A Tortured History and Unanswered Questions

An amputee, a victim of an American 'bombie,' begging in the center of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, journalist, and filmmaker who has traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia. This article, along with others featuring his personal experiences while journeying in the region, will be published in an up-coming book, "American Asia."

It is hot and dusty. The stale air of the Cambodian capital is heavy with exhaust fumes. Traffic is chaotic. Street children and beggars besiege posh-looking French cafés on the Sap River; tourists and international workers pretending to lead a normal life by sipping foamy cappuccinos are approached by amputees and men with gangrenous limbs.

A man in his fifties, approaching café tables with an extended hand, is missing an entire half of his face. There is a hole instead of his right eye and it serves as base for an enormous infected tumor which covers his entire cheek. Some beggars have no arms and no legs; their families or handlers bring them in the morning to Sisowath Quay, put a big plastic bucket for donations in front of their face on the sidewalk and let them rot in the unbearable tropical heat until the evening.

More than 30 years after "Year Zero" and more than a decade after the "return to democracy," Cambodia remains in a league of its own — miserable, corrupt and compassionless. Only the toughest and the most unscrupulous can "make it" and get ahead. There is hardly any social net to speak of; the savage insanity of the Khmer Rouge has been replaced with savage capitalism, but often with the same people in charge.

"Abuse a child in this country and face justice in yours" proclaim large posters on strategic intersections of Phnom Penh; "Sex with children is a crime." The notorious "Kilometer 11" — the terrible concentrated area of child prostitution and sex slavery — was raided by Cambodian police several years ago, after international outrage and pressure. But dilapidated shacks packed with under-age girls are popping up all over the capital again, often controlled or at least frequented by officials and police officers who are, at least in theory, supposed to fight the heinous crime of child prostitution.

In one of the terrace cafés frequented by foreign experts, the atmosphere is relatively relaxed. Men from the U.N. and E.U. drink beer, hand in hand with their local "second wives," unwinding after a tough working day in this chaotic capital. They perform diverse tasks in this country, which used to be marked by some of the worst violence known to humankind. Some are in charge of de-mining the countryside; others attempt to convince locals to turn over the weapons which are still in abundance, one of the reasons for the high crime rate.

Marijuana smoke lazily moves through the humid and stale air. After several years in Cambodia, these experts are tough and cynical — every day is a battle. To achieve anything in this country, one has to bribe and compromise. Polite speech has been fully forgotten; conversations are brutally direct and open.

Common clichés reserved for the public in the U.S. and Europe are targets of ridicule and open scorn at these informal gatherings. "Khmer Rouge killing more than a million Cambodians? Impossible!" frowns one of the middle-aged Europeans who has been living and working in this country for more than ten years. "They had no capacity to kill so many people. Sure, between one and two million people died between 1969 and 1978, but that number includes 500,000 of those massacred by the U.S. carpet bombing before Khmer Rouge took over."

"Most of the people died because of starvation and illnesses," he continues. "Furthermore, terrible massacres did not happen because of the communist ideology of Khmer Rouge. It was not on that level. U.S. carpet bombing and Lon Nol's brutal dictatorship supported by the West pitched local people against each other. Killings were performed out of vengeance, not on ideological bases. Peasants went insane from enduring B-52 carpet bombings. Many were tortured, massacred and disappeared during Lon Nol's reign. Country folks hated city dwellers, blaming them for all misfortunes and horrors they had to endure. And most Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadres came from the countryside."

Just half a mile from the café and the detached conversations of hardened expats, the Tuol Sleng Museum (Museum of Genocide), based in a former secondary school, speaks to the unbridled brutality and sadism of Khmer Rouge cadres. No matter how many times one visits this place, it is impossible to stay calm and not feel outrage, sadness and tremendous sympathy for the victims.

After April 17, 1975 the classrooms of Tuol Svay Prey High School became the Khmer Rouge's main torture and interrogation center, known as Security Prison 21 — or just S-21. This is where men and women were shackled and severely beaten, where women had their nipples torn-off by pliers, where electric wires were applied to the genitals. After the confession (and one had no option but to confess in order to stop the unbearable torture), most of the men, women and children who went through this institution of horror ended up in extermination camp Choeung Ek, facing almost certain execution. It is said that 20,000 died after being interrogated at S-21.

