Let’s play a game!
Who were the first four people you saw this morning?
Did your wife just wake up? Is your husband out the back mowing the lawn? Young mini-me playing on the jungle gym in the back yard? Perhaps you’re off to the pub for a meal and a beer with your best mate?
Now pick one.
Brutal? Perhaps, but that is the traumatic reality that faced 7 million Cambodians in the 1970s. Whether it’s the skeletons exhumed from the mass graves scattered across the nation, the official records that were painstakingly maintained by the Khmer Rouge or the horrifying oral history painfully passed from parent to child, the evidence is undeniable that one in every four Cambodians was murdered by the Khmer Rouge in the space of only ten years.
Before travelling to Cambodia we’d heard the stories. I mean, everyone spends a few lessons in high school learning about Pol Pot and his not-so-merry men known as the Khmer Rouge right? Right alongside The Great War, WWII, the Vietnam War, the blah-blah war…and so on and so forth, the impact is diminished. There were heaps of wars back then! Remember enough facts to get you through your next pop-quiz and move on folks…
One of the incredible joys of international travel is being able to experience the sights, smells and emotions of a country that you’ve only ever seen in a text book, through Google goggles or perhaps on overly saturated Instagram photo. Making that exciting transition from a state of anticipation and expectation to one of actuality.
But only the good things right? Palm trees, golden sandy beaches, cocktails…
We very nearly didn’t visit Tuol Sleng and Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields for those exact reasons. Why put a downer on your holiday when you could down another beer instead? Yet the more immersed we became in the Khmer culture the more important it became for us to see this legacy with our own eyes. To show the Cambodian people the respect and admiration that they deserve. To share their pain in some minuscule way, and to pass on their history in order to prevent such an atrocity from ever befalling another nation again.
Tuol Sleng, translated, means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees”. Also known as Security Prison 21 (or S-21), it was one of more than 150 prisons/execution centres operated by the Khmer Rouge. Yet the truly sad thing about this building is that prior to 1975 it was known as the Chao Ponhea Yat High School! From screams of joy, to screams of pain, the transformation couldn’t have been more complete.
We had planned on taking perhaps an hour to walk through the museum, yet more than two hours later we emerged; shaken, moved and forever thankful for the brutal education we had just received.
We chose to wander the site at our own pace, eschewing the offer of a guided tour. In hindsight I’m glad we did. The constant chatter of both the guide and the tour group would no doubt have detracted from the sombre experience, despite the additional information we may have gleaned.
School rooms converted to torture chambers, crudely erected brick and timber cells, scratched graffiti on the walls (you never could tell if it was by the victims or more recent tourists), bloody footprints that still remain on the floor nearly 40 years on, murals drawn for the children in happier times, children’s play equipment used to hang victims for water boarding, barbed wire strung above the balconies to remove the option of suicide for the prisoners, medieval instruments of torture, the use of poisonous centipedes to extract ‘confessions’, archaic electro-shock torture racks, piles of fractured and pierced skulls from the thousands of men, women and children murdered at Tuol Sleng, and photos of almost every single victim that ever walked through the doors of this slaughterhouse. It truly is a descent into the darkest and most twisted aspects of the human psyche, and the relentless pursuit of absolute mental and physical control by whatever means necessary.
While the museum does offer a sense of hope through explanations of the efforts being made to bring the Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, it’s when you dig a little deeper into the news reports that don’t make the front page that you realise that the more time passes, the less commitment the international community has to pursuing and convicting the instigators of these atrocities.
Pol Pot died under house arrest in 1998 and the commander of Tuol Sleng ‘Duch’ was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012, yet numerous other senior Khmer Rouge are still undergoing trial, within a court system that is in dire need of international funding. Sadly, no solution is likely, with these alleged criminals likely to die of old age before justice is served.
After grabbing a bite to eat and reflecting on what we had just experienced, we then took a tuk tuk out to the Phnom Penh ‘Killing Fields’, or more specifically Choeung Ek. What many don’t realise is that there isn’t just one ‘Killing Field’, there are in fact thousands of these sites across Cambodia. Given its proximity to Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek is the most well known of these sites, and the most visited. It’s estimated that up to 1,000,000 Khmer were murdered at this site, with the evidence of mass graves obvious to the thousands of people that visit every year (bones and scraps of clothing still found to emerge from the soil after heavy rains!).
While this was also a sobering experience, it was juxtaposed with a sense of frustration and anger when at the conclusion of the tour I noticed one couple moving from site to site taking photos. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, yet both showed no respect whatsoever with the girl draping herself over memorial plaques, leaning against the clear perspex walls of the Buddhist stupa (full of the clearly visible skeletons of murdered Cambodians!!) and posing with a toss of her scarf in front of the largest mass grave on the grounds, all while her partner took photo after photo…so disrespectful.
It’s impossible to communicate everything we experienced during this incredible day, but I hope you’ve gained a new appreciation and understanding of the horrors that went unnoticed by the international community for so long in this beautiful country. If you’re visiting Phnom Penh, a journey to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek should be firmly placed at the top of your itinerary.