Backpacking in 82 Days: The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide

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I wanted to have The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng in a separate post, as opposed to how I have been blogging our trip. If anything, it’s just for myself because I want to remember all the thoughts that went through mine and Devyn’s head on our morbid day of visiting these locations.

Until I planned a trip to Cambodia, I had no idea about the Khmer Rouge or the genocide that took place from 1975-79. There’s so much to explain for the context and photos to make sense, and I’m still learning more about it. I immediately purchased a book about the atrocities after we visited both locations.

Here’s a quick gist (and I’m still learning more about it, so if I got something wrong, please let me know) Throughout the early 70s, Cambodia was already in a civil war which had a history tracing back two decades. Pol Pot (the eventual leader of the Khmer Rouge) was well educated with his comrades and they, along with many others were not in favor of their Prime Minister, Lom Nol. Lom Nol was very pro-American during the Vietnam war and at that time, the USA were conducting bombing raids on small Cambodia towns trying to push Vietnamese communists back into Vietnam. Many towns were destroyed and a lot of innocent lives lost. Those who survived were easily recruited by Pol Pot’s group, for they hated the States and how Lom Nol allowed this to happen.

They recruited many peasants, on top of an already pretty well educated group, who did their studies in France. Eventually, this created a group known as the Khmer Rouge. They overthrew the government and forced an evacuation of the city of Phnom Penh. They were the new authority of Cambodia and forced many civilians out of their homes.

Over the course of over three years, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, killed over 3 million of their own people until they were finally overthrown and forced to flee after an invasion by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge wiped out any traces of multiple religions, schools, family systems, places of worship, and anything culturally based. They destroyed it; physically and abstractly. They wanted the ultimate power to be looked upon to be them.

The Khmer Rouge killed anyone who they felt were traitors to their communist movement, be it an intellectual, those with soft hands, or glasses. People were tortured for alleged involvement against the Khmer Rouge or for being an individual. The country today, has an average age no older than 35 because so many of the older generation was wiped out. Once you visit this still beautiful country, you can see the poverty as a result and how this horrendous moment in history set them back.

Choeung Ek: Now, onto the attractions. We arrived at the Choeung Ek, The Killing Fields, and at first, it’s not much to look at. It is what it sounds like. It’s a beautiful lay out of grasslands and rice fields. The first thing you see when you walk through through entrance is a gargantuan memorial. But this is not your average memorial. It contains the skulls of the thousands of people that were killed and dug up.

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An audio tour guides you around the fields and throughout the walk, are numerous 4ft deep divots in the earth. They’re graves. Once the site was abandoned, many graves were excavated and up to 400 people in one single grave could be found.

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What’s intense is that the kills were not quick. Due to the country being poor, bullets and guns were expensive. Any blunt objects that could be used were. Axes, sticks, knives, whatever. A handful of prisoners were tortured first At Tuol Sleng, before being starved and transported for execution to Choeung Ek. The majority of the skulls have signs of blunt force trauma or holes from being beaten to death. Devyn and I felt weird taking pictures, so we kept it minimal.

It’s the testimonies of the perpetrators and victims in the audio tour that add an additional heartbreaking element. There’s stories of witnessing a family member having their throat slit, a woman feeling shamed after being raped and so much more.

On the trek, which includes walking around bones and victim’s clothing that are still stuck in the earth, you eventually come upon the killing tree. People, primarily children, were beaten against this tree. The part the stuck with me was how the KR would grab babies from their legs and smash their heads against the tree. Yes, they killed babies. Pol Pot wanted to avoid revenge plots against them and felt the youth would seek them out for killing their families. As well, Pol Pot believed that when you cut grass, you need to take out the roots too.

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To prevent those outside of Choeung Ek from hearing the screams of the prisoners, propaganda revolution music would be played over a loud speaker to cover it up. Imagine hearing that during your last breath, as your throat is being slit with tree bark.

