Angelina Jolie and my visits to Cambodia’s genocide memorials

Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake. – Pol Pot

I go on Facebook these days, and I see lots of posts about Angelina Jolie’s upcoming movie – First, they killed my father.

It’s a good thing this film is being made. I am surprised to see that many people still don’t know who Pol Pot was, or what horrible crimes were carried by Khmer Rouge, the regime ruled by him. Maybe this Holywood production will make us more knowledgeable about the Cambodian genocide.

As for the film itself, I only hope it will be better than the other one shot in Cambodia where Angelina Jolie has a leading role – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Noticing the interest for AJ’s movie, and being myself in Cambodia no longer than a few weeks ago, I came to write these lines in which I am sharing what I’ve seen during my visits at the Choeung Ek killing field and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

I knew about Pol Pot and his unimaginable crimes for a long time, but after moving to China I came to understand more intimately the extent of his actions. Here I met many Cambodians, some of them my schoolmates, and all of them have at least one family member killed during the Khmer Rouge rule and many horrible stories to share. One of these friends, Maria, invited me to her home when I was in Phnom Penh. There I met her grandmother – whose husband was killed by Pol Pot’s fanatics.

Choeung Eh killing field

Choeung Eh was a Chinese cemetery that turned into a killing field under the Khmer Rouge. Today it serves as a memorial for the victims of the Cambodian genocide.

If you want to go there, you will have to drive for about 40 minutes outside of Phnom Penh’s city center. We went there by tuk-tuk, and that was interesting because at times the driver would take us through sideways and we could get a glimpse of daily life in Cambodia.

Choeung Eh is not very large. However, what you will see there, combined with the stories from the audio guide will surely have a strong impact on you.

Before starting the tour, you are warned that you might see human remains or pieces of cloth coming out of the ground. Although I was not expecting it, I could see all of those. Many people were killed and buried there, so human remains continue to surface.

Although we were told that all the human remains are constantly collected from the ground, I had the impression that some of them were purposely left in plain sight for the visitors to see. However, most of them were collected and deposited in transparent boxes.

Seeing a collection of human teeth is not for those faint hearted. It’s terrifying, but I guess that’s a light feeling comparing with what have those people experienced in the last moments of their lives.

The number of people killed by the Khmer Rouge got so high that it had become expensive to use bullets for each of them, so the guards started to kill people with anything came at hand – hammers, axes, sharp palm leaves for slicing throats… The trunk of a tree I saw there was used by soldiers to smash the head of newborns or young children.

The ending point of the tour is a large Buddhist stupa filled with more than 5000 human skulls, bones and objects used for the killings.

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Same with the Choeung Eh killing field, when you buy the entrance ticket you will get an audio guide that will tell you the story of what you see around.

What is today known as the Tuol Slang Genocide museum used to be a prison (S-21) where many of Cambodia’s elite were interrogated, tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. Before that, it was a high school named after a royal ancestor of Norodom Sihanouk. What a fate for this place.

Classrooms, where children used to study, had become cells where people got slaughtered. Bloodstains can still be seen on the walls.

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One of the buildings it’s packed with pictures of the deceased taken by the soldiers operating there. Apparently many criminals like to document their crimes.

In the headphones, we are told the story of two siblings who lost their father in prison and came there to search for pictures portraying him. Sadly, they could not find any image of their parent, so they decided to go once more through all the pictures, in a depressing process of carefully analyzing the faces of all those people who suffered a painful death. Imagine yourself having to go through that.

It is believed that more than 13000 people died in the S 21 prison. Only a handful survived, and that is because they had skills that were valuable for the prison. Two of the survivors are still alive today and you can meet them at the exit from the museum. They sell books in which they tell the story of their time in prison.

Chum Mei, whose book I bought and read, escaped death just because the prison needed his mechanic skills. He says in his book the following:

But I do not condemn the people who tortured me. If they were still alive today and if they came to me, would I still be angry with them? No. Because they were not senior leaders and they were doing what they had to do at the time. Consider them victims like me, because they had to follow other people’s orders. How can l say I would have behaved differently? Would l have had the strength to refuse to kill if the penalty was my own death? During the interrogation l was angry, but after a long while, learning about that place, understanding that people had to do what they were told to do l wasn’t angry with them anymore. Even the ones who tortured me, they also lost parents and family members. There’s a saying in the Khmer language: ‘If a mad dog bites you, don’t bite it back.’ If you do, it means you are mad, too.

I think what Chum Mei said is telling for how Cambodia decided to treat those responsible for the genocide. Until now, only 3 people have been condemned for the crimes they have committed – all of them high-ranking officials. The authorities decided not to engage in punishing those responsible for the atrocities, as their number was very high, and that could result in disrupting Cambodia’s undergoing healing process.

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Me and Chum Mei

Other facts

Although the Khmer Rouge were removed from power by Vietnam in 1979, time by which they killed around 2 million people, almost 1/4 (!!!) of Cambodia population, they continued to be recognized by many entities, UN included, as the official government (in exile) of Cambodia. They had a representative at the UN meetings.

As a Romanian, I feel like mentioning this – the only foreign leader who visited Pol Pot was Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu.

Back in those days, a group of people from Sweden was quite vocal in supporting the Khmer Rouge. Now they are sorry. The political naive are not few.

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