Derryn Hinch returned to the Killing Fields of Cambodia, where the mistakes of the past sit awkwardly next to the mistakes of the present.
It was the faded scrap of a t-shirt poking out of the red mud that got to me.
That, and the familiar shape of teeth. And the sign that said “Please, don’t step on bones” alongside the narrow clay track winding between the mounds and excavated pits of human horror.
These are the Cambodian Killing Fields, only 15 kilometres out of Phnom Penh. Thousands upon thousands of skulls have been recovered from where the rice paddies turned into mass graves since the almost indescribable genocidal Pol Pot slaughter ended 34 years ago.
After the rains, teams of official scavengers go out to retrieve more shards of this country’s recent violent history. The skulls are scrubbed clean and added, with respect, to the memorials dotted all across this land.
The incongruity of coming as tourists to such a stark reminder of human suffering was not lost on us. Being driven to the slaughter grounds from the British Empire decadence of Raffles Royal Hotel in an air-conditioned Mercedes.
“Take us to the Killing Fields” sounded obscene. The driver was a handsome local in his thirties in an impeccable uniform and white gloves. Would he even remember the three and a half years of carnage when a former teacher turned communist agrarian nut case decided to take a poor country and its gentle people even further back in time?
Into a rural nation-wide commune where banks were evil and had to be demolished, where money should be burned and all private property turned over to the glorious state of Ankar. Where education was evil and cities were hotbeds of conspiracy and class discrimination. Schools were to close immediately and all major cities evacuated.
Our driver, Sinsat, certainly did remember, he said, the “three years, eight months and 20 days” that the Khmer Rouge ruled his country and tortured and executed nearly two million of the eight million Cambodians.
His father was killed when he was five. His mother, a short time later, after she had smuggled her eldest son even further into the countryside where he lived for a year in the jungle with an aunt, “eating spiders.”
Behind the wheel of our limo, he matter-of-factly recounted: “My brothers and sisters all killed. My aunt has died now. I’m totally alone. I have no one.”
And yet, he has come from the country to Phnom Penh. Drives the car, chauffeuring people to the village of Choeung Ek, second only to Angkor Wat as the country’s biggest tourist attraction. It’s putting him through college. One more year to go, then he can go back to his country village “and teach orphans English.”
“My father was a teacher. That’s why he was killed.” All professionals were killed under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Lawyers, doctors, businessmen. If you wore glasses you were marked for death as an intellectual.
And yet Pol Pot was originally a teacher before he went to Paris and learned an extreme version of communism even to the left of Mao or Stalin.
When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh to the end the civil war against a corrupt elitist big city government, they were cheered as liberators by the populace tired of battle and of their country (like Laos) being treated like a doormat in the Vietnam War. The Americans had dropped three million tons of bombs on a country that nobody had declared war on.
To the South Vietnamese and the Allies (including Australia) bombing neutral Cambodia was justifiable on the grounds it was a supply route south for the invading North Vietnamese.
Once Phnom Penh fell, Pol Pot tricked the locals into abandoning the capital “for three days” because the “evil warmongering Americans” were going to bomb it.
Instead, he banished millions to be re-educated in the country, working 12 hours a day in the rice fields. Meet increased food quotas or die. Steal a banana and die.
Hospitals were emptied.
Critically ill patients forced to join the trek to the countryside.
Thousands died of illness and starvation.
In the West, we found it hard to digest, let alone believe, the Agence France-Presse reports of worthless banknotes floating down abandoned streets and bed-ridden patients being forced to walk and crawl to their deaths. A capital city emptied? In this day and age? Couldn’t happen.
This worldwide myopia continued for years. Survivors’ stories were ridiculed by Swedish leftists taken into Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge for brief, sanitised tours of the “revolutionary paradise.” The United States, and subservient countries like Australia, supported Kampuchea/ Cambodia in the UN for another 12 years.
You come here and tread these tragic paths and wonder: How could we?
Ominously, indicatively, Pol Pot, the former school teacher, turned a three-storey high school and junior school in the middle of Phnom Penh into S-21, a now notorious secret jail where between 12,000 and 20,000 of his people were tortured and killed.
The small classrooms were made into crude, brick-walled cells, barely a metre wide and much less than two metres long.
Up to 50 men were shackled, naked and semi-naked in some communal classroom cells. The printed signs are still on the walls ordering them to lie on the floor whenever a guard approached. No talking to each other. No screaming when fingernails were being torn out or heated pliers applied to female prisoners’ nipples, or during electric shocks, or when salt and alcohol were poured into whipping gashes on their chests and backs. And the boxes where they kept the scorpions are still there.