In an insane attempt to give structure to the savagery, Khmer Rouge documented each case, photographing all men and women detained right after their arrest and before the torture, then taking pictures of some after the savage interrogation.

After Vietnam ousted Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh at the end of 1978, this torture center was converted to a "Museum of genocide" by the Vietnamese and East Germans, who were using their experience from setting up Auschwitz Museum in Poland. They kept interrogation cells (originally classrooms) intact, with blood-stained floors, chains and shackles, as well as primitive machines for electric shocks. Thousands of black and white photographs of inmates eerily stare at visitors, their eyes expressing horror and resignation.

One of the classrooms in the notorious secondary school known as "S-21" that was converted into a torture chamber during the Khmer Rouge reign. (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

Some of the most terrifying images are those created by Vann Nath, a painter and former prisoner of S-21, one of the very few who managed to survive because of his talent and ability to draw complimenting portraits of Pol Pot and of officials who were in charge of the interrogation center. After the Vietnamese invasion, Vann Nath transferred the most terrifying memories into canvases; a mosaic depicting the barbarity and insane brutality of interrogators — a mother whose baby is being assassinated in front of her eyes, a man whose nails are being extracted by pliers, a woman having her nipple cut off.

But even Van Nath, in a conversation we had almost ten years ago, claims that Khmer Rouge killed around 200,000 people during its reign, a number which he also uses in his book "A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21" (White Lotus Press). And among Khmer survivors, there is a consensus that the majority of people died not because of Communist ideology and not because of direct orders from Phnom Penh to exterminate millions, but because of the officers and local cadres in the provinces who ran amok, taking their personal vengeance on deported city-dwellers and "elites" whom they blamed for both the savage American bombing from the past, and for supporting the corrupt and savage pro-Western dictatorship of Lon Nol.

There can be no doubt that the great majority of those who died during the Khmer Rouge dictatorship (between one and two million people) were victims of famines, lack of medical care and despicable living conditions.

A substantial number vanished as a result of the U.S. carpet bombing, a fact rarely mentioned in the mainstream Western media. The U.S. Air Force had been secretly bombing Cambodia using B-52s since May 1969. Facing defeat in Vietnam in 1973, savage carpet bombing began in order to support Lon Nol's regime. Historian David P. Chandler writes:

When the campaign was stopped by the U.S. Congress at the end of the year, the B-52s had dropped over half of a million tons of bombs on a country with which the United States was not at war — more than twice the tonnage dropped on Japan during WWII.

The war in Cambodia was known as "the sideshow" by journalists covering the war in Vietnam and by American policy-makers in London. Yet the intensity of U.S. bombing in Cambodia was greater than it ever was in Vietnam; about 500,000 soldiers and civilians were killed over the 4-year period. It also caused about 2 million refugees to flee from the countryside to the capital.

Like in Laos, tens of thousands of men, women and children lost their lives and limbs as a result of unexploded bombs and mines. The savagery of the bombardment, the displacement of millions of people, and resentment towards the corrupt pro-Western regime in Phnom Penh paved the way for Khmer Rouge's victory and the campaign of savage vengeance.

Choeung Ek, just a few miles south of Phnom Penh, was the execution ground now also known as the "Killing Fields." It is believed that around 40,000 Cambodians were murdered here, most by blows to the back of the head to save ammunition. Babies had their heads smashed against trees or limbs torn from their bodies. A huge glass tower is filled with cracked skulls exhumed from 129 mass graves in the area.

Outside of Phnom Penh, the "Killing Fields" Memorial is filled with human skulls. (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

The entire site is now filled with homeless children — as young as five — stalking visitors, begging for money or making outrageous sexual advances. Oblivious or indifferent towards the past, they grew up in this new and "democratic" Cambodia. Their only goal in the uncertain and brutal world is to feed themselves, and to survive by any means.

The Border

It is not easy to find answers in Phnom Penh. Everything is politicized here; clichés and fabrications are passed on as truth. This is my fifth working visit to Cambodia. Each time I came here I realized that answers to my uncomfortable questions could be found only outside the capital.

