No visit to Cambodia should be complete without seeing the following:
- Tuel Sleng Genocide Museum (Security Prison 21) [open this for photos]
- Choeung Ek – the Killing Fields [open this link for photos]
Most tourists visit Angkor Wat but far fewer visit Phnom Penh and see the above important sites. See our earlier blog entitled,’Insights to Angkor Wat & the Cambodian Countryside‘.
The Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia provides the following horrific description:
Tuol Svay Pray High School sits on a dusty road on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge renamed the high school S-21 and turned it into a torture, interrogation and execution center. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived. Not only did the Khmer Rouge carefully transcribe the prisoners’ interrogations; they also carefully photographed the vast majority of the inmates and created an astonishing photographic archive. Each of the almost 6,000 S-21 portraits that have been recovered tells a story shock, resignation, confusion, defiance and horror. Although the most gruesome images to come out of Cambodia were those of the mass graves, the most haunting were the portraits taken by the Khmer Rouge at S-21.
Today, S-21 Prison is known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide.
We allocated a day to visit both S21 and the Killing Fields site. S21 is within Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields are circa 17 Km outside the city.
At S21 we hired a local English speaking guide and she was able to share many personal insights. She described how she and her family were forced out of Phnom Penh at gunpoint, walking north for many months and eventually being forced to work as virtual slaves in the rice fields to avoid certain death from either the Khmer Rouge or starvation. She broke down when she described how her father was taken away and she still does not know where he was buried. Unfortunately, her story is a common one. After we finished with the guide, we walked around again. We were both silent for a long time that day. We observed that other visitors were silent too. It is hard to comprehend the effective murder of an estimated 3 million people out of a population at the time of less than 8 million (almost 40%). The Khmer Rouge started their brutality by systematically killing the educated and middle classes. The Khmer Rouge totalitarian dictatorship, led by the infamous Pol Pot lasted from 1975 to 1979.
At the Killing Fields site, we hired an audio headset which provided an excellent, vivid and detailed description as we walked around the site. Like S21, we were silent and deep in our own thoughts. Choeung Ek is the best known of Cambodia’s killing fields sites, where between 1975 and 1979, Khmer Rouge executed more than a million people. The site was formerly an orchard and then a Chinese cemetery. Since 1979, nearly 9,000 bodies have been found in mass graves. Many of the dead were political prisoners, transferred from the Tuol Sleng detention center after torturing. Choeung Ek is now a memorial, with a haunting Buddhist stupa – it has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. We chose not to enter the lower levels of the transparent stupor and get close up views of the skulls. As we walked around the site, we witnessed many pits from which the bodies had been exhumed – it’s possible to see bone and clothing fragments brought to the surface by the weather. Perhaps, the most harrowing sight is the ‘killing tree’ where babies were smashed to death in front of mothers before they too were executed.
Later that day, we tried to discuss what we had seen and questioned why the United Nations and the major powers did not intervene. The Khmer Rouge closed the country to the outside world, deporting or killing international journalists. In the late seventies, America was still recovering from the loss of the Vietnam War. The United Nations was ineffective without the support of the Security Council and then as today, the permanent members were often deeply divided, including the US, UK, France, Russia and China.
The spirits of the three million killed by the Khmer Rouge will probably not rest because there has been no justice. Pol Pot, escaped to Thailand, remarried and allegedly died, possibly of suicide or poisoning. Others from Pol Pot’s government are in jail but have never been brought to trial. After the Khmer Rouge period, Cambodia was rebuilt in 1979, with the close political patronage of Communist Vietnam. From 1979 to 1997 Pol Pot and a remnant of the old Khmer Rouge, clung to power, hidden in the Cambodian jungle near Thailand, with the nominal United Nations recognition as the rightful government of Cambodia.
As well as the haunting memories, we are left with many troubling and unanswered questions.