Murder in Cambodia

Murder in Cambodia: History of the Khmer Rouge

Rith was only six years old when he was taken from his parents and sent by the Khmer Rouge to the fields to work as a laborer. He wouldn’t see them again until he was 11. He was moved to eastern Cambodia to live in a Communist stronghold. The potholes he saw along the way were from U.S. bombings, he was told. In actuality, the Khmer Rouge was behind them.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

Eventually, Rith landed 600 kilometers from his home in Phnom Penh; his brother was sent to a different area entirely. Rith wasn’t tortured, at least not outright—he worked in the jungles daily, where all the people were starving, though. He lived in a hut under a tree, in the same conditions as the soldiers. The laborers stayed a week or two at each site, building irrigation systems for rice fields. All the children from ages six to 10 were in similar scenarios, separated from their families and destined to a life in the fields.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

One man was behind this all: a dictator by the name of Pol Pot. Fueled by Vietnam’s Communist movement, Pol Pot—meaning “Political Potential”—wanted to create a regime without rich or poor. He started dividing people into groups and sought to cleanse the cities of the rich. They were sent to the fields to work; these doctors, professors and other city people became the slaves and prisoners.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

Originally, the Khmer Rouge followed Vietnam, but then began to get paranoid that the Vietnamese would rise to power and take over. And so, Pol Pot aimed to kill anyone who followed Vietnam and keep anyone who was loyal to China. In the end, it was the Vietnamese who would run the Khmer Rouge out of the capital in 1979, though they maintained a presence in western Cambodia near the Thai border until the party dissolved for good in December 1999.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

What’s even more interesting is that nobody knew who Pol Pot was until the Khmer Rouge had fallen; his identity didn’t come out until after the war. Around 2.5 million people died under his watch, not just from torture but from disease, starvation, overwork and political repression. The population of Cambodia at the time was just 8 million.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

The rich and those with careers were sent to the “re-education centers” by Pol Pot and were not so “lucky;” they were tortured, for a myriad of reasons: Because they were educated, because they had had big bellies, because they wore glasses. The justifications were endless.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge sought out some educated people to work for them—such as engineers to build bridges—giving them a glimmer of hope that they might live…and then killed them once they had served their purpose because they “knew too much.” Out of the 17,000 educated souls the Khmer Rouge brought in, only seven lived. Pol Pot himself died in 1998; he was never put on trial. In fact, after his party fell, he went back to his hometown to become a high school teacher.

Rith’s parents were educated members of society, but they lied about their professions for their lives. His mom, a teacher, said she was a seller, and his dad, who worked at the palace, told them he was a farmer.

Cambodia, Semester at Sea

When the Khmer Rouge first came to collect Rith, they told him he was leaving the city for three days for his own safety and that he would be back home soon. After three weeks separated from his family, he realized he might never see them again. “My friends were dying daily from malaria, starvation and dengue fever,” he recalls. “Every time I wanted to see my parents, I tried to refresh my mind to preserve the memory of them. I tried to describe to my friends the city [Phnom Penh], but I couldn’t remember the words.”

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge continued with their brainwashing of Cambodia’s youth.

“They told me we didn’t have enough food because the enemy—the Americans and the Vietnamese—destroyed the country. I had no idea the bad and the good. The Khmer Rouge were like my parents. They gave me food, they fed me. I had no idea about the world—I just knew the enemies, and the enemies were who they told me. I believed them how bad the world was, the Americans and the Vietnamese.”

The Khmer Rouge also told the children that parents were not important for girls and boys. Working in the fields was their school; that was their books. After the regime ended in 1979, many of the survivors went to real school—many for the first time. “We hadn’t learned to read, we hadn’t learned to write. Everyone had to start from the beginning,” Rith says.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

Rith’s earliest memories were the sounds of bombing. “You had to be strong and keep away from the fighting.” Survival was more a mental game than anything.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

When he was 11, Rith returned to Phnom Penh in search of his family. He arrived at his house to find it destroyed. There was, however, a glimmer of hope left behind: His dad had pinned a note on the wall. “I am still alive. Wait here.” It also had his name on it. But back then in Cambodia, the children didn’t know their names. They were taken at such young ages and renamed by the Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

