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The dark side of Phnom Penh: Cambodia’s capital city is still haunted by the ghosts of the Khmer Rouge

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It’s 15km from S21 to Choeung Ek, a deceptively tranquil place where tree shaded paths wind past 129 mass graves now muted by greenery. The skulls of more than 8,000 victims are displayed in a memorial stupa, but no one knows how many thousands of hapless people were executed and dumped here by the Khmer Rouge.

This, I thought, is Pol Pot’s legacy — the grisly remnants of a mad man’s dream. Brother number one, as he referred to himself, had the vision of a self-contained agrarian society, a pure Khmer society without foreign influence where hard working peasants would replace the decadent upper and middle classes of the cities. As soon his troops entered Phnom Penh he set the country’s clocks to year zero and the all-powerful Angkar (organization) of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea set out to change society through relocation, forced labour and purges.

Driven by paranoia and absolute power the Angkar executed anyone perceived to be a present or future threat to the regime. Employees of the former government were the first to go, followed by the intelligentsia. According to Kosal even wearing glasses, a sign of wealth and intelligence, could be a death sentence.

The purges soon escalated into full-scale genocide and many of those not killed outright by the Angkar died of starvation or disease, in a country that had killed most of its doctors and had no medicines. Before it was over at least two million Cambodians, almost a fifth of the population, had died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. And those remaining were barely able to feed themselves.

The nightmare of Pol Pot’s dream came to an end in 1979 when the Vietnamese, fed up with border incursions and Khmer Rouge attempts to retake the Mekong Delta, launched a full-scale invasion of Democratic Kampuchea. They drove the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh, replaced the Angkar with a new government, and maintained a military presence in the country for the next 10 years. But Pol Pot and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge retreated into the jungle and continued sporadic attacks on the government until they were finally defeated in 1998, the same year that Pol Pot died of a heart attack at age 70. Like most of his Khmer Rouge henchmen he was never brought to justice.

As we left Choeung Ek my mind still carried the image of thousands of skulls staring at me through empty eye sockets. It’s a tribute to the human spirit that Kosal and those of his generation who survived the genocide are able to put the horror behind them and live normal lives.

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