Life af­ter the killing fields

Cam­bo­di­ans are wel­com­ing, smil­ing peo­ple de­spite con­stant re­minders of a mon­strous regime

The Morning Bulletin - - ESCAPE - BY Si­mon Walsh

PH­NOM Penh air­port was hot, dusty and out­ra­geously busy. We slipped into a taxi and joined the throng of weav­ing traf­fic where we were sur­rounded by myr­iad bikes (mo­torised and pedal-pow­ered) plus plenty of cars and a hand­ful of trucks. Some bikes had whole fruit shops or noo­dle bars as pil­lion rid­ers. Girls on bikes were mod­estly dressed in jeans, shoes and thick woollen jumpers.

Peo­ple ca­su­ally strolled across the road, giv­ing bright smiles when­ever they made eye con­tact with us in the taxi. We passed tan­gled power lines, then shot past a sub­urb-sized pit – once a lake, now re­claimed to build more city. The car’s air-con puffed and wheezed a rasp­ing tune while we stut­tered to­wards our des­ti­na­tion.

Some build­ings were sur­rounded by ra­zor wire, spy cams and shards of bro­ken glass. Me­chanic shops were stacked floor to ceil­ing with car bodies and mis­cel­la­neous spare parts. There was no vis­i­ble way into the shop or any recog­nis­able means of re­mov­ing a sin­gle piece with­out the whole lot col­laps­ing in a messy and po­ten­tially fa­tal game of ve­hic­u­lar Jenga.

We made our way east along what could surely only be called Me­chan­ics St, slipped south down Mo­bile Phone Al­ley and then headed east again along Fur­ni­ture Way. We twisted half­way round the Olympic Sta­dium and stayed east to­wards the Royal Palace. Just be­fore nearly slam­ming into the wall of the Royal Palace we swung a hard right to the gated Kabiki Ho­tel.

The Kabiki Ho­tel is a cool, green gem stud­ded with tall ferns and palms amid the bustling charm of the city. The green­ery was dou­bled in re­flec­tions from the pool. Shy, smi­ley staff of­fered cool, scented tow­els to wipe the dust off; iced lime drinks and a de­light­ful nutty/jelly treat wrapped in fra­grant pan­dan leaf fol­lowed. We were led to our room, out­lined in teak and con­tain­ing an el­e­gant four-poster bed and twin bunks in an off­set al­cove.

Over the next few days we ticked off some of Cam­bo­dia’s “must-sees”. Con­gested mar­kets with morn­ing price spe­cials, the as­ton­ish­ing Royal Palace, the For­eign Cor­re­spon­dents Club, busy bars and hook­ers a-go-go, the mighty Mekong River, Sil­ver Pagoda and an Emer­ald Bud­dha. A lovely city in which to spend some time, filled with charm­ing peo­ple.

But there was an ele­phant in the room, cast­ing a dark shadow over the city and coun­try. Its foul name is Pol Pot and the Kh­mer Rouge.

Many moons ago I saw some his­toric footage that had been filmed in Cam­bo­dia in the mid-70s, when Pol Pot and the KR ruled the roost. Taken in the 60,000-ca­pac­ity Olympic soc­cer

sta­dium in Ph­nom Penh, the cam­era showed a scene that was ini­tially puz­zling and dif­fi­cult to re­solve.

A mas­sive pile of jum­bled con­fu­sion sprang into fo­cus as the cam­era slowly panned out. It was a vast and ghastly heap of hu­man corpses. At the top were re­cently killed bodies, be­com­ing in­creas­ingly de­cayed fur­ther down the pile. At the base were skele­tal re­mains with ragged scraps of cloth­ing at­tached. Scat­tered around the base of this grisly mound were many “foot­balls”, which on closer in­spec­tion turned out to be heads. This hideous sight was the re­mains of the sol­diers and sup­port­ers of the pre­vi­ous Lon Nol regime, which the KR had vig­or­ously re­placed.

