To say that Cambodia has had a troubled past would be a colossal understatement. However, even after everything the people here have been through, they are friendly, welcoming, and ready to share their experiences with the world in hopes that the rest of us may learn from history. When I decided to visit Cambodia, I knew that I would not be able to leave without paying my respects to those lost in the 1970′s Khmer Rouge genocide. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh to the delight of the Cambodian people who believed that they were there to bring peace. However, within 3 days the city was forcefully emptied as the party began to put their vision of an agrarian society into place. The desire was to create a country of people who worked towards the betterment of the whole via farming, without questioning, without thought, without freedom of any kind. Anyone who had interacted with foreigners, anyone considered an intellectual, even those who simply wore glasses were seen as the enemy of this plan and were gathered for interrogation on suspicion of treason, spying for the CIA or the KGB. One of the interrogation centres was knows as S21. It was created from an abandoned school in Phnom Penh; once a centre of education, it was now being used to abolish all traces of education. Officially known as Tuol Sleng, it was also known as “the place where people go but never come out”. This turned out to be brutally honest, as approximately 20,000 people passed into S21, and only 7 walked out. The life of a prisoner at Tuol Sleng began with mug shots and a single sheet describing the individual’s history and the charges against them. They were then interrogated until a confession could be achieved. The “interrogation” included techniques such as electric shock, starvation, water torture, beatings, and even being hung and spun to unconsciousness from the wooden structure once used for the school children s gymnastics (which still stands in the courtyard). Even just thinking about it now brings tears to my eyes. Once a confession, however dubious, was given, the prisoners would be transferred out of S21 blindfolded just after dusk to one of the nearby extermination facilities which would later be known as the killing fields. Just 17km from Phnom Penh was Choeung Ek, a former Chinese graveyard and orchard area. The prisoners would arrive in the dark, and if they survived getting off the truck they would be held in “the dark place”; a double boarded wooden pit under the guards house so dark that they couldn’t see each other. They would then sit in silence while waiting for their turn to be taken out to the pits and killed. It sometimes took until the early hours of the morning to kill the whole truck load of prisoners.
Stefan and I were picked up by a tuk-tuk and taken to Choeung Ek. Before we left, our driver gave us a hand written note explaining where he would take us and to express how thankful he was that we had given him a job for the whole day. Our entire day with him cost $6 each and made him a very happy man. When you walk through the gates, the first site is a towering glass stupa containing the skulls found in the unearthed mass graves. The first level is covered in the clothes the bodies were found in. Moving beyond the stupa are the grounds, still scarred by large holes with small pathways leading between them. As we walked these paths, past signs showing that 450 bodies were found in this hole, 110 in this one and so on, we looked down and saw some clothes coming up through the dirt. Only 86 of the 129 graves have been investigated and with every rain, additional item surface. These items are not limited to clothes. I looked to my feet and saw them surrounded by human bones. I was literally standing on people’s shallow graves. At one point, I looked down and saw a human tooth laying beside my toe. Deep breaths were not helping the sick feeling in my stomach. As we kept walking, we passed a tree with sign that read “Killing tree against which executioners beat children”. There was another tree from which speakers were hung to cover the sound of screaming. We headed over to the small museum and saw a film describing the Choeung Ek procedures and history. After the film, Stefan and I sat for a few minutes with a cold drink trying to digest the things we had just seen. However, we weren’t done yet. We got back in our tuk-tuk and headed back into town to go to the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum. Walking into the former school grounds, you are instantly greeted by a sign outlined the rules the prisoners had to abide by. They were:
- 1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
- 2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
- 3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
- 4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
- 5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
- 6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
- 7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
- 8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
- 9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
- 10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
Just beyond the sign was the school courtyard, which now houses 14 graves. These contain the bodies that were left when the staff quickly packed up the prison and fled the city. They were all beyond identification. We began to walk through the former classrooms. The first few that we entered contained a bed frame, an ammunition box that was used as a toilet and some other items such as leg shackles and truck axles (for beatings). On the walls were pictures of the rooms and the items in them as they were found when the prison was vacated. The images graphically showed the human remains sprawled out on the bed with blood everywhere, which caught me off guard. In the first room, I stood dumbfounded, feeling ill and unsure what to do next. So I continued on, throughout more and more rooms. The upper levels in the first building were mass cells, which meant that no walls had been built, but that the prisoners were shackled together in the crowded classrooms. The second building was where the prisoner id photos began. The rooms were willed with boards, all double sided, of the faces of the prisoners. There were young and old, male and female, Cambodian and foreign, and many Khmer Rouge (the upper ranks became paranoid and began killing their troops as well). As I slowly made my way from room to room, through holes in the classroom walls, I began to feel increasingly unsteady and rather then pass out or be ill, I headed to the courtyard to sit for a few moments. I was completely overcome with the devastation of looking into the faces of those who’s grave I had just walked on. The feeling is not something I can even begin to describe. Cambodia lost approximately 1/4th of it’s population, 20,000 of which came through these doors. Once I had collected myself, I continued upstairs in the 3rd building. Here, the classroom had been converted into tiny cells, brick on the second floor and wood on the third. Some of the rooms still had the classroom chalk boards hanging on the walls next to the cells.
The open air hallways were covered with razor wire and there were shackles inside the cells. It was all too easy to imagine the people in these cells, starving, bleeding and dying. I couldn’t help but feel connected to these people as I was standing in the last “home” they knew. By the end of the day, I was exhausted and constantly on the verge of tears. This did not happen long ago. Written on the walls are messages from visitors, many simply saying “Never Again”. However, genocide has happened since and continues. It is astounding to know that we are part of a species that is capable of such horrific acts. I am at a loss as to how this can change, but I do believe that if more people were exposed to the awful truth of what has happened we may collectively learn from it.
Currently, the top five living Khmer Rouge officials are facing trial for the crimes they have committed. Only one has acknowledged the Tuol Sleng Prison. For information on the trials, visit http://www.eccc.gov.kh/en . For a brief history of the Khmer Rouge visit http://www.history.com/topics/khmer-rouge . To see my pictures from these locations, visit my picasa album via the photos page on this blog.