This morning’s sightseeing in Phnom Penh put me in a sombre mood, having witnessed the atrocities that we humans are capable of committing to each other. First, I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka S-21) and then went to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (aka The Killing Fields).
Tuol Sleng (S-21) was a secret detention centre, where ordinary Cambodians were detained and tortured until they confessed their supposed transgressions against Angkar (the Organisation) – the Khmer Rouge. Most of the detainees had done nothing but, after repeated torture, were willing to confess to anything in the hope it would stop the torture. People could be detained for the most innocuous of reasons: they had soft hands; they wore glasses; they could speak another language; they were a professional (such as doctors, lawyers, teachers); etc. This was all part of Pol Pot’s plan to rid the country of the ‘new’ people (and the educated) in order to achieve his dream of a Maoist agrarian society. S-21 was constructed in a former school.
Almost all of those who were detained at Tuol Sleng were subsequently driven to the killing fields at Choeung Ek, under the cover of darkness. Once there, they were promptly murdered. The premise was that Angkar was never wrong so, if you were detained, you were guilty. There was no possibility of proving innocence. Between 1-3 million Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge – about 25% of the total population of 8 million.
Despite the odds against it, of the 14,000 people known to have entered S-21, only seven are known to have survived. They had skills that the Khmer Rouge wanted to utilise, e.g. a painter, a mechanic, etc. So, instead of being murdered after torture, these few prisoners were able to stay alive by providing a service that was useful to the organisation, whilst still remaining prisoners.
One of the few survivors was Bou Meng who was able to stay alive due to his artistic skills. When his captors asked for an artist, he told them he was a painter. They told him that if he didn’t meet the test of making a painting look life-like, he would be killed. He passed the test and was utilised to create large paintings of Pol Pot.
I had listened to Bou Meng’s story on the museum’s audio guide, so tears came to my eyes when I saw the old man himself, sitting under a tent in the museum grounds, selling his book. I bought his book and had the opportunity to have a photo taken with him. I had no words- I could only hold his hand and silently acknowledge his bravery.
From S-21, we rode a tuk-tuk to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center – the location of the Killing Fields to which most S-21 prisoners were taken and murdered.
The buildings that formed part of the Killing Fields were removed soon after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. In their places are an assortment of signs and exhibits that help to tell the horrific story of what took place there. The excellent audio tour helps the visitor to navigate the site.
One of the sites is a mass grave that held 450 bodies. Visitors have tied wrist bands and bracelets to the bamboo fence that surrounds this grave.
One of the most impactful locations at Choeung Ek is the ‘Killing Tree’ that is next to a mass grave that held 100 bodies, primarily naked women and their children. The Khmer Rouge soldiers killed the babies by holding them by the legs and smashing their heads against the tree. Horrific. Not something pleasant to read. But it is important that we know what happened here. This is a very emotional part of the tour and I had to pause here for a while before I could continue.
The final stop on the tour is the Memorial Stupa. Inside the stupa, a glass display holds skulls of the victims who have been recovered from the mass graves. The display also contains other bones and, tearfully, clothing from children who were murdered there.
It is tough to continue with normal life activities after visiting sites like these, so my mood continued to be sombre for a while after the tours were over.
One thing that strikes me is that when the world learns of genocides or mass atrocities, there is a call of ‘never again’, yet the world seems incapable to intervening to prevent such actions. The atrocities committed by Khmer Rouge are relatively recent, having occurred between 1975 – 1979.
After Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had been chased out of power, and he was living in the jungle, the United Nations continued to recognise him as the legitimate ruler of Cambodia and provided him and Khmer Rouge with funding. Simply amazing!
I recommend a visit to both of these locations for anyone who is in Phnom Penh. The visits are sure to dampen your mood but it is an important part of Cambodia’s recent history. The audio tours are also well worth the additional cost. More information can be found at this link
In the early evening, the mood was lightened by a sunset boat cruise.
That’s it for Phnom Penh. Next we have a long day in the saddle, with about 300km to cover to reach Battambang.