Warning: this post contains graphic images and information.
For our big day of sightseeing in Phnom Penh we decided to visit the main memorial sites of the genocide that terrorized the Cambodian people from 1974-1979. I learned so much about this grim period of history, including details about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s regime.
Our first stop of the day was the Killing Fields. Nara, our driver for the day, zipped us out there in his moto-tuktuk, stopping along the way to collect some masks for us! He warned us the roads would be very dusty (I’m sure my dad will be very glad to hear that I wore a mask, as he said “If all of the locals are wearing them, you should probably be wearing one.” – I saved it by the way and have worn it several times while riding on dusty roads and behind buses in a tuk-tuk.)
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (official name of the Killing Fields) is a well established memorial site, offering an audio tour (in many languages) as part of the admission fee. Jacquie, Beth and I each took our audio guides, and wordlessly separated. This is the type of site that is best undertaken alone and at your own pace, as it spurs significant self-reflection.
All the original buildings that existed during the genocide were dismantled soon after, as Cambodians were in dire need of the materials. Many of the farming tools used as killing implements were even harvested from the site to be used for their intended purpose. The remains of the people killed here were exhumed soon after the genocide, in the early 1980s.
The audio tour is an integral part of the experience at the Killing Fields, as it would be difficult to glean as much meaning from simply walking around and viewing the site as it exists today. The audio guide includes first-hand accounts from prisoners, Khmer Rouge soldiers, and an excerpt from the confession of Kang Keck Iev, known as ‘Duch’, one of the most senior Khmer Rouge officials who is responsible for as many as 20,000 deaths and was in charge of Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21). ‘Duch’ is currently in prison, and will be for life, having been tried and found guilty in international court.
I’ve included photos of the signs that tell a bit of the story of the Killing Fields. I saw several mass graves, but most of the bones have been excavated and stored in the main memorial stupa (shown below).
Many of the mass graves were surrounded by bamboo fences, and these fences were adorned with offerings of bracelets, left by visitors to the site.
The caretakers of the site also continue to collect bone and fabric fragments that surface from the ground, primarily during the wet season. Large boxes display the clothing and bones that are found.
Halfway through the tour you are given the opportunity to walk around a lake and sit to listen to more firsthand accounts of the genocide. I walked halfway around the lake and sat to listen. It was so hard to believe how much hatred had existed and how many atrocities had occurred in such a beautiful place.
The part of the tour that hit me the hardest was the stop at the Killing Tree. The audio guide describes how the mass grave located next to this tree was found to be filled with the bodies of women and children. The damage to the children’s bodies indicated the brutal manner in which they were killed (and this was confirmed by confessions given by Khmer soldiers.) Most of the infants and young children were killed in one of two ways: they were held by their ankles and their heads were beaten into the tree until their skulls cracked, or they were tossed into the air, only to be speared by a bayonet upon their descent.
I was absolutely horrified when I learned this, and couldn’t help but think of all the little angels at the daycare and how horrific it would be if anything ever happened to them. I thought back to when my cousins were beautiful little babies, and all I could do was love and adore them. These children were loved and adored by someone too, and didn’t have the chance to live and enjoy their lives. I can’t imagine the pain these mothers went through having to watch their children die in this horrific way. My heart was even heavier as I moved on.
Just beyond the Killing Tree was the Magic Tree, which was not magic, but evil. The tree was the location of the speakers that were hung and that played music to drown out the cries and moans of the prisoners, lest the nearby villagers realize what was happening on the farm.
The final stop of the tour is the memorial stupa, which houses the remains of many of those who were killed on the site. The eye level cases are filled with skulls, while the higher ones house bones from the body. The signs indicate that you can see injuries to the skulls in many cases.
After lunch we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, located in the heart of Phnom Penh (the Killing Fields were in the outskirts of town). Once a high school, Tuol Sleng (i.e. S-21) was one of the main prisons where the Khmer Rouge carried out brutal interrogations of their prisoners. Anyone who was deemed to be an enemy to the party was arrested, along with their family.
The interrogations that were described to us were terrible, including electric shock, water-boarding, rape, forced ingestion of fecal matter, and essentially anything horrible you can think of that a human can do to another human. The pictures of the tortured bodies were hard to stomach, but I felt it was my duty to learn as much as I could with my eyes wide open. Our tour guide pointed out several pictures of the victims amongst the galleries, including mothers holding their babies while they were shocked with electricity, and prisoners whose tags were safety pinned to their skin. It felt strange to take pictures in this situation, so I took very few. We were disgusted by a couple who were posing on the steps of the prisons and in the cells, as they took photos of one another as casually as if they were at Disneyland.
There were just 7 survivors of S-21, of whom 2 are still alive today. Those who were kept alive were lucky, as they served a specific purpose to the Khmer Rouge. After viewing the cell of one of the survivors, our tour guide said, “and you will see him very soon.” We were a bit confused by this… Would we be seeing a picture? Nope. Chum Mey himself was seated at a table near the exit, selling his autobiography. Chum Mey was spared by the Khmer Rouge because he was able to build and fix typewriters. However, his entire family, including his wife and children, were killed. We met Chum Mey, purchased a copy of his book, and took a picture with him (which we were hesitant about at first, but Chum really wanted us to take a picture with him). I’m truly amazed by his bravery. He returns to the site of his torture and imprisonment 6 days a week. I can’t imagine the emotions he experiences visiting this place each day, but he seems to be incredibly proud to be there and is eager to spread his story.
This was a very powerful day for me emotionally. As someone who has read extensively about the Holocaust, and researched the Rwandan Genocide extensively during my undergrad, I was at first surprised by how little I knew of what the Khmer Rouge had done. What was interesting was how many parallels I was able to draw between the three genocides, and the characteristics of the dictators who orchestrated them. There is much to learn from observing these trends, and I have much to be thankful for as a privileged citizen of Canada. I also feel fortunate to have learned so much about Cambodia’s history.