A very long and emotionally draining day had to be done while in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; for to understand the horrors this country is still recovering from, one must go to the sites that are not easy to see.
From 1975 until 1979, Cambodia experienced genocide under the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge and the man in charge, Pol Pot. During this time, money was destroyed, Phnom Penh was cleaned out (evacuated), and all the people were forced into an agrarian society. For these 4 years hundreds of thousands of Cambodians perished; most of the educated were tortured and executed and the others who escaped this fate only met other cruel fates as they often starved to death or died of disease in the countryside. It is estimated that approximately 2 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge.
*It should be noted that many of these photos are quite disturbing*
If you want to learn or understand more, some good resources include:
book-First they killed my Father
movie-The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields
Choeung Ek, the killing fields, is where approximately 17,000 Cambodians were sent to be killed by the Khmer Rouge soliders. Men, women and children were all sent here to die and be buried in the 129 mass graves found at this site. This site was previously a chinese cemetery and was only discovered to house the multiple mass graves after an odor was noticed post-rain.
A giant stupa has been erected at this site to honor the many who lost their lives. The stupa houses approximately 9000 skulls of the victims found at this site and is a reminder of the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (KR).
Bullets were a precious commodity for the KR, so to kill their victims they used brute force. Many of the skulls housed in the stupa demonstrate this fact as you can see the cracks in the skulls.
The Killing Fields is an eerie place as the horrors here are so recent. For example, along the path, victim’s clothing is still present peeking out of the ground/mass graves.
We honored the victims because the lives lost should not be forgotten.
Tuol Sleng is a former high school that was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge. In 1975, this HS was turned into the Security Prison 21 (S-21), the largest center of detention and torture in Cambodia. Here the educated and foreigners were taken to be tortured into providing the KR with confessions or into revealing even more family members in hiding for the KR to kill.
Only 7 people survived Tuol Sleng of the approximately 13,000 that passed through its doors.
Tuol Sleng has been preserved much the way it was found in January 1979; that is disturbingly, sickeningly, and heartbreakingly real. The classrooms were converted into torture and interrogation rooms and the museum hasn’t changed or modified them. In the first building, the first floor cells contain checked tiled floors, a metal bed complete with shackles, and a gruesome photo of the different deaths of the final 14 prisoners of S-21.
Other buildings converted the giant classrooms into individual prison cells measuring a mere 0.8 m by 2 meters.
Barbed wire was implemented on the outside of the buildings after a prisoner jumped to his death rather than suffer at the hands of the KR any longer.
A stomach churning portion of the museum is the section where the photos of the victims are posted. The KR was very thorough in their record keeping and took, essentially, a mugshot of every victim that passed through the doors of the S-21 prison. These photos are lined up row after row, bulletin board after bulletin board, full of men, women, and children. Some of the photos even depict the deaths of the prisoners; all the photos are heart wrenching and sickening.
Many victims died here at S-21, but many more were trucked out to the Killing Fields. At the height of the atrocities, about 100 victims died per day.
Both of these sites are dark and not for those easily disturbed, but we felt it was important to know about and experience firsthand the (recent) history of Cambodia.
Everyone here has been affected by the genocide and it will take generations to recover. Every single day we interact with people who have lived through this dark period, for example, both of our guides were survivors of the genocide and both lost multiple family members to the KR and Pol Pot.