(Please be aware that this post contains graphic content)
Four years ago I lived in Phnom Penh for two months with my good friend Rosie. She had worked in Cambodia for a time and had returned home with a plan to raise awareness of women caught in the web of the Cambodian sex industry, a problem of epidemic proportions in the Southeast Asian country, by selling ethically made t-shirts.
We returned together a year later to the capital city and, working with a non-governmental organization called Daughters (They train women who have left the sex industry in skills that will empower them and provide them with opportunities for employment. For more information visit http://www.daughtersofcambodia.org), we founded Freed Fashion Ltd.
We trained four young women, who had all been victims of sex trafficking, in t-shirt production and basic admin. We left Cambodia with over 200 t-shirts and a naïve but admirable vision. Unfortunately it was not a success for us and we had to shelve our dream, so returning to the city was at first hard but it became a healing balm, a mixture of new and old memories, all beautiful and affirming, with two people I love very much.
Last time I was there I hadn’t really visited any of the well known tourist spots so we rented ourselves a crosser bike and Gareth took me on a hair-raising trip around the city.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communist party, came into power. A ruthless and brutal government, for the three years they ruled they are said to have killed 2 million of their own people. A non-descript high school in Phnom Penh, now called Tuol Sleng, was one such place where the horrors of the Khmer Rouge played out.
|One of the buildings of Tuol Sleng prison|
A prison for members of the party, Tuol Sleng was a place where men, women and children were beaten and tortured before being taken to the mass graves called The Killing Fields. It is now a museum of genocide and the buildings have all been preserved as they were left in 1979. In some rooms there are still bloodstains on the floor.
Writing this, although about a month ago now, I still find myself getting chocked up when I think about what I saw. There are four main buildings, Building A, B, C and D, each housing different displays and items such as cells where prisoners were kept and bed frames where the bodies of the last victims where found by the Vietnamese invading army. There is a gallery showing an overwhelming number of photographs of all of the victims when they arrived at the prison. There are also displays of the victims clothing (I was very disturbed by this particular display) and devices used for torture.
If you are interested in learning more about this prison, you should read ‘The Lost Executioner’ by Nic Dunlop about Comrade Duch, who was the director of Tuol Sleng. It is an extremely informative read, although not for the faint hearted.
We left Tuol Sleng heavy and tired, I had cried out a lot of my energy but we’d planned to next visit Choeng Ek, a former orchid and Chinese graveyard 17km out of town, now commonly known as The Killing Fields.
Upon arrival we were handed headphones that played a recorded guide. The male Cambodian voice was calm yet morose, telling stories and describing where significant buildings used to be.
Pieces of cloth and bone are continuously coming to the surface, the horror does not need to be imagined, you can see it. One moment in the tour, when the final sounds the victims heard was played back, sent shivers through my whole body; the grainy communist hymn overpowered by the thumping groans of the generator. At the time of the killings this was done so that it would mask the screams.
|Victims’ clothing moving to the surface|
Nothing was held back in the tour, even the most macabre of facts were detailed. A tree on the outskirts of the graves looked similar to a palm tree however along the edges of the long leaves were short spiky teeth like those on a saw, these were used to cut the throats of victims. Another tree was found coated with blood and fragments of bone. It was later determined that babies and young children were thrown against it before being tossed into the grave.
A memorial to the victims of the killing has been erected and now houses the remains that have been exhumed from the graves as a final resting place.
|Memorial to the victims of The Killing Fields|
When the tour was over we needed to clear our heads so we drove around the Phnom Penh countryside digesting what our senses had just experienced.
The city has a lot more to offer than just Tuol Sleng or The Killing Fields, there are so many beautiful places to spend time and relax. When I was last in Phnom Penh, Rosie and I used to go to a bar called Equinox, in an area frequented by expats, and sit for hours drinking mojitos. I was only able to find this area the last night Gareth and I were in Phnom Penh, (it’s between Lucky Supermarket and the Independence Monument, if you fancy going) and it was the most relaxing and finest gastronomic experience we’d had in the city (if you want a curry go to the Nepalese restaurant in this area, there’s only one, and oh my god the food is like molten heaven).
We, Gareth and I, had spent most evenings eating and drinking along the riverside. Potentially a romantic affair, but if you sit in one of these establishments you are likely to be accosted by an insurmountable number of children and asked if you would like some bracelets or a book. We made friends with a little girl called Winny and instead of buying from her we would talk to her, play clapping games and bought her orange juice. She was a small skinny girl with a huge personality. She claimed that she was 8 but her English was almost fluent and she would translate for us when other children gathered around hoping to make some money out of us.
Cambodia, especially Phnom Penh, has this thing where you are walking down a street and a tuk tuk driver will ask you if you want to utilise his services, you say no, thank you, then his mate, another tuk tuk driver, will ask the same question, then his other mate will, again, say those three dreaded words ‘tuk tuk lady?’ It can be as many as four times that you will hear this quite innocuous query one after the other and trust me, by the end of the day if you hadn’t have screamed, at least in your head, ‘NO, I DON’T WANT A FUCKING TUK TUK!’ then you’re a better person than Gareth and I will ever be.
It is very easy for us westerners to get exasperated with the things that we see and encounter as tourists. We take it for granted that back home we have accountable governments who actually provide services to the public, albeit questionable at times, i.e. healthcare, infrastructure, compulsory education up to 16 years. They also encourage liberties such as freedom of speech. I read an article in the Phnom Penh Post about a director of a Cambodian cultural organization fund who had been sentenced to two years imprisonment for suggesting that a lighting project at Angkor Wat was damaging the temple. The lawsuit was brought against him by the government as a charge for disinformation.
Cambodia is still scarred by the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge but the people are trying hard to grow from their experience. They cannot hide from the cruel past of their forefathers but they can learn from it.
In The Lost Executioner, it ends with the arrest of Comrade Duch, and Nic Dunlop raises the question of whether the Cambodian people will find justice. Comrade Duch was charged with personally overseeing the systematic torture of more than 15,000 prisoners (There are only seven known survivors of Tuol Sleng prison). On 26 July 2010 Duch was found guilty of crimes against humanity, torture and murder and was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. On 3 February 2012 his appeal was rejected and his sentence was increased to life imprisonment.
His was the first trial of heads of the Khmer Rouge and it has taken decades to get to this point. There is said to be evidence of corruption within the proceedings and government officials protecting former Khmer Rouge officials. This has led to a population who do not yet trust their government and feel that they will never find justice as those now awaiting trial are in their late 70’s and 80’s. It is now a race against time and these people are close to losing all hope.
If you yourself go to Cambodia’s capital, remember this: tuk tuk drivers will piss you off, sex tourism is unashamedly extensive, children will be working on the streets all hours trying to sell you, let’s be honest, shite. But be patient, be kind and above all smile because they will beam back with the most infectious smile you have ever seen.