Today I saw an old woman. Toothless, with wispy hair and a thousand wrinkles she leant on the arm of a younger man and walked slowly along the road. And it came to me suddenly how few old people there are in this country.
Everywhere you look you see children, teenagers and those in their 20s. According to statistics, 50% of the population is under 18. Looking around it feels as if another 45% are under 30.
Given Cambodia’s violent recent history it should come as no surprise. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge, an extreme Maoist/Marxist group, took control of the country. It wanted to turn Cambodia into a giant peasant based agrarian cooperative and emptied Pnomh Penh of people, forcing families to march from the city to the countryside. The entire population of the country, men, women and children, was forced to work, often up to 18 hours a day in the fields. Many starved to death, many more were tortured and executed.
During the 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge rule, somewhere between 1.5 and 3million Cambodians were murdered or died (historians still struggle for an accurate count). This amounts to almost a quarter of the population. You can find out more here or here.
After the Khmer Rouge were disposed by the Vietnamese in 1979, they kept up a guerrilla war that didn’t end until 1991 and their last strongholds were not routed until 1998.
Looking around Cambodia today it feels as if two generations of people are missing. Not only the older generations who died in the 70s but also the generation of 25-35 year olds, who just weren’t conceived during those years of war and terror.
I visit the Tuol Sleng Museum in Pnomh Penh to find out a bit more. Formerly a suburban high school, the Khmer Rouge turned it into a security prison called S21. Classrooms became tiny prison cells and torture chambers. Of the almost 17,000 adults who were incarcerated here, only seven survived. Children were killed too. Those who survived the torture were bludgeoned to death to save bullets.
It’s a terribly distressing place, even today. The cells and torture chambers remain intact and in other rooms the pictures of those who were imprisoned here – the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records – are on show. Men and women, girls and boys. Some look terrified, others bemused.
When I come out, the moto driver notices my mood. He’s 45, a few years older than me, with a worn face, only a small selection of his original teeth and the gentle smile that’s so common in this country. He looks 55, maybe more.
‘It’s a sad place,’ he says.
‘My father, my brother and my uncle. They all died during that time,’ he says. Then with a little grimace of his mouth and a barely there shrug, he turns and kick starts the bike.