When I first arrive in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I learn that two must-do things are to visit the Tuol Sleng Museum (aka S-21 Prison), and the Choeng Ek Killing Fields. Before arriving in Cambodia, I did not know much about The Khmer Rouge, a group responsible for the Cambodian Genocide. When I did learn about it, I was appalled, and even ashamed that I didn't know about this piece of history earlier.
From 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge was in power, led by a man named Pol Pot. Cambodians were essentially divided into blue vs. white collar. Anyone that was intellectual, burgeosie, Christian/Muslim/Buddhist, or even urban, were to be removed from society (the “new people”). And thus over these four years, around 1-2 million people were killed, but the estimates vary greatly since they are all doing estimations from the skeletal remains found in mass graves. In any case, that's up to 30% of the population (the population of Cambodia was 8 million then).
The first site I visited was S-21. This site was a school converted into a prison. Victims were first brought here, imprisoned, and tortured.
Those who were tortured were tied to a metal bed frame like below for many days. Victims would be probed for information, or tortured until an admission of guilt was given, even if it was not true.
There are several three-story buildings that comprise this site. Below is a hallway of one of them.
The empty rooms have boards with all photos of people who were imprisoned here.
You may recognize the popular photo below. I feel like I can see the innocence and fear in the man's eyes.
Barbed wire was used to prevent prisoners from escaping, or jumping from the second or third floors.
I walked into one room in the museum and watched a documentary about the genocide. One part interviewed people who had taken part in the executions. Overall, the sentiment from these people were that they felt forced to kill others in order to save their own lives. They felt that the leaders of the Khmer Rouge should be held responsible and prosecuted. It's quite complex to determine who should be held responsible when a large percentage of the population is involved, it's not feasible to prosecute that many people. The executioners described executions involved bludgeoning the other person to death – bullets were too expensive. Instead farming tools like hoes, steel poles, or even the serrated branches of Palm trees were used. Gruesome.
I was astonished to learn how Cambodians had executed fellow Cambodians. I'm not quite sure how many people were part of the execution machine, but 25% were the “old people”, and a subset of them were given the role of executing the “new people”. Being a recent event in history, the people who have participated in these killings still walk the streets of Cambodia today. Eerie.
Leaving the S-21 prison, our tuk tuk driver takes us to The Killing Fields. The first thing I see is the building below, which contains seven levels, housing all the remains of the victims who were killed here.
The site contains many mass graves, and each site is made prominent by fencing it off like below. There's not much to see, but the audio guide illustrates the process of how prisoners were ultimately killed: victims were marched to the grave site while blind folded, told to get on their knees, and killed by some crude weapon.
There was also a “killing tree”, where infants would have their heads smashed into the tree before being thrown into a mass grave.
The brutality of it all left me speechless. And then walking into the memorial building, I saw seven levels of skeletal remains. The purpose of showing the remains in this manner is to remind humanity of genocide, and hopefully prevent it from happening again.
Trials started in 2007 against big figures involved in the executions. The head of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, died comfortably in his home in 1999. Currently one person has been given life imprisonment. Overall though, the trials are proceeding very slowly, and some Cambodians see this as more of a formality at this point, and don't have high expectations for the outcome of these trials.
It's sad to know that during the genocide, and decades after, the Western governments supported the Cambodian government having a seat in the UN, indirectly supporting the Khmer Rouge. Did they know that the genocide was happening? Did they silently condone it? Only Sweden had withdrawn support for the Khmer Rouge regime after many of its citizens demanded so. So some people were aware of what was going on during that time.
Ultimately it's sad to accept that so many lives were lost meaninglessly.