Full horror of the killing fields where 2m died and bodies became fertiliser

An incredible human disaster has happened in Cambodia, a once peaceful and gentle land in South East Asia.

Perhaps more than two million people — a third of the population — have been killed by a fanatical regime whose apparent aim was to wipe out anyone and anything connected with the modern world and to return a whole nation to "Year Zero": the dawn of an age of slavery, without families and sentiment, without machines, schools, books, medicine, music.

The evidence of murder is plentiful. Like the cracked skulls, which were dug out from mass graves near Angkor Wat by villagers who had lost relatives.

For four years there has been almost no contact with people inside Cambodia; its borders were sealed. JOHN PILGER, in Cambodia, sends a world exclusive report.

The plane flies low, following the Mekong river west from Vietnam. Once over Cambodia, what we see below us silences everybody on board.

There is nobody, no movement, not even an animal, as if the great population of Asia stopped at the border.

Whole towns and villages on the river bank stand empty: the doors of houses flapping open, cars on their sides, mangled bicycles in a heap, chairs and beds in the street.

Betide tangled power lines there is the lone shadow of a child, lying or sitting. It does not move.

The endless landscape of South East Asia, the patchwork of rice paddies and fields, is barely discernible; nothing appears to grow except the forest and tall, wild grass.

On the rim of large towns this grass will follow straight lines, as if planned; it is fertilised, we later see, by human compost, by the remains of tens of thousands of men. women and children.

All of them murdered.

Cambodia, which I remember as the most gentle and graceful land in all of Asia – a land whose peace in a region of unrelenting war was unique all but vanished from the headlines four and a half years ago; and what has happened here since has no parallel in modern times.

That may sound a sweeping claim, but it is true. Coming here is like happening on something unimaginable: a human catastrophe and crime without measure.

For even Hitler’s demonry did not involve the enslavement of the entire population and the systematic slaughter of all those "touched and corrupted by the twentieth century."

Nor did Stalin’s terror include the banning of all learning, all books, all arts, all music and song, and the abolition of the family and all expressions of joy, love and grief, and the destruction of all machines.

All that has happened in Cambodia.

Out of a world-renowned royal ballet of some 500 dancers, a few dozen survive.

Before 1975 there were 550 Cambodian doctors; there are now forty-eight.

The statistics are numbing. Cambodia’s population in 1975 was roughly seven million.

Today, between a million and a half and three million people are "missing," presumed dead.

As we make our final approach into the deserted airport at Phnom Penh, the capital, there is a pyramid of cars, overgrown by the jungle —some of them brand new four years ago – and ambulances and fire engines, and refrigerators, washing machines, hair dryers, generators, typewriters, as if an army of Luddites has tried to sweep them back in time.

After April 17, 1975, anybody who had owned these things, anybody who had lived in a city or town, was under virtual sentence of death.

Anybody with education or a modern skill was killed if his or her identity was revealed: doctors, teachers, technicians, skilled workers, even schoolchildren; anybody who knew foreigners.

The images also numb. An emaciated child walks alone down the centre of a main boulevard that once was filled with traffic in a capital city that held two and a half million people; gangs of children scavenge in the garbage.

They are mostly orphans and they are either infants or more than five years old; few of those born during the period of terror appear to have survived.

Young adults are equally difficult to find; a generation has gone. Indeed, this is now a nation of mostly children, isolated from the world and facing starvation of such intensity that not even a comparison with Biafra is adequate.

Who did this? How could it happen?

In the spring of 1970, Cambodia’s tranquillity was terminated by the greatest saturation of bombing in history.

This was the secret war launched by President Nixon and Dr. Henry Kissinger in violation of American constitutional law and in defiance of Congress.

Pilots were sworn to secrecy and their operational logs were falsified or destroyed.

For three years the American public knew nothing about it.

By 1973 the equivalent, in tons of bombs, of five Hiroshimas had fallen on neutral Cambodia.

The military aim was the destruction of a mythical Vietcong base in Cambodia.

President Nixon’s aim was to show the Vietnamese communists how "tough" he could be: a policy he once described as the "Madman Theory of War”.

The Madman Theory of War threw Cambodia into turmoil; the delicate balance of Royalists, Republicans and Communists of varying shades was destroyed, and Prince Sihanouk, the peacock, jazz-loving ruler who had preserved this balance, was overthrown by the military.

In the forests, a small group of fanatics, whom the Prince had called the Khmer Rouge and who were inspired by the manic Red Guards of China’s "cultural revolution" in the 1900s, intensified their revolution.

