Survival in the Killing Fields

This autobiography sums up the chaos that was Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and to an extent, what still happens in Cambodia. I’ve read a few autobiographies of the Khmer Rouge years, and this one hits me the hardest. It makes you depressed, and more importantly, makes you appreciate the life you are living now.

killing fields

Haing S. Ngor was made famous by acting as Dith Pran in the 1984 film The Killing Fields – a role which won Ngor an Oscar. Dith Pran’s story is a famous one, it’s horrific and upsetting what he experienced under the Pol Pot regime. Ngor’s account takes this feeling to a whole new level.

This book definitely isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s heartbreaking and horrowing. There are graphic descriptions of torture and murder, of disease and starvation, of crimes against humanity both within the Khmer Rouge and outside (including the rape of women by Thai soldiers as they try and escape Cambodia, and the mass killing of Cambodian refugees in Thailand). The description is so vivid you can almost smell the death of the people around him.

Ngor doesn’t just describe his own personal suffering, he describes Cambodia’s suffering. He writes what he witnesses. His personal accounts of being tortured (which happened on numerous occassions) also describe how others were treated. Not many autobiographies of the Khmer Rouge do this, for example, Denise Affonco’s  To The End of Hell, which describes only the author’s suffering and feelings of starvation. It’s quite a tedious read as Affonco doesn’t even describe in detail her own children’s death and as a result doesn’t generate the same emotional response as Survival in the Killing Fields.

Haing S. Ngor not only gives an account of what happens to his life during the Pol Pot regime, he also disusses the culture and most importantly, the politics of Cambodia before, during and after the regime.  The book can easily be split into two sections: Ngor’s life before, during and after the regime; and what happened to Khmer citizens before, during and after the regime. The book is a mini contemporary history of Cambodia and you can begin to understand the political workings of a nightmare.

The Khmer Rouge regime is incredibly fascinating and raises certain questions: why didn’t the West intervene? We knew what was happening in the country, yet there was no international discussion about how to solve the problem. This wouldn’t happen today – Syria being the prime example. Ngor doesn’t blame anyone for events happening in his country. All his anger is directed at the Khmer Rouge, to those who tortured him and others, to those who brought the Cambodian people suffering and death.


Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields

Ngor’s memoirs conclude with his own death.  Roger Warner (the co-author) describes in an epilogue what happens after Ngor won an Oscar for his role in The Killing Fields and he ends describing Ngor’s death in 1996 and the mystery surrounding it.

There is a happy ending however. Since his death a charity, Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation  was founded, which provides aid to the people of Cambodia.

Survival in the Killing Fields is a book everyone should read, and no one should forget.

The Rape and Lies of Cambodia

‘’Let me reassure that the Kingdom of Cambodia a country with independence, neutrality, peace, freedom, democracy and human rights as you all have seen, shall be existing with no end.’’ Prime Minister Hun Sen

Continuing with extracts from my diary.

27th November

Today I met a journalist for the Phnom Penh Post and was given all the gossip about the country. Cambodia has a dark side which no one admits to and no foreigner sees. I was quickly told that journalism is a dangerous profession: some journalists have been sent to prison for ‘slander’. He told me about stories he was working on, stories which would be published abroad. These stories will be on the HIV problem in Cambodia; he found out through NGO contacts, and drunken politicians at functions, that Cambodia has a habit of lying about the number of HIV and AIDS cases: the government have worked out that the higher the number the more money from charities and governments they will get. Also, this aid money was never passed down to those who needed it. The rich kept themselves rich, and the poor remained poor and in poverty.

We continued the conversation over dinner (fried ants are gorgeous) and also learnt that the lake in Phnom Penh, the one that stops the city from flooding every wet season, has been sold to a foreign company who were going to fill it in to make a shopping centre. And to replace the lake, they were going to build a new one and that they picked a place, not outside Phnom Penh, but right over a housing estate where a lot of poor people lived. Another article being written was about how the families and businesses in that area weren’t being given compensation; they were being forced to leave and were being made homeless. Apparently, the company had given the government money for compensation, but surprise surprise, it wasn’t passed down.

