I think when you visit a country you have to take the good with the bad. So when I decided to go to Cambodia I knew I couldn’t just visit Angkor Wat and teach the cute kids at Takeo before heading to the beach. I needed to see the Killing Fields and S21-the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
A few years ago I read First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung. It was a hard book to read, but it definitely gave me a greater understanding of exactly what happened in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.
Around two million people were removed from their homes in the city and forced to work in the countryside. The Khmer Rouge isolated Cambodia from any foreign influence and put an end to any education, hospitals, banks and currency.
Those living in the cities were marched out to labour camps and forced to work in the fields. Thousands of people died on the way, and the new workers had no idea how to farm so the whole country began to starve. Pol Pot had all the teachers killed, along with anyone who was educated, spoke a second language or even wore glasses. Religion was banned, families were torn apart, and Cambodia was almost destroyed.
The Killing Fields
Entry to the Killing Fields costs $5 and includes an audio tour. I thought I had prepared myself for what I was going to see and hear but I was wrong.
I began the tour at the truck stop, and the audio tour allowed me to imagine the horror that those in the trucks must have felt. The mood was solemn and most people shed a tear as we all listened to true accounts of what happened in the Killing Fields.
For me the hardest part was when we got to the Killing Tree. The executioners didn’t want to waste bullets so would beat children and babies against the tree until they were dead. This seemed to affect most people visiting. There’s just something incredibly disgusting and offensive about killing innocent children.
After walking through the fields and stopping at all the stations the last stop was the memorial stupa. Here there are more than 5000 human skulls, most showing the brutal cracks from the blows that killed them. I personally think the remains should be laid to rest instead of being used as a tourist attraction.
When we learn about genocide we’re taught about numbers. “This many people died here, this many died of starvation, and this many were tortured.” Visiting the Killing Fields allowed me to have a better understanding of what the victims actually went through. The stories I heard were shocking but they’re the personal stories of survivors, and the least we can do is listen to them.
S21- The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
S21 was once a high school, which then became Security Prison 21. It’s believed that around 20,000 prisoners were tortured and killed there, including teachers, students, government workers, doctors and monks. The torture was brutal and disgusting. People were forced to make false confessions and accuse their friends, family and neighbours of breaking the laws that Pol Pot had set and plotting against the Khmer Rouge.
Today S21 is called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. From the outside it looks like any other unattractive building. Once I walked inside I wandered through room after room of horror. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of their cruelty. On the walls are face after face of people who were tortured and killed and it’s incredibly haunting.
Of the estimated 14,000-17,000 who entered S21 only seven survived. These were the people that the guards could use, and included a man named Bo Meng who used his skills as a painter to help document the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.
Visiting the Killing Fields and S21 was extremely hard. After we left I felt completely drained and emotionally exhausted and for the rest of the day we were all very quiet. Later that night we talked to some of the kids selling bracelets as we ate dinner. One girl in particular was hilarious-so articulate and funny, and really confident for her age.
Cambodia is a country that will break your heart and make you smile in the same day. The people here have been through hell and after spending a day viewing the worst of Cambodia I wondered what the country would look like today if the best minds hadn’t been brutally slaughtered. Cambodians accept their history and are trying to move on though, and every day I’m humbled by the attitudes of these people who have experienced so much pain and still have almost permanent smiles on their faces.