They declared 1975 "Year Zero," literally the beginning of the end of the modern world.

The ideological aim of their revolution was to recreate a “pure” rural society – “Classless and glorious” similar to that of the Khmer Empire of the tenth century.

Because there were so few of them – they probably represented no more than 10 per cent of the population – this mean controlling the population by enslaving it and reducing it by half.

Their leaders were at first anonymous, deferring constantly to "The Angkar," or "the organisation." whose Orwellian wisdom justified everything including mass blood letting. But one man, calling himself Pol Pot, emerged at the head.

Little was known about him, except that he was one of a group of Cambodians who learned their politics in anarchist circles in Paris in the late 1940s.

He claims to have been a Buddhist priest and a teacher; in fact, he came from a wealthy family and his dreams of a classless society ended with himself: Mao was his hero and he was to be Cambodia’s Mao: an Asian Pharaoh.

He is in all probability, a psychopath.

At 7.30 on the morning of April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge entered the capital. At one o’clock they ordered the city to be abandoned.

There were to be no exceptions.

The hospitals were emptied at gunpoint; doctors were forced to stop in mid operation. Dying patients were wheeled into the streets in their beds.

“I was in my classroom when they burst in." says Mr Prak Sarinn, a former teacher. "They put their guns on us and told us all to march north into the countryside. The children were crying.

“I asked if we could first go home to join our families. They said no. So we just walked away, and most of the little ones died of exhaustion or hunger. I never saw my family again."

Mr Sarinn survived by disguising himself as a peasant – the only " acceptable" class.

"I changed my personality," he says. " I shall not be the same again. I can no longer teach. My head is filled with death and worry."

The haemorrhage of people lasted two days and two nights.

When the Vietnamese army drove into Phnom Penh last January, ending four and a half years of terror, they found the city almost exactly as it had been abandoned on the first day of "Year Zero."

It is a haunting, unforgettable sight. In the silent, airless humidity, it is like entering a city the size of Manchester, without people, as if in the wake of a nuclear war which spared only the buildings.

Houses, flats, office-blocks, the university, schools, hotels are deserted and open, as they were left when more than two million people were marched away at gunpoint, most of them to their death.

A medical diploma lies trampled on a front path; a tricycle is crushed in the gutter; traffic lights are jammed at red. Except in the centre, there is no electricity.

There is neither sewerage nor drinking water; the drains and reservoirs remain polluted with bodies.

At the railway station, trains stand empty at the platforms and half way along the track. Behind a pagoda is a pile of burned telephones.

From Year Zero there was to be no telephone, no post, no communications of any kind; and no money.

The afternoon monsoon has come and the gutters are suddenly ‘awash with paper. But it isn’t paper; it is money. The streets are literally running with money, most of it brand new notes. Around a corner, there is the source: the National Bank of Cambodia, now crushed as if by one blow.

The Khmer Rouge, retreating before the Vietnamese, blew it up, and with every downpour a worthless fortune pours out of it.

There are cheque books still on the counters, with cheques partly tilled out, and dated April 1975 Year Zero. A pair of broken glasses rests on an opened ledger.

Money is everywhere: the floor is slippery with coins and boxes of new notes are stacked as they were received from the supplier in London four and a half years ago.

Across the street, in what was an Esso fining station, an old woman and three children huddle over a pot of gruel.

They are probably the poorest people on Earth, and they are cooking on a fire fuelled with money.

The city is like a dream.

At its heart stood a magnificent Gothic cathedral, built by the French in the nineteenth century. It has gone. The Khmer Rouge not only destroyed it; they dismantled it stone by stone, as if it might never have existed.

From Year Zero, all religion was declared "detrimental" in a country where life had revolved for centuries around the teachings of Buddha.

My most vivid memory of Cambodia when I was last here was a land teeming with saffron-robed monks. I have not seen one; anyone found at prayer was automatically killed.

Past the evaporated cathedral walk a man and a boy, striding with a rhythm of fear that all the survivors have.

The boy is fifteen and looks nine, and he is starving. His father balances a load on his head and an arm on his son’s shoulder. He is blind and terribly scarred with smallpox.

He is a carpenter and his name is Khim Kon. "This boy," he says, patting his son, "is my only one left. Because we came from the city we were classified ‘new people’, and we had to work from three in the morning until eleven at night: the children. too.

“My wife and three other boys are all dead."

"How did you lose your sight? " I ask him. "I was always blind in one eye," he replies.

