I’d been talking to Paul Raffaele, a writer and friend of mine, about an up and coming trip I was planning to make to Cambodia earlier this year. We’d previously worked on a story together for the Smithsonian Magazine in Northwestern Pakistan. I’d planned to be away a couple of weeks, so a relatively shorter trip than usual.
I was aware that it was the ‘dry season’ in Cambodia, and that in Phnom Penh, the former King Sihanouk’s cremation would take place at the end of my stay. With only a couple of destinations scheduled, I wanted to ensure quality time in each. I’ve always wanted to visit Phnom Penh, not only for its place in history, but to experience the capital in the ‘new’ Cambodia.
This blog relates to one particular aspect of the trip to Cambodia. When talking to Paul, he’d enquired about my itinerary, and whether I wanted to see the Killing Fields. My reply was considered and fairly emphatic. I replied that in the limited time available to me, I’d prefer to sidestep that part of Cambodia’s history, primarily because I wanted to explore the iconic places, as I would in any other country. I also wanted to spend some time on and around the Mekong River.
Call it misguided, in hindsight, I now see my decision as just, well, wrong thinking. It was not long after my arrival in Siem Reap that I soon realised that my original line of thought was literally melting away by the hour. Literature, conversations, photographs, amputees, newspapers, it was all pervasive and in the end the reality of the situation became clear. It’s simply not possible to visit Cambodia, to appreciate and to understand the nightmare its people have been subjected to, without visiting the dark side. Not exactly my ‘cup of tea’. I admire those fellow photographers who wish to witness and document the pain and suffering arising from the world’s violence and injustices, but that is not me. I feel a greater curiosity towards the natural world, and the cultures that make it what it is today.
Having arrived at the hotel in Siem Reap I arranged a Wi-Fi connection, food and a reliable driver. A couple of days into my stay, at a poolside breakfast, I had the good fortune to strike up a conversation with a journalist from the New Yorker Magazine. She’d covered Cambodia for many years and, although part way through a feature article, was kind enough to spare the time to chat about all things Cambodian. She’d timed her trip for the cremation of the former King Norodom Sihanouk. She too asked of my intentions while in Siem Reap, and no doubt noted my non-mention of the Killing Fields. It didn’t take long before the subject was revisited. She spoke of how central they are to the Cambodian story.
In the following two days of temple viewing, rising long before sun up, I had certainly become focused on exploring the temples to the north, and Tonle Sap Lake to the south. My driver and interpreter was a great guy. He worked hard to provide all the opportunity for the kind of photographs I was after and then some, given the limited time available. It was after a very long and hot but rewarding trip to see Banteay Srei, the oldest of all the known Angkor temples and one of the outer circle, with less visitors due to its more distant location. Over a cold drink, and without any real specific intent we touched on his family. It felt comfortable since we’d spent some time together. He explained his family set-up, the difficulties in affording an education for all of his four children. He then went on to tell me of the personal destruction of some of his family at the hands of the Pol Pot regime.
And so began my own journey into trying to understand a brief part of the nation’s history that literally tore it apart, methodically, horrifically returning it to the dark ages by a few cruel and paranoid ideologues.
Much has been written about the destruction of the Cambodian people under the heinous regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between the years of 1975 and 1978. While I’ve read details of the much documented tragedy, and the personal accounts of survivors, it’s not my wish to recap here in detail the horror of the mass extermination meted out to approx two million mostly innocent Cambodians. On April 17th, with dead eyes and a stark coldness to their demeanour, they marched the then 2 million residents of Phnom Penh out of the city in a mass evacuation to the countryside, to start a new life more akin to slavery. Anyone not following orders was killed without hesitation.
And so it was, as with the previous days in Cambodia, rising early to beat the heat, the crowds, and having the luxury of some better light to work with. A fairly long and always pleasant tuk-tuk ride belied any hint of what was to come. Just like the countless mornings the poor hapless prisoners, men, women, children and babies were marched along the same route I was taking to Choeung Ek, the most well known of the 300 killing fields spread across rural Cambodia, or Democratic Kampuchea as it was then called. I walked through the gate of The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, paid the entrance fee, received the little tape recorder and headphones, and in the silence of a beautiful Cambodian morning, (there were virtually no other tourists as I set out), began my journey into what can only be described as ‘a hell on earth’. I had in fact passed the towering memorial of victims skulls, erected in their honour, switched on the tape at exhibit one, and was thrust into a world of pain, wanton killing, of genocide.
