To say that I have been putting off writing this post would be an understatement. I have been willing it away.
Like millions of visitors to Phnom Penh, I have struggled with the things I saw when learning more about the regime of the Khmer Rouge…things that can never be unseen. To put it into words seems indomitable.
However, it is intrinsic to understanding more about Cambodia and, more importantly, the Cambodian people who have shown more resilience, industry and positivity than many nations would in the wake of such atrocities. For them, I am going to give it a try.
The first stop on this journey is Tuol Sleng. Formerly a school, it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 under Pol Pot’s ruling and was turned into S-21, the notorious secret prison (one of 196) through whose gates more than 20,000 people passed to their deaths. Now it is a Genocide Museum.
When the Khmer Rouge took power of Phnom Penh, something the Cambodian people were initially happy about after a drawn out war with Vietnam, Pol Pot began to target the educated and elite; teachers, doctors, military personnel etc. Basically anyone intelligent enough to question his way of ruling…and glasses wearers. Many were accused of largely fictitious acts of treason or fraternising with other governments. Typically, entire families of the accused would be taken and people wouldn’t know what charges were being levied against them.
They were brought here for interrogation and torture in a bid to extract a confession. If they didn’t die accidentally during this process, they were marched out to Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields) to be killed and flung in mass graves.
“Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than to spare an enemy by mistake” Pol Pot
We knew this would be a difficult day, but there are times when I was actually gasping for breath with the weight of it all. If it already sounds too much for you, you shouldn’t read on. Gruesome does not begin to cover it.
We’re guided around three of the four main buildings. Our tour guide lost her father, brother and sister to the regime. She tells us very calmly and assures us that talking about it regularly and showing S-21 to visitors has helped her come to terms with it. But it brings tears to my eyes immediately.
We first walk through the rooms with original beds and torture implements left just as they had been found.
Victims found by the Vietnamese army in January 1979 are buried in unmarked graves in the courtyard.
Some of the rooms are divided into 3ft by 5ft spaces that two people would share shackled together.
Those considered VIPs, such as military personnel, would have their own rooms. Same conditions and torture, just more space in which to enjoy it.
In the next sombre block, there is an exhibition where hundreds of black and white photos, of victims and perpetrators, stare hauntingly back at you.
On of only seven survivors is there, and I find his presence mesmerising. He managed to make himself useful to the Khmer Rouge leaders by painting portraits of them. This appealed to their vanity, and spared his life.
We’re offered a photo with him when we purchase a copy of his memoirs. Somehow I can’t see a place for it amongst these images.
Torture devices are all around. The gallows in the main square were built for the school’s students to take exercise but were adapted by the Khmer Rouge. They would tie the prisoners hands and hang them upside down until they lost consciousness, then dip their heads into filthy water which would bring them back into consciousness allowing the generals to continue their interrogations.
The final building holds an exhibition of eight Khmer Rouge combatants, and their stories of how they felt forced into the killings.
We take some time to reflect.
Then it’s time for us to make the journey that hundreds of thousands of Cambodian prisoners did on the way to their deaths, we tuk tuk out to Choeung Ek.
It’s a long old dusty road, and a sad trip. When we arrive, we’re given our headphones and we pass silently through the grounds, witnessing horrendousness after horrendousness. From the point where the trucks would stop to deliver prisoners, to the serrated sugar palm they would used as a weapon of torture, to a series of mass graves.
One after another.
The uneven earth undulates before us, and we’re warned that the horrific crimes present themselves in the ground below. When we look down, garments of clothing, bones and teeth are in the process of rising to the surface. It’s an unstoppable sadness brought on by nature’s rainfall and erosion.
Only some of the graves have been excavated, there are likely hundreds of thousands of bodies still to be found over time.
Each is surrounded in friendship bracelets left by travellers wishing to pay their respects.
We’re manoeuvred to the side of a nearby lake where we’re encouraged to sit or walk alongside it and reflect on the atrocities.
A piece of music has been commissioned to help us do this. ‘A Memory From Darkness’ by Him Sophy. It is a most unexpected and welcome interlude, an opportunity to allow the emotions to flow over you.
From here we pass collections of clothes most recently found by the groundsman.
But the worst is still to come. One of the final excavated mass graves is ahead of us, and next to it a large oak tree covered in friendship bracelets just as the grave walls before it. This is where babies and children were killed.
They would either be thrown into the air and shot with a pistol or smashed against the tree. It is the most horrific thing I have ever known or seen, and it breaks me. There, by the tree, my spirit collapses. I can never un-know what I now know, and I’m different. Its as simple as that. I sit and weep.
Towards the end, a sprawling tree serves as the spot where speakers were hung to play regime-friendly music drowning out the screams of the victims.
The final stop is the majestic and graceful Choeung Ek Memorial built to commemorate every life lost during this harrowing era in Cambodia’s history.
The design incorporates garuda birds, like those ridden by Vishnu in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, alongside magical naga serpents said to have fathered the Khmer people. Together, they are a symbol for peace.
Categorised skulls are piled high within it.
I lay flowers at the door. But we’re so saturated with grief, it is absolutely time to go.
On our journey back to town, the beautiful Khmer children give us unwitting comfort with their cries of ‘Hello’ from the roadside.
We’re stunned. And we’ll never be the same again.
And the soundtrack was:
Think of the saddest song that you’ve ever heard, and listen to that.