The Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, following years of the "Secret War," in which our government bombed Cambodia relentlessly in an effort to win the war against the Viet Cong without telling the American people. When they took over the capital, the Khmer Rouge told the 3 million people there (many refugees from the bombing) that they needed to leave for three days to avoid another American bombing raid. They all believed them, and left to the countryside. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, then began its systematic termination of the population. Anyone suspected of being against the government, including anyone with ties to the former government, money, education, or even wearing glasses (and therefore, an intellectual), was killed. Not only were all suspects killed, but their entire families as well in an effort to "kill the plant and it's roots." Education and money were abolished. Families were split up as men, women and children were sent in different directions. The entire population lived on communal farms, working fourteen hour days, every day without stop, to produce rice and other food, often surviving on only a cup of watery rice gruel. Family members could not eat together but were forced to eat in communes. Anyone suspected of stealing or eating alone was killed. Many did not know how to farm. Most of their food was then sent to China in exchange for arms, dwindling a tiny supply further. Literally hundreds of political prisons and killing fields spring up all over Cambodia, as a quarter of the population died during this time. It is an unimaginable horror that was perpetrated on the people and they still seem to be quietly reeling from it. Ironically, the Vietnamese Communist government that we tried so hard to exterminate were the same people who finally freed them on January 7, 1979. Everyone, those who were born after the genocide, to those living outside the country, told us EXACTLY how long the Khmer Rouge was in power. 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days. It made my hair stand up on end.
Traveling throughout Cambodia, this ghastly history is everywhere. You could spend your entire vacation visiting traumatic sights. So instead, Fran and I decided to devote a specific day, today, to pay tribute to those who lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge. We visited two sights, the notorious S-21 Tuol Sleng Museum, a school turned torture chamber, where out of 20,000 prisoners, only 7 survived. Many of the prisoners were taken to the nearby killing fields of Choeung Ek. A memorial there houses over 8000 skulls as well as other gruesome remnants of its victims, including leg bones still harboring their shackles and bits of clothing. Because bullets were precious, most of the killing was done with farming tools and other implements of destruction, as reflected by the skulls in the tower. A tree nearby indicates where Khmer Rouge soldiers crushed babies and children by hitting them against its trunk. It is absolutely depressing and horrifying, but a must-see in Cambodia.