The high school’s exercise bar was kept and used to hang trussed prisoners upside down and the huge clay bowls are still there where they used to be filled with foul-smelling fertiliser water to dunk the prisoner to revive him. Or drown him.
All this to entice signed ludicrous confessions for imagined crimes against the state. Some Khmer Rouge traitors (“CIA spies”) were kept for six months. Whole families were rounded up and killed. Peasant children were recruited and brainwashed and ordered to kill their parents just like Joseph Kony or Boco Haram or IS, decades later.
The Khmer Rouge edict was that if you killed them all there was no chance relatives would come back for revenge.
Their lyrical way of putting it: When cutting the grass, make sure you remove the roots.
The prison is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum still receiving 250 visitors a day. The walls are covered with hundreds of mug shots of victims. Like many dictators, Pol Pot kept meticulous records. Photo after photo. All dead. Nearly all. Of the 20,000 ordinary Cambodians who passed through S-21 only seven survived. Two were artists kept alive to paint portraits of Pol Pot and his henchmen. One because he could repair a typewriter and truck motors.
There are also photos of corpses, the ones who didn’t survive the torture or who starved to death. The shackles and bolt loops are still embedded in the blood-stained tiles of the cell floors. There are faded bloodied handprints on the walls.
Most prisoners eventually were taken at night by canvas-topped Chinese trucks to the Killing Field – a former Chinese cemetery. All had their hands tied behind their back and wore blindfolds. They were told they were being taken to a better detention centre in the country.
At the Killing Fields, bullets were too expensive. The ultimate agrarian solution: The prisoners were bashed to death with shovels, pick handles, axes, mallets, iron fence posts. Or had their throats cut.
The washed skulls piled in tiers at the memorial near the entrance show the fatal holes and fractures. There are 17 levels of the temple (shaka). Forensic experts have identified the ages and sex of the victims. Near the top are tiers of leg and arm bones and bits of splintered jaws.
One of the worst examples of the sheer brutality (and it seems obscene to even attempt to grade them) is The Killing Tree.
It’s where babies were torn from their mothers’ arms, grabbed by the legs and swung hard against this one big tree to have their heads crushed.
There are photos of the bloodstained trunk and tiny shards of infant bones are still embedded in the bark.
And then there are the clothes. The faded, dirty shorts and tops of little kids. The rags that were used as handcuffs and blindfolds. The victims were forced to kneel at the pit’s edge before being bashed to death and pushed into the grave. Sometimes 200-300 in one hole. Some had their throats cut.
One grave revealed nearly 200 bodies. All headless. And we recoil in horror at the beheadings by Islamic terrorists in 2015.
Whoever said civil war is the cruellest wasn’t wrong.
You tread gingerly between the monsoon-exposed bones and think: Cambodians did this to their own. And this was the 1970s. Men had already walked on the moon. Haight-Ashbury and Carnaby Street, the Peace Movement, all the flowers in the hair and the Beatles singing “all you need is love,” had already happened.
There are hundreds of memorials like this one across a country where very few old people exist, except for the likes of Pol Pot who escaped and lived with his Khmer Rouge remnants in the mountainous regions near the Thai border for decades.
The Governor of S-21, Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Duch,” did stand trial at the international court finally commissioned by the United Nations and he was sentenced to 35 years jail. Not even life imprisonment. He was one of the few mass murderers to face justice.
Pol Pot lived into old age, lived to see his grandchildren grow up.
In 1997, a Khmer Rouge splinter group turned on him, placed him under house arrest and announced they would turn him over to the international court. Pol Pot died at home on April 15, 1998, either from heart failure or malaria or was poisoned.
I had planned to shoot a video at the Killing Fields. As a journo you do that sort of thing. Part of the job.
This time, I couldn’t. It just didn’t seem right in the presence of a tower of human skulls…and those bits of cloth poking out of the ground.
Footnote: I had wanted to visit the Killing Fields for more than 30 years. There was a tenuous personal link, through the expression “shame, shame, shame” which was erroneously, but understandably, attributed to me. It was actually Steve Vizard as Hunch in Fast Forward.
Back in 1983, during the federal election, I interviewed Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and challenged him over Australia’s recognition still of Pol Pot in the United Nations. Despite increasing evidence of the Khmer Rouge genocide, Fraser said that was our policy and it would not change. (I suspect it was to appease China as well as the US).
It was then I said to the PM: “Well, shame, Australia, shame.”
Having now seen the Killing Fields, I realise it was a weak riposte. We must not make the same mistake with the genocidal President Assad in Syria.
We will. History is littered with genocidal slaughter for religious, ethnic or political reasons.
Syria is just the latest.