Pol Pot Genocide

flattiresandslowboats.comIn the late 1970’s Cambodia was ruled by a dictator named Pol Pot. It is because of him that Kampuchea, as it was then called,  takes its place in world history as one of several countries that has witnessed a genocidal maniac at the helm.

His reign of terror lasted only three years but in that time he managed to wipe out 25% of the population; an estimated 2 million lives. The mass graves of many of his victims are known as Killing Fields.

I visited one today.

On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where city turns rural, are the rice fields of Choeung Ek. As you enter you are greeted by a huge pagoda built of white washed concrete and glass. Inside, and behind the glass, lay the skulls and bones of over 8000 Cambodian men, women, and children.

Their remains were first unearthed in 1980 and acted as proof to the world that genocide had occurred in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime. A regime promoted into the UN, and then protected, by world leaders of several countries including the US.

To this day bones continue to surface in and around the graves when the monsoon rains come.

You are led through the fields by an audio guide that explains in graphic detail with first hand accounts of what happened here. There are no survivor stories but the guards who once worked there speak.

They explain in chilling unemotional narration what they did.

How men were blindfolded and made to kneel beside the pits sometimes 16 feet deep. A steel bar was used to crack them in the back of the neck. They would collapse to the ground.  If they remained alive their throats were slit using the serrated edge of palm branches from a nearby tree.

Women met the same fate but in many cases rape was the precursor to execution.

One of the Khmer Rouge doctrines was that any person arrested, should be. There was no mistakes. To prevent revenge of family members, they to were executed. To prevent revenge later in life by the young children, all had to be executed; including babies.

The method of this execution was particularly brutal. A killing tree is found in the middle of the Choeung Ek adorned with prayer bracelets where blood, bones, and hair of children was found embedded in the trunk.

It is incredible to walk around Cambodia and know that everyone over the age of 35 lived through this era and has vivid memories of it. It is equally disturbing to realize that many participated in some way with the Khmer Rouge.

If you were against the party, or deemed to be, you are now dead.

Even today there is sustained support for the Khmer Rouge especially in the outlying villages. Bringing the perpetrators to justice has only recently begun and continues to meet obstruction as many want it to be left in the past.

Pol Pot himself never saw a day of jail time. He exiled to Thailand where he died in 1998. The court setup to deliver justice was not organized until 2003.

Charges of crimes against humanity and genocide have been filed against the four remaining party leaders but to this day only one has been convicted.

To this visitor of the Killing Fields the knowledge that almost no one has been held accountable, and there is opposition to seeking accountability, remains the hardest part to even attempt at understanding.

For charges of genocide to be brought against those responsible should not take 30 years. Click here for more…

The killing fields at Choeung Ek remain as a memorial dedicated to those murdered and buried in the mass graves. It is a gruesome and depressing testament to what mankind can inflict on his own kind.

So at this point you may think I am done.

Unfortunately the execution phase of creating a cleansed nation was the part most were not afraid of; it was the suffering that preceded death.  There were centers for torture throughout Cambodia but the most infamous was S-21.

Torture was inflicted on approx. 17,000 men, women, and children at Tuol Sleng Security Prison; also known as S-21.

I will not go into great detail here as the pictures will speak for themselves. My visit to S-21 was far more disturbing to me than the killing fields.

Only 7 people survived this prison which was a high school prior to the Khmer Rouge regime.

The paintings you will see are the creation of one of the survivors and depict true images of the brutality.  In one of the more disturbing features of the prison, now the genocide museum, they show a film where a former guard confirms all the images as accurate. he also goes on to talk about the atrocities performed on a daily basis.

In some parts he laughs as he recalls what he did and explains it away as simply following orders. He states that the regime was bad and rationalizes away any personal accountability. From what I have seen of several guard testimonies this is a common theme.

Click on any image to scroll in full screen.

The Khmer Rouge were so meticulous at keeping records that every prisoner was photographed before torture and after execution. Each prisoner was made to complete a biography and in them they had to confess to bogus crimes and political affiliations.

Many of the confessions state that the victim was an agent of the CIA.

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I  did not join the resistance movement to kill people, to kill the nation. Look at  me now. Am I a savage person? My conscience is clear. Pol Pot

To learn more please click here. The information contained will fill you in on the history, the whys, and the how’s. I guarantee it will not provide any real understanding however.

