Travel is not always pretty. It can leave marks on your soul and change the way you see the world forever. Discovering the truth of Cambodia’s Genocide will change your consciousness, it will make you question man’s humanity and show you evil on an unimaginable scale. Yet the dark side of tourism should not be avoided. It should inform us, educate us, and always remind us of the suffering that has been endured, in the hope that such evil will never have to be witnessed ever again.
Cambodia’s Genocide History
Today, the city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia is both charming, chaotic and cosmopolitan, packed with tourists strolling along its riverside setting and admiring its many sights. Yet rewind to 1975 and for 4 years, Cambodia endured a mass genocide so brutal and savage that the country is still coming to terms with its history today.
The Communist Khmer Rouge regime ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, following the end of the Civil War. Led by Pol Pot, all civilians living in Phnom Penh were evacuated from their homes and forced out to the countryside, resulting in famine and the mass death of hundreds of thousands. Families were separated, children alienated from their parents, never to be re-united.
Pol Pot had a vision for a new agrarian socialist utopia, boasting over state-controlled radio, that only one or two million people were needed to achieve this result. “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss……..”
Pol Pot and his “brothers” demolished everything that Cambodians hold close to their hearts, family, food, village and Buddhism. They banished love, family, banks, money, even time.
Modern machinery was abandoned and people forced to work with little food for up to 18 hours a day. He refused to buy goods from other countries, severing foreign relationships to become a self-sufficient state. Anyone who disobeyed orders or who were professionals or intellectuals, were suspected of having connections with the former government, or who practiced a religion were massacred by the regime.
The depositees or “new people” from the cities were put in a camp for interrogation. Torture was used in cases where a confession was deemed useful, then they were executed.
Cambodia’s Genocide Statistics
- During the 4 years of rule, the estimated death toll is between 2 and 3 million people.
- An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (S-21) although the real number will never be known.
- Family members of prisoners were frequently brought to the prison where they were interrogated and then executed at Choeung Ek Killing Fields.
- When the prison was uncovered in 1979 by the invading Vietnamese army, only 7 survivors were found.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
As our tuk tuk driver comes to a halt amid the noise and chaos of a small road, I immediately assume that he has not understood our directions. I repeat our destination, “Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum” and he grins at me whilst shaking his head up and down and pointing in front of me. This can’t possibly be the right address I say to Richard, but politeness drives me forward.
I am shocked to find that this is indeed the entrance to the notorious security prison (S-21). How can this be in the middle of a bustling community? Entry to passers-by literally just off the street. A place of such brutal acts that must surely serve as a harrowing daily reminder to local people, of what occurred here.
Once a peaceful High School, Chao Ponhea Yat was turned into a prison, a torture and interrogation centre from which only a handful survived. Renaming the school as “Security Prison 21” or (S-21), the concrete buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, windows covered with iron bars and classrooms converted into prison and torture chambers.
As soon as I walk into the grounds I am filled with a feeling of dread and trepidation, a heaviness crosses my chest and I try and gauge, amid the silence, just what brutality I am about to bear witness to and discover.
Looking around me at the ordinariness of the scene feels both bizarre and horrific in equal measure. A large billboard stands at the edge of a grassy area, not a tourist welcome board, but the original board posted with security regulations for all prisoners arriving at the prison.
I stop reading. I have an immense feeling of respect for this memorial museum, a need to walk softly, quietly, in hushed voices and to continually pause momentarily to really let what I see and hear sink in.
Walking through the classrooms, I am overcome with a huge wave of emotion and I struggle to contain my tears, something that will continue for the entirety of my visit. The detailed audio guide takes you on a sombre and emotive journey and it is difficult to hear the horrific and evil acts that prisoners endured before their death. It feels alien to comprehend such evil…
Prisoners were shackled, continually tortured, beaten, electrified, dismembered, had toenails removed, suffocated and bludgeoned to death.
A rusty metal bed frame with chains attached is standing in the middle of one cell, on a checked tile floor smeared with unwashable blood. Instruments of torture are still present, a grisly reminder of the sickening reality that unfolded as up to 20,000 people were repeatedly tortured, coerced into naming family members or associates then killed and thrown in mass graves. Family members were brought here en mass and in turn, tortured and killed. Those who survived were transported to the killing fields for final extermination.
Meticulous in keeping records, each prisoner coming to S-21 was photographed and some of these can be seen presented on blackboards as you walk through the classrooms. There was nearly a 99.9% chance that every prisoner here would die. I can’t even try and imagine the sheer level of fear they must have felt or the heinous crimes inflicted upon them before they died.
It feels completely wrong to take any photographs, yet I feel compelled to have reminders of what I have seen, to help what I have witnessed, to sink in.
At any one time, S-21 held between 1,000 and 1,500 prisoners which included academics, doctors, teachers, monks, soldiers, government officials and later, even party activists. Due to the leadership’s paranoia, high ranking communist politicians were also arrested, viewed as potential leaders of a coup against Pol Pot.
‘It’s better to kill an innocent by mistake, than spare an enemy by mistake‘ – Pol Pot
Scarily, Tuol Sleng was only one of at least 150 execution centers in the country. The buildings of the prison have been left as they were, when in 1979 the Khmer Rouge fled.
Cambodia’s Genocide – Two Survivors
Despite the unimaginable horrors witnessed at the prison, two survivors return here every day, to the place of evil and brutality that has haunted their every waking hour. Their survival wasn’t anything miraculous, it was purely because they served a purpose to the prison leader Comrade Duch.
They return to the scene that haunts them in order to tell their stories, to share their graphic details to visitors from around the world, in the hope that people will never forget what has happened in their country.
I can’t even begin to understand how they manage to confront any of their experience. To live it over and over again ….. to have lived with the mental anguish and torture of losing their families …..
