Genocide Museum: Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Friday 12,1999: The first thing Setan and Randa wanted me to see after lunch was the genocide museum. “If you don’t see the museum,” they insisted, “you’ll never understand the Cambodian people or the challenges of the gospel ministry in Cambodia.”
The museum, which is housed in a former high school, was located on a Phnom Penh side street. When Pol Pot took command of the Khmer Rouge and began rounding up the “enemies of the people,” he commandeered the high school as his prison and torture chamber. The idea was to have a convenient place where his enemies could be taken for ruthless inquisitions that would force them to implicate and give evidence against others, who would then be put on the list for annihilation. Not many of Pol Pot’s suspected enemies were just conveniently shot without first being run through the torture chamber to incriminate others who might secretly like music or own books or magazines or attend a temple or be related to a monk.
If the Khmer Rouge wanted to eliminate someone, they simply needed to find the least bit of evidence against that person. Or they would use death threats against a man and his wife or children to force him to confess that another person was an enemy of the people. Then that person would be arrested, interrogated, tortured, and eventually killed.
Pol Pot started his murderous campaign with his own friends and those in any leadership position. At the beginning, in order to document and justify their actions, the Khmer Rouge took photographs of every person, recorded the words and evidence gathered against them, and documented their deaths. Later they didn’t bother with all the formalities and just got straight to the business of killing three million people. Their uncontrollable thirst for killing escalated, and in just four years, the atrocities grew to unbelievable proportions.
At first Setan and Randa quietly guided me room by room through the old, three-story high school situated in a lovely campus setting. There were about five main buildings, all with three levels. Some rooms contained the beds, shackles, and instruments of torture, and even pictures of the tortured, dead victims.
Holes had been knocked in the walls at the ends of each classroom to allow the guards and prisoners to move from one room to another without using the outside porch entrance. Bricks and concrete had been used to construct four-by-four-foot holding pens inside the classrooms. There were about thirty holding pens inside each classroom.
Pictures of the inquisition teams, the torture teams, and the execution squads were proudly displayed in the hallways. Even Pol Pot’s picture with his closest men taking part in the killings was displayed. Each person would pose with a big smile displaying the confidence he felt about doing such a great and honorable thing for the advancement of Communism and a perfect society. The grand inquisitor even had his picture taken at the torture area with his wife and baby.
Wall after wall in the old high school displayed the photos of those rounded up and brought to the prison. Each male and female prisoner had a handwritten identification number pinned to his or her shirt. Babies were imprisoned with their mothers. Pictures showed how, under interrogation, a crying baby would be ripped away from the mother; then a guard would toss the baby into the air, and another guard would impale the child on the bayonet of his rifle as the baby fell. Babies were also taken outside with the mothers who were being tortured. A mother’s hands were tied behind her back, and a rope was thrown over the old chinning bar, which still stands in the playground. Then the mother was hoisted up to the top of the tallest bar by her wrists, which were still secured behind her, and they made her hang there while they smashed her baby’s head against a nearby tree.
It’s my understanding that over two hundred thousand people went through the high school prison and were ultimately killed there after the Khmer Rouge extracted any useful information from them.
We quietly proceeded through the school until Setan showed me a picture of his family doctor and another picture of one of his closest childhood schoolmates. Then the talk began flowing nonstop. Randa, with tears in her eyes, told me how her father, who had two PhD degrees and was the president of the University of Phnom Penh, was arrested because he was educated, and he was tortured and killed while her mother, brothers, and sisters fled the city for safety.
We walked past the air-conditioned building where Pol Pot and his men reviewed the information gleaned from the enemy prisoners and made up their lists of who should be eliminated next. The fiendish orgy of torture and killing increased in momentum and intensity from 1975 to 1979. No one really knows what would have happened had the Vietnamese not invaded Cambodia and driven Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge into hiding in the mountains.
The instruments of torture, the drowning tanks, the electrical shocking apparatus, and other devices are still on display in the high school for curious and horrified visitors to see. In the final room were pictures of skulls and bones that had been unearthed in the killing fields. The government of Cambodia tries to downplay the number of victims by saying, “Somewhere around a million people were killed,” but the records pretty well speak for themselves, and the numbers displayed on the walls of the old prison testify that at least three million people were killed.