Writing this was really intended to be merely an introduction to the images. Revisiting the experience, benign by comparison to those out there covering wars and and conflict, has bought back much of the emotion felt on the day. Surely the most sobering experience of my life. Working my way through the areas devoted to killing and torture and ultimately burial in mass graves just got worse. The neatly painted signs just got more horrific. The audio commentary numbing, with the occasional bird call heard over the taped recording. Every wet season, a new set of bones and clothing scraps belonging to the victims, exposed by the relentless downpours, provided the visual proof that it was all real, very real. By the time I left, I felt sad and in shock, to think this scene was repeated in 299 other locations around the country, and at a time in history when we were growing up experiencing the freedom and joy of an unforgettable decade, the 70’s. The same feeling was reflected in the demeanor of all the other visitors that had started to arrive, either individually, or in groups. No matter their nationality, young or old, their sadness was palpable.
The trip back to Phnom Penh was hot and a bit of a blur. I did not realise my afternoon was about to get a whole lot worse with a scheduled visit to the notorious former Security Office S21, the prison created under the orders of Pol Pot, specifically designed for the detention, interrogation, inhuman torture and, after securing a confession, killing of some 20,000 men, women and children. Located in central Phnom Penh, the converted secondary school was modified in a most rudimentary way by the Khmer Rouge. The geometric patterned tile floors allowed the blood to pool, and was a bizarre reminder that this was once an educational institution with classroom blackboards still in place. I do not wish to document the unspeakable atrocities and inhumanity that happened in this place. It’s possible to find it elsewhere. No tape recorded commentary this time, no need really. The Khmer Rouge recorded everything, photographing all of the victims, including each other. The torturers, who in fact, also under the threat of death should they not conform, went about their gruesome business, but in their own photographs, save a large chain around their necks, appeared to be no different from the victims themselves. A truly macabre experience, even to the point of seeing works of a selected artist that recorded the atrocities on canvas. He was one of those spared execution because of his perceived usefulness to the regime. Only 7 prisoners made it out alive, and their group photograph is in a brochure available at the point of entry.
In the end, Vietnam invaded Kampuchea Dec’ 1978 and ended the suffering of the people. The last 14 victims, one of them a woman, were tortured, murdered where they lay, their bloated and bloodied corpses left after the Khmer Rouge guards fled to the countryside. The photographs taken at the time, a terrible reminder for all to see to this day. They line the walls of the classrooms devoted to the torture. Those victims were buried in the grounds of the prison, in between the entrance and the school quadrangle. Before departing the prison, I photographed these graves and as I did so, for just a moment, long enough for a couple of frames, a little bird landed, tweeted his song, and disappeared skywards, free, just like the victims before me, and from that day on, free as the new nation that Cambodia would ultimately become.
The remainder of my journey through Cambodia was seen through different eyes and with a somewhat heavier heart. After my experience, an entirely different feeling and increased respect for its people. They are wonderful people who want all who visit their country to know and understand some of what they have endured and that they are proud of the fact that they are making a gradual and steady recovery from their genocide. And with their children, try to put the pain behind them, a new generation striding hopefully and wholeheartedly towards a bright and stable future.
I never imagined what my trip to Cambodia would hold for me, and just what an education it would become. On the following night, by chance, I was able to attend a gathering, many of them ex-pats, photographers and film makers, who were directly involved in reporting the Cambodian conflict. It was a special night remembering those journalists, most well known from the evening news bulletins of the day, who never made it home, who also met a violent end at the hand of Khmer Rouge.
For those that live on, to enjoy, and learn from the great journey that is life, we are indeed very lucky. The possibilities are great, and as I found out in travelling to Cambodia, or anywhere for that matter, you just never know what tomorrow holds, and what new and enlightening experiences may be around the corner.