Chum Mey, now in his eighties was a mechanic. Bou Meng, in his seventies was an artist. Both men had practical skills deemed useful to the Khmer Rouge, and their impending death sentences were put on hold.
Both men can recount the horrors that occurred here and do so in a respectful manner. None of these stories is for the faint hearted. Just when you think you have heard the unimaginable, you hear another story which takes its place. I guess you have to know evil to understand evil. You have to have evil within you.
Today, the screams for mercy are replaced by the sound of children playing and people going about their daily routines. Yet in a wicked twist of fate, those same people going about their day, could be former members of the Khmer Rouge regime. Those sadistic perpetrators are still living among victim’s families, in the same towns, walking along the same streets…..
Feeling mentally drained, we return to our tuk tuk driver who is waiting patiently were we left him. He smiles at us and indicates that he will continue to our next destination, the Killing Fields.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
As we drive through the heavy traffic my mind is in overdrive. Trepidation is flooding every part of my body. I feel myself trying to put up a shield, a guard against what I will find at the next site. How bad is this going to be, I keep asking myself, repeatedly.
Choeung Ek or “The Killing Fields”, is a memorial to the thousands of victims who were transported here after detention and torture in S-21 and slaughtered.
Situated about 15 km from the centre of Phnom Penh, this location is believed to be one of the largest killing fields in the country.
Having spent weeks or months being tortured and starved, prisoners were informed that they were being transferred to another prison to keep them complacent and silent during the journey. Horded in trucks at night, their names were checked against a list on arrival, they were then led in small groups, to ditches and pits and executed straight away.
As the number arriving increased, sometimes up to 300 daily, the prisoners were kept in a dark and gloomy detention shed until the next day. This shed was dismantled in 1979.
A large Cambodian Magic Tree was used to hang a loudspeaker from and propaganda music played loudly to drown out the screams of victims as they were being killed. Locals working nearby heard the music being played each night and had no idea of the atrocities unfolding.
As bullets were precious commodity to the Khmer Rouge, they were not “wasted” on prisoners.
Victims, with their hands bound behind their backs were led to the edge of the hollowed pits, told to kneel down, then hacked to death with spades, machetes or clubs. Some were tossed in alive. Others had their throats slit, using the razor edge of plants growing nearby.
Chemical substances such as DDT, were sprayed over the bodies to ensure nobody remained alive. It also eliminated the stench from the dead corpses, which could raise suspicion from people working nearby.
A walkway takes you around the mass graves …. at lease 20,000 victims died here, body upon body piled on top of each other.
Remnants of clothing, bones and teeth fragments continue to surface after heavy rainfall, like voices wanting to be heard.
From the moment that I start walking around this site, I feel only one emotion. As I listen to the chilling insight of the horrors that unfolded here, I feel one emotion. As I stand at the giant tree looming over the orchard, named the Killing Tree, and hear the barbaric treatment of children and babies being swung from their feet so that their tiny skulls are crushed, I feel one emotion.
A sense of profound peace is the only emotion that I feel. Why don’t I cry, why don’t I break down? I don’t just feel this emotion lightly. No, the feeling engulfs me. It seeps into me, it flows over me and leans on me, like an old friend.
It takes me completely and utterly by surprise.
But then I smile, as I realise that despite the horror and torture that the prisoners endured, both here and at Tuol Sleng, they are finally safe. Their souls are at peace, their suffering ended. I feel their peace in every footstep, around every turn of the orchard and in the gentle breeze and rustling leaves.
As we walk towards the entrance, our tour at an end, there is one last memorial erected in memory of this chilling regime, a Buddhist Stupa. Here, thousands of recovered skulls, arranged from the ground upwards, sit looking outwards through the glass windows, towards the killing fields, both hallowed ground and cemetery.
Both museums are not for the faint hearted, and difficult places to visit. However, like other Holocaust Museums, to see is to learn, to see is to not forget, and the great hope is for such atrocities to never be repeated.
How To Get To Both Museums :
- Option 1 : Go by Tuk-Tuk which is the cheapest and easiest option. The driver will wait for you at each site, Cost approx. US$15 – 20 return.
- Option 2 : Take a shuttle-bus tour with hotel pick-up both morning and afternoon. Check details here.
Admission Price :
- Entry to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum including audio tour US$8
- Entry to Choeung Ek Genocide Centre including audio tour US$6
- Tuol Sleng Museum : 7am – 5.30pm 7 days a week. Check times during festivals.
- Choeung Ek : 7.30am – 5.30pm
Other Information :
- Please note that if areas stipulate NO PHOTOGRAPHY, that means please do not take any photos out of respect for the victims and their families.
- Please dress and act appropriately when visiting both sites, that means covering your shoulders and above your knees.
- Please don’t take selfies – this is NOT the place.
- If taking children, ensure they have an understanding of where they are visiting so they act accordingly.
- Please don’t write on photos or walls, and yes, people do!
- Take plenty of water as it can get very humid walking around both sites.
- It takes about 4 – 5 hours to see both sites.
- Official Site of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
- An article detailing the experience of Chum Mey, one of the 7 survivors of S-21.
- Survivor: The triumph of an ordinary man in the Khmer Rouge genocide – A book written by Chum Mey.
Despite the black period in Cambodia which killed up to a quarter of the country’s people, it astounds me how little bitterness is to be found.
Reading about genocide in history books gives you a certain level of appreciation, but to visit these sites personally, provides an incredibly powerful experience that will stay with you for years to come. The memory of these sites should be preserved and honoured for the victims sake and for history.
Have you visited either of these sites when staying in Phnom Penh? If so, how did you think they were set up and portrayed to visitors?
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