Tuol Sleng: I felt Tuol Sleng was more intense, if that’s possible, than Choeung Ek. Mainly because much of the location is left as is. Torture devices are still left out and the buildings are still up. The buildings at Choeung Ek were immediately torn down. Tuol Sleng was a high school before the KR took over and turned three 3-story buildings into torture chambers.

Building A’s rooms mainly consists of rusty looking beds with shackles next to it. In many of the rooms, there are photos of what happened to some of the prisoners in the room you’re standing in. Notably, a prisoner was beaten with a shovel and the photo shows their skull protruding from the flesh.

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It’s hard enough to stomach that you’re inside rooms where people were tortured, but there’s still blood splattered on the floors. And it’s not just drops. It’s dried up puddles on puddles. Almost every room in each building is covered. The photo I took was of a smaller puddle; it felt weird taking more.

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The courtyard of Tuol Sleng has a set of gallows, where they would hang prisoners upside down until they lost consciousness and then submerge them in fertilizer water to reawaken them to answer questions.

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Not all the rooms in the three buildings are the same. There are larger rooms where a multitude of prisoners would be chained to a wall. I think Building C was the building with individual wood and brick cells. I’m pretty sure you and I have used a port-a-potty bigger than these cells. Mind you, prisoners in these cells were chained to the ground and often tortured.

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Building B, I believe, has the rooms littered with photos of prisoners and workers. Looking into their eyes, each person had their own story and many were killed in these rooms. It makes you weak in the knees. Only seven prisoners walked out of Tuol Sleng as survivors. Chom Chey, one of those survivors, was on site that day selling books. You could see the pain in his eyes, but his smile remained genuine and true. The epitome of the Khmer people. As Lonely Planet puts it, they have gone through hell and back. Their smiles are so true and beautiful that you have to experience it to understand. They’re so thankful for life, it’s incredible.

Some of the other rooms have a history of the site, as well as mini biographies of the main people behind these atrocities. The three still alive are still on trial, or had their hearing in 2011. I can’t remember the information properly. Pol Pot, he died under house arrest living a peaceful life, with a family and everything. How the hell does karma exist? He never apologized or showed true remorse. A torturer at S-21, known as Duch, is the only one who has lived up to what he participated in.

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After leaving Tuol Sleng, I was shocked at how this is not common history back home in the US, especially because we were largely responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention in World History when I was in high school, but I don’t remember hearing about a country being damn near forced back to the Stone Age as a result of our war with Vietnam. It was genocide on the same scale as the Holocaust. I understand why we may know more about the Holocaust; Germany was our direct enemy at the time and a religious group was slaughtered. I don’t understand how the KR killing its OWN people through means of personalized and individual killings/torture on a large scale is not common knowledge. The US is partial to blame, along with a few others. France too. It’s heartbreaking and I blame myself for not being better educated.

I don’t want to preach because that’s not why I write. But it’s the age old saying; if we don’t learn our history, we are destined to repeat it. These visits made me eternally grateful for the fact that I get to see my family again and helped me focus on the important things that are easily overlooked. I have a great family, fiancé, health, food, and a home. I was standing in rooms where the people who were butchered had lost all of that.

Devyn and I went to the night market that evening and it ended up being an experience whichever complemented our visits to these sites. I ended up getting in an epic dog pile with these awesome Khmer kids. They got a few lucky punches in, but I still think it was a draw.

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These kids are so pure and genuine. It’s hard to imagine that kids no older than them were butchered against a tree. Unlike the pussified and entitled brats our iPhone carrying kids have turned into, these kids are so high on life with nothing. They were having paper airplane contests. I have never felt so spoiled. As I mentioned earlier, the Khmer, especially the young ones, have smiles, that are infectious and genuine.

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Truly, to hell and back and appreciative of life. How does someone look at the epitome of happiness and think that they’re nothing but deep “rooted” rebels, whom deserve death? These kids brought me back to my childhood, where it took nothing but a stick to make me happy and entertained. They gave me new life again, and I’m eternally gratefully to them.

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