As soon as the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, they started a program of mass evacuations. Within 3 days the city streets were cleared and the entire population, including the hospitals' sick and dying, were making their way into the countryside. 2 million Cambodians gave up everything, traveling to far distant provinces to play their part in the 'agrarian utopia'. In a country that grows 30% of what it consumes the consequences are obvious - mass starvation. As one Cambodian put it "Where there were streets without people, houses without people and men fought over a grain of rice stuck to the tail of a dog".
An old school house in Phnom Penh stands as a museum to the cruelty and inhumanity of the Khmer Rouge. It was in this French colonial school, in the heart of an empty city, that 20,000 political prisoners were detained, questioned, tortured and raped. Security Office 21, or S21, was just one of many interrogation centres run by the Khmer Rouge. Here confessions and accusations were extracted under such duress that they couldn't be considered valid. For most, it ended at the killing fields – only 7 people of the 20,000 survived.
Amongst the cruellest of guards were the 12-16 year old wardens. Prisoners were regularly questioned and tortured with a variety of techniques, from fingernails being pulled out to electrification and suffocation. Important political prisoners were kept in their own 2 1/2 foot by 6 foot cell, feet shackled to an 2 foot iron bar. As horrible as this sounds it was infinitely preferable to the treatment of the bulk of S21’s residents. They were kept 60 to room, that in a different time taught classes of 25. Here there were just two iron bars, each the length of the room. 30 people would be shackled alternatively to each bar, feet touching feet. No bedding, sound or movement was allowed.
After interrogation at S21, prisoners were taken 14km down the road to the killing fields, where, as the name suggests, they were killed. To save 'wasting' bullets, prisoners were beaten to death with bamboo, or had their necks sawn using branches from palm trees.
There isn't much to see now, only small dips in the ground that mark out where the mass graves once were. Scattered all across the ground underneath our feet were fragments of teeth, bones and clothing. In the centre is what looks like an ordinary monument, but as you get closer you can see it's a perspex tower, 17 storeys high, of skulls arranged by age and gender.
Phnom Penh doesn't seem to be as dangerous as everyone makes out, although having said that we took the guide book's advice and stayed indoors after dark. Fortunately there was a fantastic French restaurant just a few meters away, where we had most of our meals.
We've taken a coach to Vietnam, and are now in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We're waiting to take another bus to a little fishing village called Mui Ne. We'll be returning to HCMC in a few days time though.