Done with Death
Phnom Penh Travel Blog› entry 132 of 151 › view all entries
Cambodia's history is one of war and genocide. The Khmer Rouge took over and ruled this land from 1975-79, a relatively short time, but the country is still recuperating from the destruction left in its wake. People talk about Hitler and the atrocities of his time, but Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were no different.
I started day one by heading off to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It's actually an old school that was converted into a prison during Pol Pot's reign. This Security Prison 21 (S-21) held 20,000 prisoners, but it was not your regular prison. It was one of torture, leaving just seven survivors. The rest were taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and executed. The Khmer Rouge killed almost a quarter of the population during its time (estimates are around 2 million). The objective of all this killing was to rid the land of all the thinkers, the educated people who may speak out against communist rule. So only peasants and farmers, considered pure enough, were left. However, their lives were no picnic either. They worked the fields, producing rice, most of which was sent to China, leaving them starving.
The museum itself is a campus of three buildings with various rooms to tour through. Some are single rooms used for torture, others school rooms that were converted into small cells or large cells. Now rooms house photos of the victims and tell stories of the people. One exhibit had testimonials from those who worked at the prison, still alive and living in Cambodia. They basically made clear they had no option. Either join the Khmer Rouge or be killed. One quote, "No matter what option I chose, I still feared. There was nothing I could do." Today these people are still branded as Pol Pot supporters. A documentary shown featured one man who survived the tortures in the prison who ended up painting scenes from back then that are now on display.
In one room was a poem on the wall, written by a Cambodian while at a Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater. It's amazing how you can be so far away from home but find these connections. Anyway, the poem talked about all that was taken away from them during the Khmer Rouge rule. They could do nothing really, just work and ask no questions.
I have to hand it to the Vietnamese, though. They came in here in 1979 and ousted the Khmer Rouge! Thank goodness. The history since has not been pretty, but the mass killing stopped. This country is still clawing its way out of those dark days and it shows.
Following that afternoon, I took to hibernating in my room. I've been very anti-social since I arrived. It may have something to do with the fact I spent the last few weeks with a large group, or maybe all this death and dying is starting to get to me. Either way, I still made my way out to the Killing Fields today.
The best part of my morning was the motortaxi ride 15 kilometers outside of town to the sight. Sure, a tuk tuk would've been safer, but why not live on the edge, jump on the back of a bike, and crap my pants on the way out there.
OK, that was my attempt at a happy interlude, although I still kept mentioning death.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is basically an area outside of town where the Khmer Rouge killed approximately 17,000 men, women and CHILDREN from mid-75 until 1978. There are 129 mass graves there, with so far only 89 excavated. A huge white stupa sits amid the graves, containing the skulls of the victims found so far. As you walk along, you see the indentations where graves were, and you can even see clothes bubbling up from the ground, unearthed with each new rain. All the while as I strolled I could hear children playing and birds chirping.
I don't know what I was expecting when I went there. If there weren't markers indicating what tree they hung the loudspeaker on to drowned out the moans, or the tree used to beat the children to death or the mass grave where 450 bodies were found, I guess you would never know. In fact, families live just on its outer edge.
From here I go to Battambang to meet up with my friend I met in Laos and travel with her for a few days. We hope to do a homestay in the area, and well, find some happiness with the local families that are finding their way back to life.