Warning: This post contains images and information you should find disturbing and upsetting.
I took GCSE history and in that we covered world events that took places from 1945 to 1989, essentially The Cold War but we focused on Britain, the USSR and America, because there’s a lot to fit in in a short amount of time. We skimmed over the Korean War, Vietnam War and learned nothing about the Khmer Rouge and their treatment of their own people. Why is this? Perhaps, again, it’s a case of time constraints, perhaps it’s because Britain wasn’t overly involved and if it doesn’t contain our own, we don’t really care. We have too much going on of our own.
For example, news reports. Whenever there is a disaster of some kind, for example a plane crash, the report might say something like ‘Two hundred and eighty seven people were killed in the crash, including 4 Britons, 2 Americans and 1 Australian…’ Now I know that the fact that British people died will be important information for their families, but I feel that by pointing out the nationalities of 7 people makes it seem that the other 280 don’t count, they aren’t worth mentioning further but now that we know our countrymen were affected, we’ll sit up and listen.
We are taught about the atrocities caused by the Nazis in World War 2, we know about the concentration camps, the attempted annihilation of the Jews and we also get briefly told that Hitler also sent Romany Travellers, homosexuals and political opponents. We are not taught that at the beginning of the 20th century the Belgian king, Leopold II, had enslaved, mutilated and murdered possibly 10 MILLION inhabitants of the Congo Free State that he had created under his protection. We are not taught about the Rwandan genocide.
There is so much we aren’t taught and I don’t really blame the education system for that, there are only so many hours in a teaching year and there is all of history to focus on, but I do feel that more recent history needs to be taught so that we can learn from it and help to prevent it recurring in the future.
Two years ago I went to Dachau Concentration Camp on the outskirts of Munich, in Germany. Dad and my uncle Finlay went in the 1970s and Dad said it was one of the creepiest places he’d been to. He said it was virtually empty, there was no sound but the rustling in the trees, no birds, almost as if nature knew that it was somewhere that was to be avoided. The birds and animals knew that terrible things had happened there.
Dachau was opened in 1933 and was a camp for political prisoners who were forced into labour creating munitions. By the time it was liberated in 1945 at least 32,000 people had died there, that being the recorded and documented number, but it is estimated to be a higher figure. When I visited it was a very different experience to Dad’s. There is an excellent museum based there, with contributions from survivors and their families and it has been transformed into the KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. The birds have returned, the trees were growing strong and I could take my time to look around and learn about what happened there.
I still don’t know enough about the Vietnam War to talk about it in any detail, but I’ve started reading some books to find out more about it beyond the fictional musical tales. I spent a couple of hours in the War Remnants Museum in Saigon and visited the Vinh Moc Tunnels in the centre of the country near the DMZ.
‘Vinh Moc (Vịnh Mốc) is a tunnel complex in Quảng Trị, Vietnam. During the Vietnam War it was strategically located on the border of North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The tunnels were built to shelter people from the intense bombing of Son Trung and Son Ha communes in Vinh Linh county of Quảng Trị Province in the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone. The American forces believed the villagers of Vinh Moc were supplying food and armaments to the North Vietnemese garrison on the island of Con Co which was in turn hindering the American bombers on their way to bomb Hanoi.
‘The idea was to force the villagers of Vinh Moc to leave the area but as is typical in Vietnam there was nowhere else to go. The villagers initially dug the tunnels to move their village 10 metres underground but the American forces designed bombs that burrowed down 10 metres. Eventually against these odds, the villagers moved the village to a depth of 30 metres. It was constructed in several stages beginning in 1966 and used until early 1972. The complex grew to include wells, kitchens, rooms for each family and spaces for healthcare. Around 60 families lived in the tunnels; as many as 17 children were born inside the tunnels.’
The War Remnants Museum doesn’t really give a great deal of history of the reasons for the war, but does show the worldwide protests, the affects of Agent Orange and has an excellent exhibition ‘Requiem’ which showcases the work of war photographers killed during the conflicts.