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47 thoughts on “Pol Pot Genocide

  1. We didn’t visit these places when we were in Cambodia, and to this day I don’t know whether I regret this or not. On one hand I guess you feel it’s wrong to go and gawp, but on the other perhaps it’s also a mark of respect to those who suffered. As always you’ve captured the atmosphere so well in your writing so I can instead ‘visit’ through you instead!

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    1. Thanks Heather. It was one of those places that has stuck with me and I am glad I went but it was a difficult place to comprehend in even the slightest way.

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  2. Oh God! I was of course aware of the history, but reading it in so much detail is something else! It must have been a very emotional experience! When I visited Auschwitz, I had to go outside at some point, I just couldn’t take it any longer!!

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  3. This is such a tragic piece of history that is always overlooked. So many people have no idea of this wretched genocide (this was never taught to me in world history class) and it has not happened all that long ago. It’s unbelievable as to how one person can inflict so much pain and suffering on millions. Thanks for the story and being so honest, I hope more people learn about it.

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  4. I know so many people who have visited Cambodia and not come back with this story. Great reporting and excellent review. Not sure I could visit but very glad you have and could educate on this matter.

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  5. I will admit to knowing of a movie called The Killing Fields, but I really had no idea about all of this. No idea at all. You’ve certainly put a lot of information together here, and it’s something I’ll need to mull over for awhile.

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    1. Yes, I to continue to mull this over as it is beyond belief. That movie came out in 1984 so it wasn’t that long after the whole tragedy had been exposed.

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  6. It is so heart wrenching and scary that someone can be so cruel. It is unimaginable how some people would treat other people like them. I wonder how you handled the emotional part of this story Tim

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    1. Hi Welli. It was definitely disturbing and took me many days to put together this article. The cruelty inflicted from one human to another is unimaginable and the fact that it was so recent made it even worse. I guess we like to believe that these types of things are from a past era but that is clearly not the case.

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  7. This is so sad! Those people did not deserve that. I pray that their souls are resting in peace. Thanks for sharing the article as it gives me gratitude and to not sweat the small stuff.

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  8. I have never heard about Pol Pot and about this Genocide. All the pictures and story is really disturbing. It’s sad that Cambodia have faced such a hard time. It’s really heart breaking. Each skull has it’s painful story to tell.

    I feel sad about everyone who was brutally killed in torturing cells of S-21 . I do not get this , why Pol Pot was conscious about taking photographs.

    Still this genocide is carried in different countries and many Hitlers and pol pot are still in world , who are executing masses with UN knowing everything.

    I am sad about this catastrophic violence and killing.

    But history of India- Pakistan partition is not that different when 1 million people where killed and 50,000 women were abducted while migrating in 1947 .

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  9. Their story… our story if we are citizens of the world, is heartbreaking. I hope that at the least we have learned some lessons, though no doubt, not nearly enough. Thank you for the reminder.

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  10. Tim, I thought I was aware of world history but I truly cannot remember hearing about the Pol Pot genocide. That is unbelievable. You would think that with people shuddering hearing about these atrocities that they would stop, but it seems to just go on and on. Maybe if enough people keep reminding us, we will eventually get the message.
    Lenie

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    1. Since I grew up in New Zealand I remember the era well. I am sure there was not a lot of publicity in the US as the war in Vietnam was still fresh in peoples minds and the actions of the administration were not exactly stellar. The actions of many countries were based on perceived political advantage over moral.

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  11. I’m shocked by reading this horrible story. I’ve never heard about Pol Pot genocide before reading your article, maybe cause I know just a little about Cambodgia. The cruelty of humans can reach unbeliavable levels.. this story seems very similar to Auschwitz to me. May that souls rest in peace.

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    1. You are right Ilaria, it is very similar to Auschwitz. The main difference is that in Cambodia it happened very recently and we continue to see examples of this kind of tragedy all the time.

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  12. A friend went on a tour which included Cambodia. She had pictures and told some of the story, but your post filled in the blanks for me. It’s important that stories like this are told so that we understand the price of human life and how to avoid such atrocities in the future.

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    1. I grew up hearing about Pol Pot but as a child had no real way of understanding. Going there put that lack of understanding clearly into focus.

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  13. This is just unthinkable. And by that I mean that even though I’ve heard of the killing fields, I just cannot comprehend it. I’m glad that you’ve written this (as hard as it is to read) so that we do not forget.

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    1. They were difficult places to visit and write about but am glad I did and also glad to have found an audience even if just a small slice.

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  14. This is Jay

    Thanks for keeping information like this relavent so long after it has “ended”. This was such a horrible and deplorable time. As usual this was written very well with great pictures to capture your great words.

