The Killing Fields

Trip Start Nov 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 21, 2006

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

My first full day in Cambodia was one of the hardest I've had since traveling. It wasn't that I was thrown curveballs by Southeast Asia or ate something dodgy from a food stall, but it was the day that I went to Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge's most infamous torture prison and then the killing fields where 20,000 Cambodians were slaughtered in the late 70s. I went with three English girls, Helen and Kate from Devon and Hannah from outside London. Hannah was my traveling partner in Cambodia up until today -- we had the same schedule for Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and things are half price when you can double up and share rooms. We arrived at the prison, which was a school until the Khmer Rouge took over. It starts with a tranquil green courtyard with blooming trees that understates the horrors that occurred there for nearly four years. Of the 20,000 prisoners who went through there between 1975 and 79, 7 survived. After seeing what sort of horrors the prisoners had to go through on a daily basis, we started to wonder if you'd even want to be one of those seven. There's one section of the museum where they show the picture of every prisoner who was in S-21 (the official code name). What I was impressed about was that in one out of every couple hundred, you could see the resilience in the person's face, as if they looked in the camera and was thinking, "I know I'm going to die, but I'm not scared of you." You then move through where they have skulls on display and then a room filled with paintings of the torture, the most haunting of which depicted soldiers throwing babies in the air and shooting them.

From that building, you're guided to the building where they actually housed most of the prisoners. The face is sheeted with barbed wire so that the prisoners couldn't commit suicide. The cells they were kept in were barely long enough for me to lie down and had the width of maybe double my body. Upstairs they had short testimonials from family members of prisoners. Many were confusing to follow, but the troubling thing about most of them was that most of the family members can only assume their relative is dead, there is no official way of knowing. Next is a room where they have people who worked in the prison talking -- often apologizing -- about what it was like to do that. It must've been awful to decide between having to torture your countrymen and sometimes relatives or be killed for not following orders. No Khmer Rouge officials have been punished for the atrocities, but some of the workers have. It reminded me in a way of Abu Ghraib. There was also a room in which they had pictures of the main Khmer Rouge leaders. The pictures had Khmer writing all over them, we only had to assume they weren't pleasant words. Pol Pot's picture was missing altogether, leaving us to figure that it had been so badly vandalized that they couldn't even keep it up anymore.

As we left the museum grounds I was forced to endure one of the most haunting sights I've ever seen. There was a man waiting outside begging us for money that had almost his entire face burned off. He only had one eye left, and even that seemed tenuous. I tried my best to avoid looking at him, and it was only made tougher by the fact that he had latched onto my arm as I walked to my tuk-tuk. We finally all got in and I begged our driver Andy to get going as quickly as possible. From there, it was an 18-km drive over mostly unpaved road to the killing fields. The first thing you see is a large monument that was built to honor the memories of the 20,000 killed at the site. The large tower is filled with the 9,000 skulls that have been exhumed from the grounds. They will remain there until after the tribunal on the Khmer Rouge is over. Afterward they will decide what to do with them -- many have teeth remaining and an identity could presumably be traced. The only skulls that have been removed are of the eight foreigners -- mostly journalists -- who were killed. We then walked among the 88 grave sites the soldiers used -- many holding hundreds of bodies. The trees around the area, we were told, were used by the soldiers to throw children against to kill them. Most of the prisoners weren't shot -- the Khmer Rouge didn't want to waste money on bullets. The thing is though, there are still 44 sites in and around the lake that still have about 10,000 bodies that have yet to be unburied. And children swim in that lake. When it was all done, the four of us agreed that the first order of business was to get back to the guesthouse and find a comedy to try to cheer us up, the whole day has been too depressing. We picked Wedding Crashers, which was almost laughable because it was an awful bootleg that was grainy and shaky, nearly impossible to understand, the subtitles weren't even close and you could hear people laughing in the background.

I'm glad I saw the museums, but there are so many images that I won't be able to shake for a long time, if ever. And maybe that's the point.
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