What struck me the most, and I was very moved by the whole visit, was a picture of conjoined twins, born with their deformity because their parents had been contaminated by the chemicals sprayed by the American troops. These twins were born on the 25th February 1984. I was born on the 22nd February 1984, we are almost exactly the same age, but because of an accident of birth I was born healthy, in Britain, growing up without any struggles apart from whether my parents would remember that Saturday was sweetie day. And these other children (the caption didn’t mention their gender) grew up in Vietnam with a birth defect (I hate using that word) without the opportunities or luxuries I had. How easily it could have been the other way around.
Today I went around the Killing Fields Choeung Ek, outside Phnom Penh and S21 prison, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and began evacuating people from the cities to the countryside. This radical social reform aimed to create an agrarian-based Communist society. It’s a different place to go to than Dachau. Dachau seemed more clinical, organised and had order to it. Tuol Sleng used to be a high school and only 7 people are thought to have survived from 20,000 men, women and children imprisoned there. Choeung Ek is dominated by the beautiful Memorial Stupa which houses 5,000 skulls of victims butchered there and I say butchered because they were, bullets were expensive and so they were beaten to death with hammers, sticks, machetes, with music playing to cover the screams of the victims.
So what am I trying to say?
I was on the verge of tears for much of these visits, particularly The Killing Fields as the audio tour is narrated by a survivor and there are other victims of the Khmer Rouge talking about what happened to them. It hits home when one person is describing the terrible things they have been through and you then visit a mausoleum with thousands of skulls of others who didn’t get out alive.
I connected with babies born at the same time as me, the war photographer’s photos I was most drawn to was a British photographer, one of the foreign prisoners killed in S21 was from Newcastle, his dad was head of one of the high schools, his mum worked in Fenwicks. Is it a co-incidence that that’s what I pegged my feelings to? Not really. We need to find a connection to bring something like this into our own realm of experience, that’s why plane crashes reported anywhere in the world will be reported including their own nations’ dead. If something is foreign and unfamiliar it is easier to file it away somewhere out of sight and out of mind. It’s easier to turn a blind eye and with something like this, you want to make it easier.
I think that wee need to start caring more about what happens to people that don’t look the same as us, who don’t believe the same things and not dismiss atrocious crimes because they happen to people in that area (be it Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Chile, wherever) all the time.
On the audio tour you stop to listen to the survivors stories. I listened to this part 3 times before writing it down. I didn’t catch the man’s name, but he was about 13 in year zero (1975) and later escaped to Texas, going on to work for the UN. his pregnant sister was killed but his mother survived.
‘I always promised myself that one day I would come back and arrest them [Khmer Rouge guards]…
‘I came to this work for revenge, to make my mother happy. It’s not what she wanted…she wanted me safe and happy.
‘I see my mother everywhere, I see my sister everywhere, I see the whole country as my family. When I go out to meet a woman [who] lost her child, I treat her like my mother. I see a woman who lost her child, who is poor, who lost her brother and her sister, I see my sister. They become like my whole family.
‘I see myself like a broken glass and only I can find those broken pieces and put them back together, it’s very personal. Everyone have different means to deal with what they went through, to put those pieces back together. I do this on my own, it’s the only way.
‘I’m physically well now. I have food to eat, air conditioning, I live in a good house, I have a car; but emotionally I’m broken and that is why it is is so important that genocide be prevented because you destroy the strings of humanity and you destroy the family, not just physically but emotionally.
‘Reconciliation is not about talking to each other, it’s about the responsibility and obligation of each of the victims to put those pieces back together.’
It’s also the responsibility of those not directly affected to treat victims with kindness and empathy, not to glorify acts of violence and to stand up against it. We need to remember that underneath the bombs being dropped in the video below, there are men, women and children, old and young, healthy and sick, trying to live their lives. This is not something to be glorified and given a cool soundtrack.