I got the chance to visit that same place just be­fore dawn. It soon ap­peared that I wasn’t the only one there to soak up the at­mos­phere. Gladly, things have moved on since the mid-70s and so has the Olympic Sta­dium. At dawn and dusk the en­tire place is now a mas­sive open-air aer­o­bics arena, cater­ing to mid­dle-aged ladies mov­ing to the beat of a Kh­mer/K-pop mu­sic se­lec­tion. As the warm air be­came hot­ter and started to shim­mer, the beats be­came in­creas­ingly dis­cor­dant. The at­mos­phere was also warm and wel­com­ing with greetings, grins and nods a-plenty.

The sta­dium it­self was de­signed by the first fully qual­i­fied Cam­bo­dian ar­chi­tect, Vann Moly­vann, in the early 1960s. Imag­ine flat ground that has been laboured into raised hill slopes sur­round­ing the main pitch. On top of that foun­da­tion were con­crete ter­races stretch­ing up 40 me­tres high.

The sta­dium’s main build­ing was con­crete with high ceil­ings, slop­ing ram­parts and cause­ways. A few squat­ters still in­hab­ited the build­ings, yawn­ing and scratch­ing in the sun­rise. The sim­ple yet func­tional light and airy de­sign per­fectly cap­tured any pass­ing breeze and chan­nelled it to the sur­round­ing ter­races. Ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nels and foun­tains once fur­ther cooled the at­mos­phere, but th­ese have been de­stroyed.

All over Cam­bo­dia were grim re­minders of the days of the KR. The KR arose from the fluid po­lit­i­cal scene that fol­lowed (and was partly driven by) Amer­i­can bomb­ings of Cam­bo­dia dur­ing the early ’70s. B52 strikes dropped more bombs on Cam­bo­dia than the US re­leased over Sec­ond World War Europe. The KR fi­nally rolled into Ph­nom Penh on April 17, 1975 to an ini­tially ju­bi­lant, yet hes­i­tant pop­u­la­tion.

Three days later the city had been com­pletely de­pop­u­lated – the Marx­ist KR wanted to turn back the clock to Year Zero by re­vert­ing the en­tire pop­u­la­tion to an agrar­ian so­ci­ety.

Over the next four years, the re­main­ing res­i­dents were “re-ed­u­cated” and strongly en­cour­aged to in­form on col­leagues. Peo­ple set­tled old scores. Many worked ex­haust­ing man­ual labour in the fields from dawn to well beyond dusk.

Two spoons of rice boiled up in some rice paddy water was the daily sole nour­ish­ment. Steal­ing food, wear­ing spec­ta­cles, speak­ing an­other lan­guage, work­ing for the pre­vi­ous govern­ment in any ca­pac­ity, be­ing a teacher or a doc­tor or an artist or priest were all heinous counter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary crimes, pun­ish­able by tor­ture and death.

Churches and cathe­drals were torn down and the rub­ble used to make dams, run­ways, roads so that more money could be made to buy more guns. To­day, mass graves are ev­ery­where and bones and frag­ments of cloth­ing still wash to the sur­face af­ter heavy rains. But, on the sur­face at least, the Cam­bo­dian peo­ple are re­silient. They are wel­com­ing, a lit­tle shy and maybe even som­bre on first glance, but smiles and kind words are never too far away. Lest we for­get.

Rick­shaw driv­ers wait for pas­sen­gers in Ph­nom Penh and, top and bot­tom right, a cou­ple of the mar­ket stalls.

A Ph­nom Penh street and, right, skulls of Kh­mer Rouge vic­tims. More than one mil­lion peo­ple were killed and buried by the Kh­mer Rouge in a num­ber of killing fields in Cam­bo­dia, in­clud­ing this site at Choe­ung Ek. PHO­TOS: JOHN MCCUTCHEON

PHO­TOS: JOHN MCCUTCHEON

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