There is no worse sight than that of seeing a person suffering especially if such suffering is inflicted by another human being. The trip to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a trip to the darkest side of humanity. What makes it even more horrifying is that the events took place in 1975-1979 when we thought we all had learned our lesson from the Holocaust and the world wars. But apparently not.
I had been hesitant to go to the two sites as my overactive imagination and weak stomach would definitely make it all the more horrifying to me. But having been to the War Remnants Museum at HCMC and seen some pretty gruesome pictures, I had mustered enough courage to go to Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng and live to tell the tale. But I was still caught unprepared.
The plan was to Choeung Ek first because it is 15km from Central Phnom Penh then Tuol Sleng on the way back. I thought this was a good idea as Choeung Ek would serves as an intro to the squeamishness. After all, bones and graves are a better sight than instruments of torture and photographs of dead people.
The Sound of Silence
The fields actually looked very peaceful. The tall white stupa, erected as a memorial to replace the wooden shacks in 1988 stood-out silentl amidst the mass graves. There were several tiers, each containing a group of bones. On the lowest were the clothes followed by the skulls, then the rest of the bones arranged according to what type (i.e flat). Some skulls were segregated with a sign pointing out these were from kids aged 5-15. But more horrors lay around the field. The original structures had already been demolished and in its place were signs detailing what stood there such as the wooden prison where the prisoners were held before being executed and the shed where the instruments for torturing were placed. Cordoned-off areas revealed some of the mass graves. As you walk around the grounds, some clothes remnants are still left there, though I feel it was more for the benefit of the tourists rather than for authenticity. The most horrifying sight of all was what was dubbed the “Killing Tree” where kids and infants were bashed against the trunk. The Khmer Rouge soldiers only had enough budget for 1 bullet per person. Hence, they saved on bullets by bludgeoning people to death. Adults were hacked, bayonetted, etc. while kids were swung by their legs against the tree. It was pure evil. Nearby was another tree where speakers were placed to drown out the screams of those being killed.
At the far end of the fields was a small building which details the prison
system of the Khmer Rouge and some photographs showing the exhumation of the graves. A 30-minute documentary had people talking about their experiences. One striking testimonial was that of a farmer who having gone back home to Cheoung Ek after the Vietnamese liberation from the KR, saw the killing tree covered with blood and brains. It was utterly numbing. A large sign at the front wall of the stupa reminded people to show their respect to the victims (read: keep quiet). There was no need. No history lesson or advanced reading will prepare you for the pure shock that automatically silences you. Only prayers for the victims seem to the be the right thing to utter on your lips and in your heart.
The Sound of Screaming
Just as in Cheoung Ek, at Tuol Sleng, there was a crowd of tourists and yet everyone was quiet. Formerly a school, Tuol Sleng was the notorious S-21 where the Khmer Rouge brought their “enemies” to be tortured. The buildings stand quietly and the compound looks just like any other school. But as you enter the classrooms, you come face to face with a nightmarish world where people were tied to beds and tortured in unimaginable ways (i.e. electricity, instruments, etc). When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in 1979, they found 14 corpses who were tortured to death. Photographs of their deaths hang on the walls of the classrooms where they were found. Rusty beds and instruments are placed on display. You enter a classroom and the screams still seem to resonate on the walls. It was just too much for me. I made it to the 2nd floor to see some more photographs but I had enough. I went to the other buildings where the classrooms displayed photographs of the victims. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were very meticulous with their documentation. Hundreds of photographs were on display. I dared not enter the classrooms but peered through the windows instead. I found myself in near tears and catching my breathe as I looked upon rows and rows of blown-up photographs. I found myself looking into the eyes of a young woman staring at the photographer while a naked baby boy lay on the floor beside her. What was she thinking as she stared at the camera lens of her captor? What was her fate? Did she know the hell she was about to experience? Two boys, bound back to back with one leaning forward to move out of the frame, while the other stared blankly. There were pictures of children, women, old people with eyes looking so innocently. Prayers were all I could mutter. On the second floor was a very good exhibit curated by the French showing testimonials of both victims and captors. It did help me process the entire experience especially as the testimonials from the very young Khmer Rouge cadres help explain in a little way the complexity of the situation.
Another building was turned into single cells made of bricks. Having seen some elderly Europeans walking inside, I got the courage to do so. I managed to walk from end of one classroom to another. It felt so creepy especially since the brick walls allowed very little light to come in.
The experience was jarring. People spoke in hush tones and moved silently along the corridors. I didn’t make it to the top floors as every time I would peer into a classroom I was so afraid of what to see. What the total experience captures is the cruelty of the human condition that allows such situation to flourish. The fact that the Khmer Rouge managed to kill 3 million people in just 4 years is chilling. And the fact that it happened while supposed-modern societies that champion liberties and human rights did nothing (the UN even gave the Cambodian seat to the KR in 1990) made it even more troubling. It was a complex situation that involved geopolitics, political alliances, etc. But human suffering should have put a stop to all that.
Never again! as one British woman said. We should never allow such monstrosity to happen again.