Our day-and-a-half stay in Phnom Penh was marked by two distinct sites that caused our hearts to further bleed for the country: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The two places hosted a significant amount of the horror that occurred under the Khmer Rouge and are now open to visitors to share that history with the rest of the world.
Also known as Security Prison 21 (“S-21”), Tuol Sleng is a former high school-turned political prison that was a massive site of death and torture under the Khmer Rouge between 1975-79. The prison housed a number of political “threats” including officials from the previous government, academics, teachers, students, monks, factory workers, engineers, and eventually, suspicious members of the Khmer Rouge itself and their family members. When brought in, prisoners were either housed in tiny cells (like bathroom stalls) or shackled with other prisoners in larger rooms and were forced to stay under the most inhumane conditions. They were fed four spoonfuls of rice porridge twice a day, forced to sleep on the bare floor and forbidden to talk to each other. Breaking any of these rules, even drinking water without permission, would result in severe beatings or other punishments. Ultimately, however, the prison was an interrogation center and the victims were electrocuted, hung up by their arms, nearly drowned or had their fingernails ripped out as some of the methods of torture used on them. Many ended up selling out their friends and family members (who often then suffered the same fate) before being killed.
Today, visitors can roam around nearly the entire complex, which includes several blocks of buildings used for interrogation and holding cells. The rooms are eerily simple, holding remnants of the bed frame, shackle and metal box (for going to the bathroom) that made up most of the interrogation rooms. Nearly each room in the interrogation block, however, also contains a photograph of a dead body after it had been tortured, putting an eerie perspective on the whole place. Nearby, the holding cells block contains three floors of wooden or brick cells, all about the size of a bathroom stall. Each level has barbed wire covering the outside balcony to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide. In some cases, you can still see blood stains on the floor.
Topping off the whole museum, however, is the victim’s memorial in the last complex. The ground floors are full of photographs of the prisoners, remnants of the torture devices used on them and the stories of the seven lone survivors (out of 17,000) who were found when the prison was liberated in 1979. In the very last room is a large monument full of skulls and clothing remnants. It was quite an emotional museum, to say the least.
On the morning of day two, Karri and I visited Tuol Sleng’s sister site, the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where most of the prisoners were killed and buried after their interrogation. The site is a ways out of the city at the former site of a Chinese graveyard. The prisoners had to be killed and buried there when the Khmer Rouge ran out of space at Tuol Sleng. To save bullets, they were bludgeoned to death with basic farm tools and buried in mass graves throughout the fields.
Today, people can still see the huge pits that fill up the grounds from where the bodies have been excavated. In fact, the site is set up so visitors can walk from the entrance around the grounds at different stop points to read about different aspects of the fields, including the grave of the headless bodies, a tree against which the Khmer Rouge smashed babies and several cases containing the clothes and bone fragments of the victims’ remains. What is still eerie, however, is they say they still find bits of clothes and bones coming up from the grounds after it rains…
The site also has a museum containing clothes from the Khmer Rouge, tools used in the killings, a video on the Khmer Rouge and photos from the excavation. One of its biggest draws still, however, is the large memorial located in the center of the fields. The monument is 17 stories high and contains the victims’ remains in open, glass display cases. The first few levels are full of human skulls while the upper levels contain different other bones and clothing remnants. The whole thing is really open, you can go right up to it and touch the skulls if you want (though probably not recommended) since the glass cases aren’t always closed…
Though we’ve all grown up learning about horrible atrocities that have occurred throughout history, especially things like the Holocaust, it’s very different experiencing the sites first hand. What was especially scary to me was the fact that this all happened in the late 70s, less than a decade before the year I was born… After these museums I kept staring at all the Cambodians I encountered, especially the older ones, wondering what they were thinking about, what memories they had and what their lives are like now. I just feel sometimes Iike I’ve grown up in a bubble, one for which I am very grateful, and I hope I never have to endure anything like they did during my lifetime.