The best Cambodian leaders, the best teachers, the best musicians and artists, the best actors and actresses, the best historians, the best mathematicians, the best in the medical field, and the most educated civilians were all brutally murdered in the name of atheistic Communism. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were convinced that all they needed to do was reengineer society, and everything would be just right.
Setan and Randa were in a bit of shock when we left the premises. They had just relived the horrors of their teenage years one more time. As we were riding back through the streets of Phnom Penh, Setan asked if I would like to view the videotape of their involvement during the killing-field years. Just last year, Trinity Broadcasting Network engaged Christian actors and actresses to reenact Setan’s and Randa’s stories. The documentary will be shown not only in America but also throughout Cambodia as a Christian-outreach tool. I told Setan and Randa that I’d be honored to view the hour-long video. So we drove to their one-room office/apartment/ministry headquarters, which is located above a storefront.
The video picked up the story at the time when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power. Setan was a medical student, and while at home at a party, the young radical Khmer Rouge troops rolled in with military trucks and automatic weapons and killed some of Setan’s friends right on the spot. The survivors were rounded up and sent to the Khmer Rouge’s agrarian work camps. Part of the work-camp objective was to use cruelty and exhaustion to break the survivors down emotionally and mentally so they would become obedient and compliant.
The video picked up Randa’s story as her father hugged her and told her he was going away. He told her that now she was responsible for the well-being of the family and must take care of them while he was gone. She protested, but her father slipped away.
For three years the killing went on before their very eyes as they were forced into slave labor. Setan related to me how the Khmer Rouge gathered several thousand teens in an auditorium and warned them that they should become cotton trees that never saw anything, never thought anything, and never said anything. The military was very serious about impressing on the teens that they must obey in every way and completely embrace Pol Pot and the Communist ideal. They emphasized their point by having a twelve-year-old get up and speak about how great Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and Communism were. The twelve-year-old was then given an AK-47 automatic machine gun, and as he was talking and waving the gun around, the military brought out his own parents with their hands tied and sat them on chairs in front of everyone. The boy shouted how his parents had given him physical birth, but that was nothing compared to the enlightenment and good society Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were giving him.
Setan said that the twelve-year-old aimed the automatic weapon at his own mother and father and shot them to death in cold blood. The generals then got up, praised the boy, and said to those in the crowd, “If our young soldiers will shoot their own parents gladly, don’t think for one moment they will not shoot you if you disobey or stand in the way of the social revolution.”
The young military commandos in charge of the work groups were especially brutal and had the authority to kill at will. At one point, a young military girl overseeing the work group caught another teenage girl trying to give Setan a small crab for additional food. As Setan protested, the female soldier placed a plastic bag over the head of the guilty girl and suffocated her in front of everyone.
At one point, a young Cambodian Christian named Pastor Paul presented the gospel story to Setan out in the jungle, and Setan became a believer. A couple of years earlier, when Setan was about to be killed, he had called out for help from the God of the universe and promised that if his life were spared, he would serve God forever.
The video of Setan and Randa continued through their efforts to escape over the border to a refugee camp in Thailand. Finally they were successful, and they were able to locate and reunite with members of their families. The story also included Setan and Randa getting married in the refugee camp in the first-ever Christian wedding.
The video ended as Setan was preaching at the refugee camp. The female soldier, whom he hated for cruelly suffocating the girl for giving him something to eat, was in the audience. He stopped preaching when he recognized her and went over to her. In front of the group, he took her by the hand, told her he was sorry for the hate he held in his heart toward her, and forgave her. The woman prayed for Jesus to forgive her and then left. Neither Setan nor Randa have seen her again.
The video carried a tremendous message of salvation and forgiveness. I could tell that visiting the genocide museum and watching the video with me exacted a toll on them.
After the killing fields, Setan and Randa moved to Denver, Colorado, where Setan graduated from Denver Seminary. They still live in Colorado, where Randa cares for their two teenage children while Setan travels back and forth to Cambodia, overseeing their evangelistic and outreach ministry to their countrymen. I assured both of them that Project C.U.R.E. will be working with Dr. Singleton in Denver and Setan’s uncle in Battambang to send their people the desperately needed medical goods and perhaps some medical teams to work in Phnom Penh and Battambang.
Next Week: Welcome to the Tapioca Team