We also got chatting about the water festival. The journalist went on to explain about Diamond island, how it used to be full of homes and businesses but (this sounds familiar) was bought by a company who evicted everyone (again left them homeless) and built a theme park. The yearly water festival was to be held there to show off the new renovated island, and the news that the island had changed spread over Cambodia, so more people from across the country turned up than were expected. The main bridge rocks slightly and there were a large number of people from the countryside who didn’t realise the bridge naturally did this, so they got spooked and started the stampede. It wasn’t the story I heard on BBC News before I left about how some people were electrocuted and fainted which caused panic. The journalist then went on to talk about the compensation system that had been put in place for the victims: if a family had one or more person who died in the incident, they got paid $50. If a family had one or more person who got injured, they were paid $100. Compensation wasn’t per person but instead per household, and barely covered medical and funeral costs for one person let alone any additional family members.

From the Daily Telegraph: the aftermath the festival

From the Daily Telegraph: the aftermath the festival

28th November

As I was leaving Phnom Penh the day after next, I decided to pay the tuk-tuk driver for the trip to S-21, the Killing Fields and today’s trip. I was already advised by the guesthouse owner that I should pay no more than $35. The tuk-tuk driver took me to one side and said that for me he would give me a special price. He said that because he hadn’t laid a finger on me I was to pay him what worked out to be £200. I thought he was joking, and he said that if I didn’t pay him I was to remember that he had access to my drinks in the guesthouse (true, as he got them from the kitchen fridge every morning) and that he also had access to my room. He said that if I didn’t pay he wouldn’t hesitate and told me that my embassy wouldn’t care if I was raped and the police wouldn’t care unless I paid them to look into the matter. I still thought he was joking, and he told me to go up to my room as he has made a point. When I unlocked my door my bed was covered with around ten massive spiders (Cambodia doesn’t do normal sized spiders). I was staying in a twin room, and when I have breakfast the owner’s wife makes the bed and has a sweep. I also double check every morning that I have locked the door. Yet, the driver knew exactly which of the two beds I was sleeping on and placed the spiders on the right one. I hate spiders, and these were massive, I went and got the hotel owner who thought I was joking, saw them, then went to get a bucket. Whilst he was sticking them in the bucket he was telling me which ones gave nasty bites, which ones were poisonous and which ones look more harmful than that they actually are. I did however quickly get the driver’s point and decided to pay him. I never saw him again.

Whilst at dinner with my new journalist friend I told him briefly what had happened and they told me about an American girl a few weeks back who was raped – she went to the police and was sent away because she was white and therefore must’ve been asking for it. He also told me white women were targeted upon more, because Cambodians don’t like black skin -white is seen as more exotic and Westerners are seen as incredibly wealthy. It is an easy way for them to make money and if a woman refused to pay then the men would take another form of payment.

Prime Minister Hun Sen

Prime Minister Hun Sen

Cambodia breaks my heart. Politically and socially, it’s completely messed up. The Human Rights Watch have done a number of reports into the political corruption and human rights abuses to Cambodian citizens. Amnesty International have also produced lots of statistics on crime against women in Cambodia. More needs to be done to improve the situation, instead the world are happy to ignore the problem.

Cambodia receives up to $7omillion in aid every year from the World Bank alone. There are over 3,000  NGOs and yet the country has been stuck in a rut since the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Something has to change.

Articles and reports about abuses:

The Killing Fields of Cambodia

I have recently been re-reading the diary I kept whilst travelling in Cambodia in 2010. It’s not often that I forget chilling events and goings-on when talking to people and visiting places. What happened in Cambodia however, was very nearly forgotten and upon re-reading I was able to remember and appreciate just exactly how lucky I am.

My diary is 30 pages long, but I have condensed it down for the purpose of this blog. This first post focuses on S-21 and the Killing Fields.

26th November

It was easily one of the most depressing days of my life. Why? Because I visited S-21 and The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

S-21 is utterly bizarre. It’s located on a normal street, with cafés and homes opposite. The site itself was surreal; despite it being gorgeously hot, it felt cold and oppressive. I hired a female guide who before taking me around explained what she lived through in the Khmer Rouge years. She told me that she and her family were forced to leave Phnom Penh when she was six. They were told to walk south towards the Vietnamese boarder, on the way her father was killed for being a former Lon Nol soldier. They reached a village where they were told they would only be for three days before being allowed back to the capital. But she ended up staying for a year. Her older brother and sister, being children and not understanding, tried to get more food. They were shortly taken away from their mother and were killed. A couple of months later my guide, now 7, left with her mother at night and escaped over the Vietnamese boarder where they made way to a refugee camp full of other Cambodians. She said it was one the most terrifying journeys ever; never knowing if they were going to be caught and killed. She went back when the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and resettled in Phnom Penh. She said she has no idea where her father, brother and sister are buried and cannot visit their graves to pay her respects.

