Life is living
Suffering is truth
Struggling because there’s hope
Life is everything all together
Ranachith Yimsut (June ’92)(1)
Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975
As the Khmer Rouge marched into capital of Cambodia and effectively ended the civil war that had been devastating the country for the last five years, the violence began. Lead by mild mannered well-spoken former schoolteacher Saloth Sar a.k.a Pol Pot, the government of Angkar(2) would lead one of the bloodiest revolutions in history.
Almost as soon as they had established the new government the Khmer Rouge set about enforcing what was referred to as the Four Year Plan. The plan was meant to demodernise Cambodia, break down class divisions and lead to communism on a national scale. He proposed to triple Cambodia's agricultural output everywhere and at once. The scheme drawn from the Soviet and Chinese regime and had no relation to reality. Cambodia had just emerged from five years of ruinous civil war. Its infrastructure was badly damaged. Its labour force which included over two million half-starved city dwellers was expected to perform a miracle without tools, guidance, livestock or material incentives.
Borrowing the phrase Great Leap to describe his Four Year Plan, Pol Pot led Cambodia over a precipice, into the dark.
Most of the deaths that ravaged Cambodian the population can be traced to the rejection of western-style medicine, harsh work schedules and paranoia. The centre gave orders and demanded positive results. Local officials were as terrified of Angkar as everybody else. They falsified reports to save themselves. Harvests were poor, but quotas of rice and other crops set by the centre had to be met. As agricultural surpluses were shipped to the capital, food intended for local consumption disappeared.
Thousands of people starved, and when news of their deaths reached the centre, hundreds of cadres were arrested for having sabotaging the plan. When Pol Pot learned that his plan had failed, he was shaken by what he perceived as an emerging pro-Vietnamese faction inside the Cambodian Communist party. Pol Pot refused to blame himself as far as the Four Year Plan was concerned, his colleagues or his Utopian agenda. Instead, he accused enemies of sabotage. He named them as microbes and promised to burn them out. He purged pro-Vietnamese members of his party. Many of his victims were among his oldest colleagues in the movement.
By the end 1976 as Cambodia began to come apart Pol Pot believed that he was surrounded by enemies. Murders and arrests already widespread modulated into a systematic reign of terror that lasted until the regime was overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion in January 1979.
The Killing Fields and S-21
The Security Regulations(4)
- You must answer accordingly to my questions – Don’t turn them away
- Don’t try to hide facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
- Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare thwart the revolution.
- You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
- Don’t tell me about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
- While getting lashes or electrocution you must not cry at all
- Do nothing, sit still and await my orders. If there is no order keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
- Don’t make pretexts about Kampuchea Krom(3) in order to hide your jaw of traitor.
- If you do not follow all above rules you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
- If you disobey any part of my regulations you shall get extra lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
Tuol Sheng, or S-21 as it was known during the Pol Pot regime was a former high school turned into top security prison. The difference between this and any other prison is that here no one survived. Only seven known victims of the 200,000 people detained here made it out alive.
The only purpose behind the detention centre was to quickly extract confessions from the so-called enemies of the state, and execute them.
The administrator of the prison working closely with Pol Pot was another former teacher, Khang Khek Leu (a.k.a. Duch). Many of the confession texts from S-21 contain his neat annotations, mocking the prisoners demanding more evidence permitting torture to continue.
The prison occupied four three-storey buildings arranged in a quadrangle, around an open area that had once been used for recreation. The facility was surrounded by a corrugated tin fence and two barbed wire enclosures guarded at all times by fifty soldiers. Inside S-21, some classrooms were transformed into cells where 40 to 100 low status prisoners were shackled together on arrival. Classrooms on the ground floor wore reserved for relatively important people, shackled to their beds. On the upper storeys classrooms were subdivided into cramped one-person cells where less important prisoners undergoing interrogation were bolted by leg irons to the floor. A large room on the second storey was reserved for female prisoners. Some of these women were accused of crimes but the majority it seems were the wives and daughters of male prisoners. Special days, such as July the 1st and 2nd where put aside for the execution of families of men previously killed.
The most important suspects were detained for lengthy interrogations and subjected to repeated torture sessions. Their stay in S-21 in some cases ran for several months and their confessions, when assembled covered hundreds of typed or handwritten pages. The stories that they were made to tell suggested that they had been employed for many years by foreign governments (CIA or KGB mainly) to undermine the revolution.
S-21 was a top secret facility. Its existence was known only to prisoners, prison officials and a handful of high ranking Khmer Rouge. When suspects were arrested they were not told that they were going to S-21. Instead, they were called to study or "summoned for consultation". To industrial workers quartered nearby the prison was known only as a place where "people went in but never come out".
Since prisoners at S-21 were often accused of plotting to overthrow the Angkar their confessions were of interest to Pol Pot who is referred to in S-21 documents as "the organisation or as brother number one" (bong timuoy), recalling Orwell’s Big Brother.
Copies of important confessions and summaries of related texts were sent to the Minster of National Security Son Sen or to Pol Pot himself with comments by Duch and his associates. Because of this interest S-21 the prison's operations were probably the most fully documented ones in Cambodia at the time. On arrival prisoners were tagged photographed and made to fill in autobiographical forms.
Prisoners were given little food, no exercise and hardly any time to sleep. When interrogations began the prisoners were exhausted, disoriented and suggestible. Many confessed to "treasonous activities" without being tortured. Others were broken by tortures so intense that several prisoners died. Still others committed suicide one by grabbing a sentry's gun to shoot himself and another who flung himself off the balcony that encircled the third floor of the prison.
The Vietnamese army that reached Phnom Penh on January 8, 1979 found an abandoned city. When their patrols stumbled across the prison, they discovered the bodies of a dozen recently murdered prisoners whose blood was still drying on the floor. Soon mass graves in the vicinity had been dug up. Toward the end of the year after Vietnam had installed a sympathetic Cambodian regime in Phnom Penh, S-21 was transformed with East German assistance into a Genocide Museum.
Before the Khmer Rouge surrendered they planted over 5 million landmines throughout the country. One for every Cambodian alive.
(1) Ranachith Yimsut is a survivor of the Tonle Spa Massacre, poem used with permission.
(2) Name given to the communist government led by Pol Pot after the revolution.
(3) Cambodia the land and home.
(4) Regulations translated for the Tuol Sheng Genocide Museum. The printed sign is exhibited there.
www.google.com - keywords: Cambodia, killing field, Tuol Sheng.
http://www.cybercambodia.com (extracts used with permission).
A stint in the library reading books I could never afford to buy.
A night time read of Cambodia Year Zero (ISBN 0-14-052-326-X).