"When my family began to die, I cried, so they took out my other eye with a whip.

My notebook is filled with similar horrific stories, which come directly from simple people who have no reason to lie; I have yet to find a family that has not been decimated.

The barbarism was not always random. It was also highly organised, with its chief aim to reduce the population to less than two million: to a single generation untainted by the old life.

"If you want to live," the Khmer Rouge cadres told the townspeople, "you must surround your lives with silence. Hear nothing, know nothing, understand nothing."

The rules were explicit. People would live in collective farms, in straw-roofed barracks without walls, so that they could be watched all the time. They would be fed according to how "productive" they were, and this usually meant a tin of rice – the size of a small Nescafe tin – twice a week.

An opaque-eyed woman, her grief locked inside her, tells me that she was forced to go into the fields at night leaving her six-month-old baby without a roof or food or care of any kind; in two days she returned to find the baby dead.

"Can you imagine they take away friendship?" says a young woman of twenty five called Sophak, who has become my interpreter and who was about to be thrown into a well on the day the Vietnamese soldiers liberated her camp.

"A young boy, a student who tried to disguise himself as a peasant, was taken away and beaten to death because he smiled at me while we husked the rice. We never even talked . . ."’

Only the camp "controller" could sanction marriage and husband and wife were permitted to meet only once a month.

As the price of extra food and life, young boys were recruited as spies and listened from the rafters for laughter or sorrow.

Anybody falling asleep during a midnight "ideological" lecture was denied a week’s rations, or killed.

Even the word itself – sleep – was banned; from Year Zero there would be only "rest."

Much of the work was mindless. While many fields and paddles fell fallow, forests were cleared for "strategic" reasons. The Khmer Rouge leaders were obsessed with the prospect of a Vietnamese Invasion, even though they constantly extended their killing in attacks on border villages in Vietnam.

In a valley nearby the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in western Cambodia, one of the wonders of the world, there is a ribbon of tall grass that gives way to trenches which have been recently excavated.

They are crammed with skeletons, with evidence of terrible head wounds: the hammer being the most common instrument of death.

So far, the remains of 9,000 people have been found here.

During the past three weeks photographer Eric Piper and I have seen many sights like this and at times we have felt like those who in 1945, came upon Belsen and Auschwitz.

Last June, we both saw Auschwitz itself during the Pope’s visit to Poland.

The other day we saw a place so similar that it might have been copied from the original; and perhaps the following description may help to gain international recognition of the enormity of what has happened in Cambodia.

It was once a school and was renamed the “Tuol Sleng extermination centre”.

Like Auschwitz, it has a fence of double barbed wire.

Like the victims of Auschwitz. many of the prisoners were brought by train, 150 to a carriage. and the weak seldom survived.

It was run by a gestapo called "S21" which was divided into an "interrogation unit" and a "torture and massacre unit".

In the former classrooms, where people were mutilated on iron beds, their blood and tufts of their hair are on the floor: so much of it.

Between December, 1975, and June, 1977, some 12,000 people died slow deaths here: a fact easy to confirm because the killers, like the Nazis, were pedantic in their sadism.

They photographed people before and after they were killed.

They recorded their names, ages, even their height and weight. And, like at Auschwitz, there is a room filled to the ceiling with their clothes and shoes, many of them children’s.

When the Vietnamese army discovered this place, they found among the corpses eight survivors, including four children and a month-old baby.

Eam Chan was a sculptor and Van Nath was a painter and they survived because they were put to work making busts and painting heroic pictures of Pol Pot.

Ing Pench, whose crime was being a teacher, says: "I lived because I never stop dreaming. When they put my hand in a vice. I dream of my four sons … but when I am free, they tell me all my family are dead."

That is the news from Cambodia, delayed for four and a half years. Today, the "government" that committed this crime still enjoys the respectability of recognition at the United Nations. and its leader, the mass murderer Pol Pot, has been given refuge in China.

Two men remain directly responsible for bombing Cambodia into the chaos that contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge; indeed, they bombed this land and its people literally back to the Stone Age.

One of them, Richard Nixon, was disgraced in 1974 for domestic crookedness. The other, Henry Kissinger, received the Nobel Peace Prize and is still feted as a statesman.

The legacy of them all is a famine so severe that, in the words of one of the few relief officials here, "we have just six months to save three million people."

A generation ago, while the civilised world still reeled in disgust at Auschwitz, the United Nations was formed "so that this might never happen again."

It has happened again.

The text of this article was first published in the Daily Mirror in September 1979.

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