She pointed out the graves of the last people who were killed in S-21. Apparently, they were killed in a rush of panic –the Vietnamese were coming so the Khmer Rouge were desperately trying to run and hide. She took me into the first block; the classrooms were split with makeshift walls. The rooms were roughly the size of a double bed, they had no doors, and some still had blood smeared up the walls. Chains and cuffs were nailed to the floor. She explained that everything has been left untouched in memory to those who died there. These rooms were where the prisoners stayed before being tortured and killed. Two or more were in the same room. One room we went in still had some torture equipment in the centre and photographs on the wall.

The final block was full of other torture equipment they found and of photographs. Every single prisoner had their photograph taken upon entry. There are children, women, babies and men. There were also paintings. My guide explained that one of the S-21 survivors is an artist and he painted them after he left. They were graphical and showed the torture he witnessed whilst in S-21 – including babies being murdered and women being raped. My guide went through how each piece of equipment was used. One room had a large wooden table with chains on. It was used to help torture the women. They were tied down, raped and mutilated (mainly their breasts were cut off).

S-21: The wire stops the prisoners from committing suicide

S-21: The wire stops the prisoners from committing suicide

Finally I was shown some more photographs, however, these were the ones of the Khmer Rouge who worked in S-21, and my guide picked out the faces of those who were now in prison or had died before going to prison. But I noticed that some of them she ignored and I asked her what happened to them. My guide went a bit pale and took me into an empty side room and asked me again if I really wanted to know, and I said I did. She started off by saying I was the first person who has ever asked about them(!). And she told me that what she is about to say is illegal, that if she is overheard criticising the politics of her country that she would be taken away and would never see her children again, but that she would tell me because it was important to tell someone. She told me that those people were given protection by the government as they had friends in high places, including the prime minister Hun Sen, and a few were even given jobs within the government which angered a lot of the people.

She went on to explain that nothing has really changed in Cambodia – the Khmer Rouge have gone but behind closed doors it was the same as usual. People were still being taken away and never seen of again. People aren’t allowed to speak their minds and protest against what’s being done in government. That the ‘foreigners’ came in the 1990s and didn’t really change a thing, except send Pol Pot into hiding, and replaced him with a dictator who was a former Khmer Rouge soldier. Journalists aren’t even are allowed to report the corruption that’s going on in their government. In NGOs there are senior figures who monitor what’s going on to make sure nothing too incriminating gets published. She said the ‘foreigners’ had introduced other problems including HIV and that violence had only got worse, that now you know longer knew who to trust. People were scared of putting a finger out of line.

She was in tears and when she was ranting she kept looking at the door. I can’t even imagine what she’s seen and she was clearly trying to keep the rant as short as possible but at the same time you could tell she wanted to say more. She quickly left, bowed and asked if I was visiting the Killing Fields next. She then told me I could take photographs around S-21 and upstairs there was a documentary being shown.

After S-21 I left for the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The complex is quite large, and only some of the mass graves have been excavated. Outside there are landmine amputees begging for money.

You are free to tour the Killing Fields how you please. I worked my way clockwise starting at the memorial stupa. It was surrounded by Japanese tourists who were taking cheesy, happy-smiley, posing with their fingers in the ‘v’ sign and laughing inside the stupa which is filled with skulls of Khmer Rouge victims and displayed according to age and sex. What the tourists were doing made me feel incredibly sick. They didn’t even take their shoes off, and being Japanese I thought it would’ve been natural for them to do so. Tourists were expected to be respectful (obviously) and lay down white flowers and incense and take a few moments to pay their respects. Cambodian families also often visit to do the same, many go because they don’t know where their family are buried and feel the need to pay respects somewhere. The Japanese were clearly being anything but respectful.

There were signs everywhere telling people to mind the mass graves and not to walk in them. Some were fenced off, including a grave that around 166 bodies which were found decapitated. There were also signs explaining the significance of some objects, including trees. There was a tree that babies were killed against (one of the paintings in S-21 showed a baby being held by one ankle and thrown against the tree with force, killing it). There was also a sign by a building which apparently housed chemicals which were poured over the graves to burn off any remaining survivors and to mask the smell of rotting flesh.

At the end of the trail there was a mini museum with information on the Killing Fields, Pol Pot and S-21. It explained that there were over 300 of these sites around the country.

The Killing Fields