LAST_UPDATETue, 15 May 2018 11am

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center: Remnants of Khmer Rouge Menace

The years Khmer Rouge came to power, from 1975 to 1979, was the darkest period in the modern history of Cambodia if not Southeast Asia. Almost one-third (1.7 million) of the country's men, women and children were killed during this time as part of the regime’s twisted genocide campaign. Many were tortured for long periods of time, some for more than three years. Mass-murders were rampant throughout the five-year Khmer Rouge reign that was led by the ruthless Pol Pot though the world didn't even know about it until it was almost too late.


.I recently paid a visit to one of the places used as “killing fields” located in Choeung Ek in Pnom Penh where hell was unleashed by Pol Pot’s (left) Khmer Rouge regime. The area has been made into a memorial site called Choeung Ek Genocidal Center as a reminder of the country’s chilling and bloody past. Located in the semi-rural outskirts about 15km southwest of the city, the site was originally a Chinese graveyard but it operated from 1978 to the end of 1977 as a killing site and burial ground for thousands of victims which include women and small children. My Malay-speaking tuk-tuk driver (he learned Malay when he was studying in Terengganu) explained that the gruesome discovery of the killing fields was made during the liberation of the country from Khmer Rouge rule in January 7, 1979.





Choeung Ek Killing Fields


Teeth of victims of the atrocities that took place in Choeung Ek could still be found on the grounds of what was once a killing field.I was walking around observing the rather tranquil environment and other visitors which include the dozen or so typical tourist-types and several monks in saffron robes. Only when my tuk-tuk driver/guide pointed it out to me did I realise that I was walking on human skeletal remains that were protruding from the grounds. Skulls, bones, teeth were scattered here and there and it doesn’t take any effort to come across remnants of body parts as well as clothing of victims that once lived and breathed.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center also features a Buddhist memorial stupa which contains more than 8,000 skulls recovered from the graves that serves as a show of respect to the victims and a reminder of the atrocities that took place here. According to my companion, the government ordered ministerial and municipal authorities to construct the memorial stupa in 1988. He also explained that most of the victims of the genocide that died here were transported from the notorious detention and torture centre known as Tuol Sleng or S-21.
.Intellectuals, scholars, teachers, diplomats, government servants, dissidents, foreigners and anyone with the slightest suspicion of belonging to these groups (even their family members and those wearing glasses) were taken to a S-21 to be tortured. From here, family members are separated from each other and trucked out to Choeung Ek at night to be systematically killed. The prisoners were told that they were being transferred to another place to prevent them from crying, resisting or from escaping.






Killing Methods


The inhumane treatment of innocent Cambodians as depicterd in the Oscar-winning film 'The Killing Fields'.The number of prisoners executed at Choeung Ek on a daily basis varied from a few dozen to over three hundred. Two or three trucks, each carrying twenty to thirty frightened prisoners, would be transported from S-21 to Choeung Ek on a monthly basis. Once they arrived at the site they are shoved into a small wooden shack with a galvanized steel roof. Its walls were built with two layers of flat wood to darken the room and also to prevent prisoners seeing each other. Then, with the electricity light supplied by a generator, the heads of capturers’ subunit would verify prisoners’ names against a "must-smash" list prepared by the head of documentation unit. Prisoners whose names are in the list were led in small groups to ditches and pits and told to kneel down before they were clubbed on the neck with tools such as cart axle, hoe, stick, wooden club or whatever else that served as a weapon for carnage. Knives and swords were also used sometimes but never firearms as bullets were deemed too expensive.

.As head of guard and executioner at the time, Him Huy, who took the prisoners to be killed at Choeung Ek recalled, “They were ordered to kneel down at the edge of the hole. Their hands were tied behind them. They were beaten on the neck with an iron ox-cart axle, sometimes with one blow, sometimes with two...”

After each round of executions, the head of inspectors made sure that no one was alive. According to a witness, chemical substances were scattered over the dead bodies to eliminate the stench from the corpses and make sure no one was buried alive. One of the most gruesome methods of murder that lingers in my mind to this day is where small children were held by their ankles and swung against a tree.



The Sentencing of Senior Khmer Rouge Cadre


.On July 27, Cambodia took a significant step toward addressing its dark past with the first conviction of a major Khmer Rouge figure Kaing Guek Eav, 67, commonly known as Duch (right), in connection with the deaths of 1.7 million people from 1975 to 1979. It was the first time in Cambodia’s modern history that a senior government official had been made accountable for serious human rights violations and the first time such a trial had been held that met international standards of justice.

A United Nations-backed court found Duch, the commandant of the central Khmer Rouge prison, Tuol Sleng, guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 35 years in prison for overseeing the torture and killing of more than 14,000 people. The court reduced that term to 19 years because of time already served and in compensation for a period of illegal military detention.The verdict took into account mitigating circumstances that a court spokesman, Lars Olsen, said included Duch’s cooperation, his admission of responsibility and limited expressions of remorse, the coercive environment of the Khmer Rouge period and the possibility of his rehabilitation.