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  15. Genocide is such a horrible thing. I suppose some resist holding those responsible accountable for their crimes or speaking out against the regime due to brainwashing and/or fear. Did the UN support of Cambodia and the regime change after the genocide became proven fact?

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    1. That is an amazing thing but you what else was difficult; knowing that the men and women still around and of a certain age were likely participants in the regime. The S21 museum has a whole dedicated to the guards who are now farmers or fisherman. The one common theme among them all is that they blame others for their actions.

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  16. Read a lot about the killing fields of Cambodia, pot pol and his inhuman activities. This period was indeed a dark one for the country. One thing which (according to me) sets Pot Pol apart from other tyrannies is the scale of destruction he carried out in such a short period of time.

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  17. I knew about this but not the bone chilling details. Requiring people to write about their supposed sins before being killed is horrible. What a terrible place to visit. Thank you for sharing so that they will not be forgotten.

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  18. What happened in Cambodia was horrendous. Makes you wonder about human nature, doesn’t it? Not least since he never faced justice. And what’s worse is that it will happen again. Look at Syria. It’s done in different ways, but it’s still genocide.

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  19. Hi Tim,

    I had heard about Hitler’s death camps (but only heard. I know it’s very disturbing and so I didn’t want to get my mind into that section of our human history). But, I had no idea about Pol Pot and genocide in Cambodia before visiting this page.

    And I tell you, it is very disturbing after reading and seeing these pictures you’ve shared with us. However, I wouldn’t say I will not visit that place. Like all others who commented said, “Those people need to be remembered and that’s a tribute we can pay.”

    It’s amazing how barbaric history we have had as human beings. Changej Khan, Taimur Lang and then Hitler’s horror stories are well known. But this is something that happened in the modern world? And UN watched? What a shame!

    Thank you for shedding some light and sharing your experience.

    Regards,
    Kumar

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  20. This reminds me of the Holocaust, only it isn’t nearly as publicized. Atrocious. Words cannot describe why people do these kinds of things and why it is not known world-wide. I just commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day, as my father’s entire family perished in Auschwitz and Dacau and the words I can summon are “Never forget” similar to 9/11. The pictures you posted are a grim, realistic reminder of the evil that exists in this world. I appreciate you sharing it – this kind of thing needs to be known – and remembered.

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  21. As most people my age, I have memories of the war, had friends who served there, but not such vivid memories of the genocide. I must agree with your friend above…the highest honor we can afford them is to remember. And I thank you for helping me to do just that.

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  22. Hey Tim. Thanks for this useful reminder of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. This really never got the amount of media attention in the west that it warrants. I am not sure why that was and even given the antipathy to S.E Asia during that period, none of the possible explanations are acceptable.

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    1. Absolutely right Paul. The only reason that makes any sense in this situation of non-sense is that the media was focused on the Khmer Rouge fighting the Vietnamese and therefore protecting the border of Thailand. If the Khmer Rouge had been dismantled by either the US, other Allies, or the Thai’s, Vietnam could have taken there armies directly to Bangkok…had they wanted. That is hindsight of course. As it turns out, Vietnam becomes the hero and defeats the Khmer Rouge.

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  23. Oh, wow. I had no idea there was a genocide in Cambodia. And so recent! Just reading about it was very upsetting, I can’t imagine visiting there! Thanks for talking about it with us.

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  24. The first time I went to S21 I ended up sitting on a bench seat with a British guy and an American man – we are all middle-aged – and we just sobbed. We shared an awful feeling of guilt, I think, that during the 1970s our nations, ourselves, had turned a blind eye to Cambodia. After the Vietnam war debacle (whether you were pro or anti-American it didn’t matter) we all washed our hands of SE Asian affairs. The British guy asked: “How could we have let this happen?” And none of us had a decent answer. We just sat there and sniffed tears back. Three grown men, overawed by the horror.

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    1. I consider myself a grown man as well, even though some would disagree, but felt the same wave of emotion and guilt on behalf of the world that I think a lot of people feel when inside the walls of S-21. It’s hard to comprehend how that all went on and no-one did anything…except ensure their place in the UN.

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      1. Before I went I had reservations. Was this genocide tourism? Horror-porn of some kind? But I was guided by a Vietnamese friend who had recently visited Auschwitz. “How did you feel about visiting the death camp?” I asked. His answer was spot on: “The best thing we can do is remember those who died. They deserve to be remembered.”

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