Tarnished smiles. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

February 3, 2010 at 10:04 am 1 comment

Just outside of Phnom Penh there is a large field and in this field there is a large tree next to a large hole. It’s not a particularly memorable looking tree – reasonably wide, a few metres tall, a couple of leaves – it’s just a tree next to a hole really. As innocuous as it looks from a distance though, it’s not just any tree and it’s not just any hole and it’s not just any field. As inoccuous as it looks, this tree has ended the lives of countless infants, this hole has housed hundreds of tiny corpses and this field has seen some of the most horrific violence ever executed by a group of individuals against their own people.

The field is the Killing Fields, once the playground of the vicious Khmer Rouge who (under their leader Pol Pot) seized power after the Vietnam War, declared Cambodia a socialist nation and began a four year long programme of genocide to wipe out any Cambodians who worked for the government or in the military, had an education, voiced any opposition or wore glasses. They sent the entire nation to the countryside to work long days with little or no food, purposely seperated children from their parents and killed, raped and maimed at random to keep the exhausted, starving and disease ravaged people from rebelling.

The Killing Fields was where they did their worst though and the ‘Baby Killing Tree’ was a particularly nasty device. Reluctant to waste even a bullet on their fellow Cambodians, the Khmer Rouge brought people to the Killing Fields to be beaten to death and buried. After they killed young mothers though (for looking at them with anything less than hero worship) they were left with tiny screaming infants. Not to worry, they had the perfect solution – they would dig a mass grave next to the big tree in the field so that they could just grab the baby by the ankles and with one hand swing them around like a bat, bringing their tiny heads smashing into the tree. With the hole so nearby, they could then just fling the corpse into that without having to waste even one step and move onto the next one.


Three decades later the baby grave has been exhumed along with close to 100 other mass graves in the Killing Fields but a dark stain in the bark is testament to Cambodia’s wretched past. It’s not just the tree that acts as a reminder though. Everywhere across the field there are shards of human bones resting at the bottom of trees, stamped into the scorched earth and rustling under leaves. Scraps of clothes lay strewn across the grass in a morbid rainbow and to one side stands a monument to all the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Around 20 levels high, the building houses the remains that were dug up from the field. On level 1 clothes, then skulls, femurs, arm bones, collar bones… Thousands and thousands of unnamed dead held in one sky-scraping tower topped with a temple-like roof.

Back into Phnom Penh city center then and to the S-21 museum. A school until the Khmer Rouge drove everyone out of their city dwellings and into the countryside (everyone had to walk even if they had no shoes, even if they had been plucked straight out of hospital beds, even if they were in labour) S-21 became the country’s most notorious prison. It was a prison used to house those accused of being in the military or government before Pol Pot’s takeover. Mostly though, it was a prison where ‘enemies’ of the state and their families were taken to be tortured for information or just for fun.

Outside in the yard there is a big wooden support beam intended for use in gym class. Its actual use however, was to suspend prisoners by their bound hands and feet so they could be beaten to the point of unconsiousness and then lowered head first into a vat of putrid water to be woken up. In the cells, many of which still have blackboards on the walls, the ceilings are sprayed with blood, the tiles are discoloured by it and the bright yellow walls are thick with it. Hanging on the walls of the bigger cells are photos of the 14 prisoners who were found here, shown as they were found when the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge out and into Thailand.

Today most of the Khmer Rouge are still free, living in Cambodia and Thailand and have not yet been prosecuted. Pol Pot, the leader of the party and instigator of the genocide, lived until a ripe age on the Thai side of the border and died only recently of natural causes. It is not surprising then that Phnom Penh doesn’t really have the air of a city that has recovered from its past. The streets are filty, piled high with the days rubbish and small children with swollen bellies roam barefoot, diving from pile to pile in search of scraps. At night the pavements are crowded with homeless people sleeping in hammocks, in their tuk tuks, in boxes or just sprawled out on the ground – mothers curled around their children and orphans huddled close together, swatting at feeding mosquitoes.

Its not all pain though. The Cambodian people are by far the smiliest group I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and so stunningly beautiful. And what wasn’t burned down by the Khmer Rouge is pretty spectacular. Stretched out along the Mekong is the sprawling Grand Palace and its pleasure grounds. Glittering temples reflect the blazing sun and flaking French colonial architecture says that Phnom Penh, in its hey day, must have been something to behold.

More pictures from Phonm Penh are available in the gallery

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