought here|
|Some of the remains that they found here when Pol Pot was taken over|
After we left there, I had a new respect and understanding of the Cambodian people. Their sweetness, their hospitality, their genuine love for others took on a whole new meaning for me. My admiration raised 100%. How could people who had been through such a horrific experience still be so good? Everybody lost family members. Everybody lost friends. Everybody had been affected. Botevy said that may times to us. "We all went through the same thing." No one escaped Pol Pot.
I hope this post was not too graphic. I actually censored a lot of what was there. But, there is another piece to the story. It is that of the "killing fields." We went there after visiting S-21 and I will write about it in my next post. As horrible as it was to go to S-21 and learn about this genocide, I am grateful for the experience I had there. A new respect and love formed and I walked away filled with a new reverence for the Cambodian people.