On a leap of faith, Rith waited. And he returned every day, until eventually his dad came back, too. They were reunited, but his mom was still missing. There was a local community center where the people would come to get food daily and also read out the names of the survivors who had returned in search of their families. After months of searching for his wife, Rith’s father got up one day and spoke over the loudspeaker. Rith’s mom, who was present, heard the announcement and recognized his voice. The family finally was reunited after five harsh years.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

Still, today—more than three decades later—many have not been reunited with their families as they didn’t know their family-given name to respond when they were called over the loud speaker.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

For me the most interesting part of visiting Cambodia was not the temples at Angkor, but rather learning about the ramifications of the Pol Pot regime. It’s the epitome of dark tourism, but it’s also a glimpse of living history. In the U.S. education system, we learn so little about what has happened over time outside of our own borders—not the Vel’ d’Hiv in France and most definitely not the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—that it’s disgraceful, not to mention disrespectful.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

Rith, who is now nearing 40, just happened to be our tour guide on our Semester at Sea trip and was open to discussing his own childhood experiences with me and one of the other students, Jordan. I can’t imagine having a job like his where you relive your harrowing past every day of your life.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

Many of the famous sites in Cambodia pay homage to those affected by the Khmer Rouge. In Phnom Penh, you’ll find the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also called S-21), which offers a brutal and realistic image of the cells and torture chambers were thousands were kept and killed.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

The Killing Fields, scattered throughout the Cambodian countryside, are even more disturbing: The 20,000 mass graves hold more than one million bodies. 8,995 skulls tower inside a central memorial at Choeung Ek. In Siem Reap, the Landmine Museum is a collection of decommissioned mines, bombs and other explosive remnants of the war.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

It’s barbaric and it’s scarring, but the reminders are necessary. After all, the worst thing one can do is not remember—or risk having history repeat itself all over again.

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

COMMENTS
  • January 9, 2012

    This was a very heavy post. I just picked up a film called S21 and after reading your post I am even more intrigued to learn more. You are certainly right in that we need to learn about this, I was never taught a thing about this in my schooling.

    • January 9, 2012
      Kristin

      I’ve never heard of the film, but sounds like I need to watch it too after our visit.

  • January 9, 2012

    Such a sad and moving story. You are so right about the lack of world history taught here in the states. Rith is an amazing man to share his trauma with others.

  • January 9, 2012

    What a story. But, it’s these stories that are the most important to tell. I find myself gravitating to stories of humanity (or lack thereof) far more than wanting to tour a museum, church, temple, etc. This history is important to remember so we never do it again. Thank you for sharing. I look forward to having my own experience in Cambodia and learning even more.

    • January 9, 2012
      Kristin

      As morbid as it sounds, these learning experiences are my favorite part about traveling. It’s a living history class that I wouldn’t have been exposed to back home.

  • January 9, 2012

    It’s really disheartening how we learn nothing about Cambodia’s history (or US’s role in it) in school. Everything I know about it I’ve learned through accounts of friends who have visited the country. Thanks for sharing your own experience visiting and Rith’s story.

    • January 9, 2012
      Kristin

      I’m not sure how it was at your school, but all of our history and other social studies classes in Tullahoma were taught by coaches. In other words, we played card games all day in each class and barely cracked a book. When I went to Governor’s School in Memphis in high school (and then later at Sewanee), I was blown away by how much more the private school kids learned in their history classes than we did (which was virtually nothing).

  • January 9, 2012

    This is something I must see, must experience, must learn and know and remember.

    xox

  • January 9, 2012

    Powerful, important post.

    Thank you.

    • January 10, 2012
      Kristin

      And thank YOU for reading.

  • January 9, 2012
    Helen

    Your post reminds me of two moving experiences in Cambodia. One, waiting at a bridge in the middle of nowhere I met a wrinkled walnut of a bus driver who spoke English and must have been at least 80. With the broadest smille he said “I used to be a university teacher, then I became a farmer. Now I drive the bus and enjoy talking to visitors so I don’t lose my vocabulary.” He made it sound like he’d chosen to become a farmer, rather than it being a dicey day-to-day challenge to survive. I can’t begin to imagine his life experience. And second, harrowed to the bone from my visit to Tuol Sleng, I sat at the edge of the compound, the old French school, and was soothed by watching modern day Cambodian kids laugh as they climbed on each others backs and scrambled up tree trunks, stripping away the dead leaves, imprinting a new generation of life on a place of dealth.

