March 9 2017
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
When we think of the ‘Heart of Darkness’ that inhabits the PTSD nightmares of Vietnam Vets, we almost automatically think of Apocalypse Now – a perilous journey up the Mekong River into an unknown quagmire of terror.
The ‘Heart of Darkness’ we are now entering, for the people of Cambodia, starts where Apocalypse Now and the Vietnam War leaves off. Specifically, with the Khmer Rouge rampage through Cambodia that lasted for 4 years, from 1975-1979, by which time Pol Pot and his brainwashed cadre of young men left more than 25% of the population dead from disease, starvation and, in the main, by murdering them.
It is hard to conceive, as we drifted into Phnom Penh this morning, that within hours of the Khmer Rouge triumphantly entering the city on April 17, 1975, they commenced the forced evacuation of the entire population of the city to the countryside. Within 3 days, the city was empty, but for a select group of 300 who were left behind to maintain specific infrastructure areas. Think of it – a city of well over a million people emptied in 3 days.
In Tuol Sleng (“Strychnine Hill”) Prison, up to 20,000 people were imprisoned during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. 7 are known to have lived. Today, only 2 of them are still alive. Both Chum Mey (a mechanic) and Bou Meng (an artist) spend their days under small shaded tents in what is now a garden area in the prison yard, speaking to anyone who wishes to meet them about the nightmare they lived, tortures they endured, and murders committed before their eyes. We were privileged to meet Chum Mey this morning.
Chum Mey owned and operated a couple of mechanic shops in Phnom Penh and did work on the side to repair vehicles owned by a member of Cambodia’s Royal Family. At 6:30pm on the day the Khmer Rouge entered the city, he and his family were told to leave the city and they started walking. Some weeks later, while he was searching for crabs in a rice field, a Khmer Rouge truck stopped and the soldiers asked if anyone knew how to repair machinery. He said he did and they took him to repair engines on ships being used to transport KR troops around the country. After a few weeks, he was sent to Phnom Penh where for the next 3 years, he repaired loudspeakers, tape players and sewing machines.
Eventually, his wife & daughters were allowed to return to Phnom Penh, but he had to live separately from then. And then, one day in 1978, a KR soldier told him to get into a car and he was driven to Tuol Sleng Prison where he was handcuffed and blindfolded, beaten and called a traitor. He was taken to a small cell and shackles were placed on his ankles that were then tethered to the floor of his cell.
I will spare you the details of the rest of his story and simply say that Chum Mey is a survivor. His wife and children were not. The intestinal fortitude that it takes for Chum Mey to relive the horrors daily is hard to fathom. Maybe impossible. It is equalled, in my estimation, by those survivors of the Shoah who bravely return to the death camps in Poland each spring to teach young generations of Jewish children what it means to honour the memory of the perished and, ultimately, to never forget.
Some of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng were put on trucks and driven to Choeung Ek, about 15 km away and just outside of Phnom Penh. The Killing Fields refer, collectively, to the numerous sites throughout Cambodia used by the Khmer Rouge as places chosen for the murder and burial of millions. Choeung Ek is one of the Killing Fields.
There is little I can say (or want to say) about a place of such horror. The Shoah atrocities perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazi’s was a very different genocide than that committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. After our visits to Yad Vashem and US Holocaust Memorial I had little to say and I feel the same way about the Killing Fields.
I can’t imagine how I would ever find my way to go to Hitler’s death camps in Poland and Eastern Europe but if I did, I think I might do there the only thing that occurred to me to be proper today at Choeung Ek. I said Kaddish to honour the memory of the dead.
In 2002, the Tuol Sleng Prison survivor Chum Mey gave an eyewitness account interview to the Phnom Penh Post. He said that he hopes he will live long enough to see the leaders of the Khmer Rouge put on trial for their crimes. “Without a trial”, he said, “the souls of all our loved ones who were killed will keep wandering”.
Kang Kek Lew (“Comrade Duch”) headed the Khmer Rouge internal security branch and oversaw the brutality at Tuol Sleng prison. His maniacal zealotry required that each prisoner be accused of spying for the CIA, the KGB, or both. And tortured until they either died or confessed. At which point they were executed. Duch acted as prosecutor, judge and executioner.
Two Americans were murdered by Duch, after extracting confessions from them that they were spies for the CIA. The confessions included some interesting admissions, including one where they named their commanding officer at the CIA as “Colonel Sanders”.
Comrade Duch was the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. On July 25, 2010 Comrade Duch was sentenced to 30 years (subsequently extended to life) in prison for his role in committing crimes against humanity, murder and torture.
It took 8 more years after Chum Mey gave his interview to the Phnom Penh Post for the trial, verdict and sentencing of Comrade Duch to take place but, perhaps, just perhaps, the wandering souls of all those murdered were able to rest just a bit.