Sometimes a visit to a country shouldn’t be all about beaches, bars and tourist hotspots. If you think of most countries we have travelled to and even including the country we currently live in, sometimes you don’t have to go too far back in time to realise that there has been there have been countless unspeakable acts against the citizens or a minority group on a mass scale.
Everybody who visits Cambodia or most who have heard of Cambodia should be well aware of the brutality and human atrocities during the rule of the Khmer Rouge’s Communist Party of Kampuchea. Between 1975 and 1979, 1.7million or nearly a quarter of the population were murdered and go down as the most brutal act of genocide of the 20th Century that would go on largely ignored by the rest of the world. Two sites that I visited in Phnom Penh document and openly encourage visitors to learn about the past. These are Tuong Sleng Prison and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.
The Khmer Rouge came into power after the fall of the previous government in 1975 and immediately subjected the country to social reforms aimed at creating an agrarian based communist society. Thousands were rounded up and forced to move to the country to work in the rice fields. Anybody suspected with associating themselves with free market activities were eliminated. Those who were professionals, anybody with an education, even those who had glasses and had connections with the outside world were suspects and rounded up and taken to prison for interrogation.
Within the suburbs of Phnom Penh lays Tuong Sleng Prison, also known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). A former high school, it was converted into a five building prison to process and torture prisoners into giving false confessions with their involvement in spying activities for the US and Soviet Union. In total, over 17,000 prisoners passed through Tuong Sleng Prison with only twelve knowing to have survived.
Walking around the various buildings it’s hard to to think about how somebody can be capable of such evil and for others to follow in their footsteps. Not a word was spoken by any of the other visitors there and it felt like you didn’t even want to rush or run at pace as though you could possibly disturb someone or something.
In one of the buildings, there were manuscripts and translations of some of the confessions made by prisoners. All of them confessing that they had worked for the CIA or the Soviets as spies and were conspiring against the ruling government. There is no room left for the imagination because in most rooms are visual depictions of the brutal methods used by the Khmer Rouge to torture the prisoners.
For me, the most difficult room to visit room was where they had a selection of photos of each prisoner. The Khmer Rouge were good at keeping account of who came through and there was a photo of each prisoner. Men, women and children – . Everybody was a potential enemy. The photographed prisoners appeared malnourished, some were just close up head shots, some had their hands tied behind their backs, some were semi clothed. The most chilling thing about it was that I felt like the look in each and every one of their facial expressions was one of pain and torment.
“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake”
– Pol Pot
About 15km further out from the city set against various ponds and rice paddies is Choeung Ek. Once used as a Chinese cemetery, became one of many killing fields around the country during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Here, over 20,000 people were murdered, with the majority of the murdered coming from Tuong Sleng Prison. To date, 8,895 remains have been uncovered across 129 mass graves from Choeung Ek. 5,000 of those remains are now located within the Buddhist stupa memorial within the grounds. There are suspected to be many other mass graves in the area, however an agreement has been made where those remains will not be disturbed.
Once in the grounds, a free audio guide is provided to talk you through the significance of each numbered location within the site. The extensive guide covered sixteen locations within the grounds and is narrated by a former survivor of the camp. Each site is descriptive in detail and punctuated by haunting Khmer music along with the cries of children and prisoners. Despite most of the original buildings and structures being looted and destroyed, I can still sit on the benches set amongst the fruit groves to take it all in. I was in my own world, undistracted as the audio guide allowed me to paint a nightmarish picture of what it would have been like at the time.
For me, this site was the most difficult of the two to go through with. Looking around, it’s clearly visible that most visitors were affected in different ways. Some were angry, others were sobbing, and even expressions of confusion and anger. In certain areas close the centre of the grounds, bones are exposed within the pathway boundary due to the constant weather conditions which makes it even spookier.
As the audio tour came to an end, one thing really stuck with me. The narrator finishes off by saying that what happened in Cambodia was horrific, but genocide is something that occurs all over the world and that the world should not be oblivious to this. I had the impression in his final comments that the Cambodian people have moved on from the past but want as many to understand what happened so that they can be more aware about what atrocities that continue around the world at this current moment.