    • January 9, 2012
      Kristin

      I think that’s what got us more than anything: just how kind, positive and hopeful these people are who endured such tragedy not all that long ago. Scott and I were both humbled by everyone we met in this amazing country.

  • January 9, 2012

    This post was almost too painful for me to read. I’m sitting in a cafe right now with tears in my eyes. Seriously, probably the best pics you’ve ever taken.

    • January 9, 2012
      Kristin

      Thanks, Andi–one of the most powerful travel experiences I’ve ever had, for sure.

  • January 9, 2012

    Exquisite images with a very moving text.

    Yes, it is so very important that we do not forget the atrocities that humans commit against one another.

    • January 10, 2012
      Kristin

      It’s just hard to fathom that these sorts of prejudices have occurred in our lifetimes. You would think/hope that we had progressed beyond that.

  • January 9, 2012

    Sad, sad history. Glad to see Cambodia getting some much deserved prosperity & peace over the last decade. Hope things continue in that direction.

    • January 9, 2012
      Kristin

      I can’t believe how peaceful the people are, given that it’s only been three decades since they suffered such atrocities. It reminded me a lot of my experiences in Rwanda two years, where the same holds true.

  • January 9, 2012

    I’ve visited all the sites you’ve mentioned and each one brought me deeper into the struggle of trying to understand this human depravity. Some people find it too much, too depressing, to heavy…. but when I travel around the rest of Cambodia and see the lightness and the happiness and the forgiveness emanating from people, I feel inspired by their survival and triumph. A special, special place.

    • January 9, 2012
      Kristin

      While maybe not as hopeful, I felt similarly about Vietnam–the people there loved Americans it seemed, despite the remnants of the war there being very real and visible. But yes, the Cambodian people were the best people I’ve met anywhere in all of my travels—hard to believe that’s the case when 1979 wasn’t very long ago.

  • January 10, 2012

    It’s a very sober experience visiting these grounds.

  • January 10, 2012

    Great article about a tragic period of history.

  • January 10, 2012

    What a fantastic story and post, Kristin. I was glad to read that Rith was reunited with his parents – not the ending I was expecting. That things like this are part of our world history – our recent history – is sobering. These stories DO need to be kept alive so that history doesn’t repeat itself, as it easily could.

    • January 10, 2012
      Kristin

      Sadly, it wasn’t the ending for a whole lot of Cambodians. Luckily, we met one of the lucky few.

  • January 10, 2012

    Wow. Great post, Kristin. Thank you.

    And you’re right–that we are not taught about this kind of living history is truly tragic.

    • January 10, 2012
      Kristin

      There is so much we don’t learn in the U.S. education system that is just embarrassing.

  • January 10, 2012

    This is definitely a hard post to read as I’m sure it was a hard post to write. And it is stunning to think about many people died during the regime and how relatively recent it was. It’s amazing how often we say “never again” and how often things continue. I remember meeting someone who was Cham (from Cambodia) which got me learning a lot more about the Khymer Rouge when I was younger. You are right it is something that is sadly missing from the US education system. I really hope people learn and get to visit sites like this more often so they can hopefully truly stop future atrocities….

    • January 13, 2012
      Kristin

      And yet, the people there are some of the most optimistic people I’ve ever met. There’s a light in them all that’s just unbelievable given what the majority has experienced in their lifetimes.

  • January 11, 2012

    I got goosebumps just reading this. I can’t imagine how powerful it must have been to hear this story directly from Rith. It really is hard to believe what some people are capable of doing in the name of what they see as “progress.”