I hire a sturdy car and recommended driver and translator in one person, and we head south on Route 3, leaving this crowded and dangerous artery, going further south on 31 as far as it takes us, then turning left, towards Vietnam. This is not the main border crossing, not even a crossing which foreigners are allowed to use. There is no asphalt road here, just a dirt path with deep potholes, surrounded by rice fields, miserable villages and water buffaloes. Ours is the only car passing in this area; locals are walking or riding ancient bicycles. It is raining and the bottom of the car is scraping against the sand. My driver is swearing, having no idea what we are doing in this godforsaken place.

Then we come to the end; a lazy river, dormant town, the last border checkpoint with a sleeping guard — Prek Kres. Just a few yards further begin the houses of the first village in Vietnam.

This is where the first skirmishes between Khmer Rouge and Vietnam began, and one of the points where the Vietnamese army invaded, most definitely saving further millions of Cambodian people from certain death. But this action was seen by the West as an invasion and occupation. The U.S. condemned Vietnam, demanding an immediate withdrawal of its troops and a return of the legitimate government — meaning Khmer Rouge — to power. In the Cold War climate and from the point of view of its geopolitical interests, it was more acceptable for the U.S. to sacrifice further millions of Cambodian lives than to allow Vietnamese influence in the region.

I have no problem finding Mr. Sek Cuuin, a mayor of Prek Kres. We sit down at the outdoor table of his house and he seems to be happy to share his memories with the strangers.

"This huge puddle which you see in the middle of the road is what remains of the U.S. carpet bombing", he explains. "We filled the hole, but when it rains, there is still a puddle there, I don't know why. This area was heavily bombed during the war, by B-52s. If you enter the fields, you will see small lakes all over. It's what happens during the heavy rains. These lakes are bomb craters."

A rural road on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. It is still dotted with bomb craters. (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

We walk around the village. Barefoot children are staring at us. People are gathering, wondering what brought us here. Makeshift vehicles are parked next to the primitive jetty where a traditional merchant boat is being unloaded.

"There were always conflicts here," explains the mayor. "There were border skirmishes during Lon Nol's regime and after, when Khmer Rouge took over in 1975. We had 700 families living in this town; 400 were forcefully relocated. When Khmer Rouge entered, I just jumped into the river and swam for my life. Most of the remaining 300 families tried to escape to Vietnam, and Prek Kres became a ghost town — an outpost for Khmer Rouge's army which began attacking Vietnamese villages across the border."

I ask him about the Vietnamese Christmas offensive in 1978.

"The Vietnamese army crossed this border in 1979. No matter what they say now, almost everybody was happy, welcoming their troops. Those who survived and stayed in this town simply lined along the road, waved at Vietnamese soldiers and cried. The entire area — entire country — was ravished; destroyed by Khmer Rouge and earlier by the U.S. bombing. Vietnamese saved this nation from complete annihilation. And when they took Phnom Penh, it was obvious that the mass killing and torture would stop. But you know what happened later; gratitude evaporated and nationalism gained ground. And the foreign countries insisted that this was not a liberation but an occupation. But you can ask anybody, except members of Khmer Rouge, how they felt in 1978 and 1979 — we felt liberated, we were saved and we suddenly realized that we might survive."

I ask the mayor how he would compare Vietnam and Cambodia now. After all, on paper, Cambodia is a success story, a multi-party democracy. He grins sarcastically.

"Yes, now we have many political parties. But you can't eat political parties; they don't fill your stomach. Everything here is corrupt. The Vietnamese government managed to give a much better life to its people. Especially to poor people, and in this part of the world almost everybody is poor. All I can tell you is that when we are hungry and when we are sick, we don't go to Phnom Penh; we cross the border and go to Vietnam. They know we are Khmers but they don't care; they help us. They believe — over there — that if you are hungry or sick, you have to be helped, no matter what is your nationality. People there have a big heart."

It is getting dark. I wish I could stay longer, but my flight to Bangkok is leaving early in the morning. We drive in silence, almost all the way to Phnom Penh. Leaving Prek Kres I pay closer attention to the craters on the road and in the rice fields. Almost all of the answers regarding recent history of this tortured nation can be found here, in this remote corner tucked between Cambodia and Vietnam. But there seems to be not many who are willing to search for uncomfortable answers.

This article first appeared in ZNet online magazine.

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