I am now in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s largest city and capital. I would love to take this moment to write about all the nice things in this city—such as the French Colonial buildings, the Russian Market, and happy hour at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club—but all of those things are overshadowed by a visit to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek.
Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, was originally a high school set in a busy part of the city. One might continue to think it still is, if it weren’t for its corrugated steel outer wall topped by rusted barbed wire, both of which were erected by the Khmer Rouge when they converted the school into a prison and torture chamber. Tuol Sleng was the first of many such prisons where Cambodian citizens were taken (with their entire families) to be detained and tortured. Most were arrested under the pretext of being “spies” for the CIA, KGB, or for Vietnam; but in fact, the vast majority were regular citizens—doctors, teachers, merchants, and religious leaders.
Now, Tuol Sleng is a museum that exists to bear witness on the horrible atrocities committed there. When you enter the grounds, it appears relatively benign. The grass upon the ground is a vibrant green and the beautiful white blooms of the Plumeria trees stand in stark contrast to the prison’s blood-red past. However, when you enter any of the buildings, you are faced head-on with the horrors that occurred within its walls. Perhaps the most disturbing is Building A, where prisoners were taken to be tortured. Many of the rooms still contain the original metal bedframes upon which prisoners were shackled, as well as the original metal box that contained their waste. The contents of these boxes were emptied into huge pots that were used in a particularly foul form of torture; for just outside Building A, prisoners were severely bound and hung upside down from a large wooden frame until they lost consciousness, then they were removed and revived by dumping them head-first into the pots of human waste. When the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, the corpses of Tuol Sleng’s last 14 victims were found still shackled to their beds. One of those victims was a woman. All were buried on the grounds and you can see their horrifying last photo in the room in which they were discovered. This is not a place for the faint of heart.
Tuol Sleng was used as the gateway to Choeung Ek, which is better known as “The Killing Fields.” In truth, there are numerous killing fields in Cambodia, but Choeung Ek is the largest, where Tuol Sleng’s 17,000 prisoners were taken to be brutally executed. There are only 7 known survivors of this carnage, all of whom managed to survive because they offered some skill that the Khmer Rouge needed. One survivor by the name of Chum Mey works at the Tuol Sleng museum and described the atrocities that he witnessed and endured when he was imprisoned at the age of 48. Now 78, this small, gentle-looking man with neatly combed grey hair described how he had his fingers broken, his toenails pulled out, and electric shocks applied to the inside of his ears. He lost both sight and hearing on one side as a result of those shocks. But particularly heartbreaking was the fact that he lost his wife and four children, all of whom were imprisoned with him and who perished at Choeung Ek.
Like Tuol Sleng, the grounds of Choeung Ek are deceiving in their loveliness. The grass is green, flowers are in bloom, and wild chickens lazily scratch and peck at the ground. Even though a memorial that is full of exhumed skulls and bones stands in the center of the field, the beauty of the structure somewhat softens its blow. It isn’t until you stroll through the grounds behind the memorial that you stand face-to-face with the grim reality of where you are. The shadowy remnants of mass graves scar the earth, many of which still have visible human bones within them. Of the 129 mass graves in this field, only 86 have been exhumed. In the largest grave, 450 bodies were found. In another, the bodies of 100 women and children were unearthed. Near this grave is a large tree—now known as “The Killing Tree”—where the skulls of babies were bashed before they were tossed into the open pit. There was so much death here that bones literally fill the earth beneath your feet. The rains gradually wash away the dirt and expose more bones. In one part of the path, a recognizable human molar sits surrounded by busy little ants. In another part of the path, what might be mistaken for white stones are actually bone remnants. The feet of millions of tourists tread upon land that is one massive gravesite.
I have been to places like Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek before; mournful places with histories of tremendous human loss. When I see that life has continued—and even prospered—despite the horrors of the past, I often have conflicting thoughts. A small part of me feels incredulous that beauty can still exist in these places—that grass could continue to grow, birds could sing, or flowers bloom—after such a massive affront to life. The other part of me feels tremendous relief and gratitude that it does.
Incidentally, Pol Pot was never brought to justice. He died in 1998, allegedly of natural causes. Shockingly, many ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers received amnesty from Cambodia’s King and were allowed to take high places in the government. I am told that even Cambodia’s current Prime Minister is ex-Khmer Rouge.
That’s all I have to say about that.