  • January 11, 2012
    Joan van Velsor

    What a sad experience, but so worthwhile. As you said, it is so important to remember, to avoid repetition. A holocaust survivor is a member of our weaving and spinning guild, and it gives me a heartache every time I see that tattooed number. She says “it is important to forgive, but to never forget”. The nobility of soul required to forgive is astonishing, and I deeply respect it.
    Thanks for bringing this message out on your blog. This kind of information from the blogosphere makes up for the limitations of the US educational system.

    • January 13, 2012
      Kristin

      My grandparents lived next door to a couple who were Holocaust survivors for much of my young life, and I remember being so afraid of their tattooed numbers as a child. It was so ominous and hard to fathom they’d been through such horrors firsthand.

  • January 12, 2012

    Kristen, excellent post. When I visited the “Killing Fields” I had a flashback to when I was walking around a Nazi concentration camp in Austria called Mauthausen…surreal.

    • January 13, 2012
      Kristin

      They are eerily similar, the two experiences. I was watching Sarah’s Key the other day–have you read the book/seen the movie? it’s about the round-up in France–and thinking it reminded me a lot of what I imagine went down in Cambodia in the 70’s.

  • January 12, 2012

    What an amazing and heartbreaking story. Thank you so much for sharing it. This isn’t something I’m that familiar with, but I agree with you – we have to remember, lest we forget and let history repeat itself.

    • January 13, 2012
      Kristin

      I also knew nothing about the Khmer Rouge until my sister did this very trip two years ago.

  • January 13, 2012

    Thank you for reminding us – it is so important that we remember so we can treat each person with love and respect.

  • January 13, 2012
    Manda

    Amazing piece. I felt the same recently on my trip to Thailand and being in Kwai.
    I think all around the world there is a lot of history that is not taught in schools. In NZ after you reach a certain age you have the choice to pick your classes – alot of teenagers are not going to pick history as a first choice subject.
    I love the fact that travel broadens the mind and opens us to history, places, people, facts and life that we never knew before – or if we did know a small amount about we can in turn learn more.
    Rith sounds like an amazing person. You also are for writing such a great piece and bringing this history to us.

  • January 14, 2012

    Kristen, no I have not read that book but will look into it. Thanks!

  • January 15, 2012

    Wow…that’s intense. I knew that there had been some genocide there in the past, but I didn’t know any of the details. How horrific. But it’s definitely important to keep these stories alive to prevent them from happening again.

  • January 16, 2012

    Quite an eye opening experience.

  • January 25, 2012
    Poi

    We visited S21 as well and it was such a strange experience, I tried to write about it but couldn’t get my feelings across properly. You did a great job though and what a story from your guide!

  • May 3, 2012
    Lisa

    Very touching post! What is scary to me is that this could happen here…and there are those who are actively seeking to make it happen here. sigh

  • October 13, 2012

    Great post, so powerful. Thanks for sharing it. I am in Cambodia right now and I am planning to go there as well.
    Agness (@Agnesstramp) recently posted..Thailand: The Land of SmilesMy Profile

  • April 17, 2013

    I came back from Asia (Including Cambodia) recently. The killings fields and the S21 prison resonate particularly strong. It was utterly moving and I felt and thought things I’ll never forget.
    Jake Ingleby recently posted..Cambodia, I think she likes me.My Profile

  • September 12, 2013

    Very sad story indeed. Can’t believe that one person can do all those things..

  • April 19, 2015

    Excellent post!
    Probably one of my favourite ones I have read so far in regards to Cambodia.
    It’s weird to think that there are so many people still alive with memories similar to Rith. My mind is blown by how recent this was and I think it kind of makes it seem more real to me.

  • May 22, 2015

    Thanks for sharing these pictures, they are beautifully presented. I had an early digital camera when I went to Cambodia many years ago and they pictures aren’t any good. From what you displayed here I see that S-21 is the same freaky place.
    Terry recently posted..POLAND: Auschwitz 70 Years After LiberationMy Profile

    • May 25, 2015

      Thank you, Terry. It was definitely a disturbing experience.

  • June 15, 2015

    Pol Pot was a key leader in the movement after he returned to Cambodia from France. He had become a member of the French Communist Party (PCF), which gave guidance to the ideas of the Khmer Rouge
    hanoi food tasting tour recently posted..Truly Authentic Cultural Food Experiences in HanoiMy Profile

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