IndoChina - Cambodia; S-21 & the Killing Fields
Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
66Trip End May 29, 2011
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Normally I'd try to this all of one place’s notes on one blog but today was different and warrants its own entry.
We started the day by visiting Tuol Sleng, a former school in the heart of Phnom Penh that was turned into a prison and interrogation centre by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. It was known as Security Office 21 (S-21). The visit was a harrowing and deeply moving one
We were shown the interrogation rooms in Building ‘A’. Above the beds were photos of half-dead, or dead and decomposing bodies taken by the liberating Vietnamese army of what they found in Building ‘A’. A sobering start.
In Building ‘B’ display after display of head and shoulder B&W photos of those interrogated was shown. All alive at the time, some looked defiantly down the lens most looked fearful. The pre-1978 photos were of people who perhaps didn’t know what their fate was going to be. The 1978 photos, of Khmer Rouge loyalists the regime had turned against knew what was coming and it was fear, anger and confusion that showed in their faces. The Khmer Rouge photo’d and documented everyone that went thru’ S-21.
Building ‘C’ was where victims were held. By this point two of the group had, understandably, left to sit outside and to gather their composure and gather their thoughts. The cells, with no beds or running water, were little more than that the width of a single bed.
Building ‘D’, the last building we were to see, had the instruments of, and the paintings of, the torture inflicted upon the victims of S-21
The bus ride away from S-21 was unsurprisingly muted. We drove along dusty, rural road until we reached Choeung Ek, originally a Chinese cemetery, For the Khmer Rouge it was used as the site for mass graves where bodies were dumped after being shot, bludgeoned or tortured to death. It's better known as one of the main Killing Fields.
Just beyond its entrance is a 50ft high wood and glass memorial housed in an open limestone stupa. The memorial holds shelf upon shelf on victims skulls, nearly 9,000 of them. Bones are still deep in the grounds and many rise to the surface when it rains in the wet season. Children were killed along with and in front of their parents, their skulls smashed against tree trunks with nails embedded in them. It was numbing, there's nothing you can say that adequately sums up your horror and sadness.
I asked a couple of the older (60's) guys in the group if they could remember any of this from the 70's
The current generation of children in Cambodia aren't taught about this period of history. There are still too many Khmer Rouge alive and, unbelievably, in positions of authority. Buddhism, reintroduced after the downfall of Pol Pot's regime, forbids the taking of another life and the authorities want to want until all the Khmer Rouge are dead and cremated before this period is taught lest people seek revenge for the past.
Back in Phnom Pehn for lunch we had a rather subdued meal at a place called Friends. I only mention this because, like Koto in Hanoi, it's a place that takes street kids and gives them an education and training in the catering industry. The fact that the food is truly excellent is a bonus.
After lunch to brighten our mood we visited the Royal Palace. A stunning complex of buildings and a match for the grand palace in Bangkok. That said I for one was still somewhat haunted by what I'd seen in the morning and the spectacle of all the gold and finery displayed at the Palace (the Palace wasn't touched by the Khmer Rouge as you might have expected by order from the Chinese) sat rather uneasily considering what had happened on the other side of the city.
There's not much more to say in the blog. Siem Reap was our next destination. One might think this would be a world away from Pol Pot and the tragic period of Cambodia's history but there are links, there are always linkages if you look heard enough. One of the reasons the Ankor Wat complex stands today is because Ankor Thom was a base for the Khmer Rouge.