Nuon Chea (second from right) and other key Khmer Rouge figures.There is no death penalty in Cambodia and prosecutors had sought a 40-year sentence, but many people said they would accept nothing less than a term of life in prison. Olsen said the prosecution had 30 days to file an appeal.

For now, Duch was returned to the special detention house he shares with four other defendants who are awaiting trial in what is known as Case 2. In that case, four surviving members of the top Khmer Rouge leadership are accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes. In addition to those tortured to death and executed in killing fields, many people died of starvation, disease or overwork or in the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, in which the entire population of the city was driven out to the countryside.

The defendants include Ieng Sary, 84, who was foreign minister; his wife, Ieng Thirith, 78, who was minister of social welfare; Nuon Chea, 84, known as Brother No. 2; and Khieu Samphan, 78, who was head of state. Several other major figures have died, including the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, in 1998. The judicial investigation in this case is expected to conclude in September with formal indictments, and the trial itself is not expected before sometime next year.

.Unlike Duch, these defendants have denied guilt, and their lawyers have been active in raising legal challenges. In their most interesting challenge, they failed in an attempt this year to exclude evidence obtained through torture — in other words, the Tuol Sleng archives of prisoner confessions that contain some of the potentially most damaging testimony about the chain of command.

The four defendants have been in custody since late 2007 and some of them hate each other, according to people familiar with the conditions of their detention. In particular, these people say, Mr. Nuon Chea refuses to speak to Duch, who implicated him during his trial. According to testimony in pretrial hearings, Ms. Ieng Thirith, who has shouted angrily during court hearings, has been abusive to her fellow detainees on at least 70 occasions.



Torture Victims Distraught Over Duch’s Lenient Punishment


.Some survivors, according to news reports, were distraught over what they saw as a lenient sentence, one that could possibly allow Duch to walk free one day.

“I am not satisfied!” cried one of the few survivors, Chum Mey, 79, who had testified in excruciating detail about his 12 days of torture.

“We are victims two times, once in the Khmer Rouge time and now once again,” said Chum Mey who was shouting in agitation in the muddy courtyard outside the tribunal building during the sentencing.

“His prison is comfortable, with air-conditioning, food three times a day, fans and everything,” he said. “I sat on the floor with filth and excrement all around,” he protested.

Mug shots of innocent victims that were murdered as part of Pol Pot's twisted plot.“People lost their relatives - their wives, their husbands, their sons and daughters - and they won’t be able to spend any time with any of them because they are dead now,” said Nina You, 40, who works for a private development agency.

“So why should he be able to get out in 19 years and spend time with his grandchildren?” she added.

Bou Meng, 69, another survivor who testified at the trial about his torture and humiliation, said he had waited for this day to quiet the ghosts he said continued to torment him. “I felt it was like a slap in the face,” he said of the verdict.

But Huy Vannak, a television news director, said it was enough simply to have justice in a court, 30 years after the killing stopped.

No sentence could measure up to the atrocities Duch committed, he added.

.“Even if we chop him up into two million pieces it will not bring our family members back,” he said. “We have to move on now.”

Others still needed more time. “Actually I’m kind of shaking inside at the moment,” said Sopheap Pich, 39, a sculptor. “I’m not sure how I should feel. I’m not happy, not sad, just kind of numb.”

For its symbolism, he said, a life sentence would seem most appropriate. “To come up with a number doesn’t seem to make sense,” he said. “I’m not sure how you come up with a number.”

For his part, Duch is said to be fascinated by the court’s actions and follows reports and analyses closely on television.



Perpetrators or Victims?


.As the trials of senior Khmer Rouge figures continues, questions were raised about whether lower-ranking cadres that carried out the arrests, killings and torture should also be convicted.

Duch’s former subordinate, Him Huy, admitted to committing executions in The New York Times interview in March 2009 but claimed that he did it to save his own life.

“Yes, I did kill people. I did transport people to Choeung Ek. I did verify lists of people at Choeung Ek. But Duch ordered me to do all of that,” said the former head of guard.

Snake and scorpion wines are made available for sale at the nearby souvenir shop.According to the article, many Cambodians appear to accept this common defence among former Khmer Rouge cadres: that they had no choice but to be cruel, fearing for their own lives. It is a defence Duch himself has offered in the past.

“We were victims (of the Khmer Rouge) too. I had no choice. If I hadn’t killed them, I would have been killed myself,” said Him Huy, now 54, who oversaw the executions of thousands for the Khmer Rouge.

Him Huy claimed that many of his colleagues and other the staff were eventually killed for reasons unknown to them. According to a 2001 book about the prison staff called Victims and Perpetrators? the Documentation Center of Cambodia calculates that at least 563 members of S-21 staff, about one-third of the total, were executed while working there.

Monks visiting Choeung Ek Genocide Center to pay respect to the victims of the Khmer Rouge massacres. Chum Mey, another survivor of Tuol Sleng, described 12 days and nights of torture and terror, but without bitterness toward his abusers.

“My thought is not to put the blame on Him Huy because I don’t know what I would have done in his place. I don’t think I would have been able to disobey,” said Chum Mey of the madness unleashed by Khmer Rouge more than 30 years ago.








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