I didn’t want to go. I skipped them the first time I visited Cambodia 8 years ago. I still didn’t want to go when Keith and I visited few months ago. I knew it was going to be profoundly sad. I already cried many tears just from reading books about them. But Keith convinced me that we should go — to fully understand Cambodia’s bloody past so we can better appreciate its present.
And so I let him drag me along to Toul Sleng Prison Museum and Choueng Ek Killing Field in Pnohm Penh, two of the many places that witnessed the horror and savagery of the ruthless communist regime of Khmer Rouge.
As expected, it was deeply sad and we were having second thoughts about posting this. But then we realized that, although it only happened in late 1970’s, many are not familiar with the history of Cambodian genocide, especially among young generation. A quarter of seven million Cambodian population died during the Khmer Rouge rule and their stories need to be heard.
Toul Sleng Prison Museum (S-21)
Who were detained here? Professionals, artisans, people speaking foreign languages, people wearing glasses, anyone who showed slight hint of intellect – and their families.
Why? Pol Pot, the deranged leader of Khmer Rouge, wanted to create a nation based solely on agriculture and anyone who were not peasants didn’t belong to the utopia he wanted to create. And those who didn’t belong were labeled traitors, arrested, interrogated, tortured and executed.
Pol Pot’s Hitler-like reign of terror started in 1975 and ended in 1979 when the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia. If not for this invasion, a lot more lives would have been lost to Khmer Rouge’s hands.
The regulation that evey prisoner must adhere to.
When the Vietnamese forces uncovered S-21, they found several bodies in Building A tied to their beds. They were shot by Khmer Rouge staff just before they fled. The remains were buried in the ground of Tuol Sleng.
The Khmer Rouge guerrillas were efficient in documenting their barbarism. They photographed each prisoner before they were tortured and sometimes after they were tortured. There were so many innocent children.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
After the prisoners in S-21 were tortured enough, they were brought for execution to Cheoung Ek, one of the many killing fields established by Khmer Rouge throughout the country.
Children were smashed on trees and many men and women were bludgeoned to death to save bullets.
(One thing we didn’t do was bring enough tissues.)
We had the honor of meeting this incredible man at Tuol Sleng. His name is Chum Mey. He’s one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng Prison. He was tortured for 12 days and 12 nights. He was saved from being sent to the klilling field for execution because he had a skill that the Khmer Rouge found useful — the ability to repair typewriters that were indispensable for Khmer Rouge in documenting their interrogation and tortures.
He may have survived but none of his family did. He is 84 now and he wrote a book about this ordeal in the hands of Khmer Rouge.
About his interrogators, he wrote, “I was angry but after a long while…understanding that people had to do what they were told to do, I wasn’t angry with them anymore. Even the ones who tortured me, they also lost parents and family members. “
Visiting Tuol Sleng Prison and the killing field was a deeply heartbreaking experience, but we were thankful we did. It made us better understand and appreciate how far along the Cambodian people have come to healing as individuals and as a nation. And we hope it continues.
When we think of Cambodia, we think of its gentle people and their heartwarming smile – the symbol of their incredible resilience and their will to heal.
- When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Under the Khmer Rouge by Chanrithy Him
- First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung
- Survivor: The Triump of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide by Chum Mey
This link is part of Thursday Travel Photos. Check it out for more interesting travel links.