As I’ve got about ten weeks in Phnom Penh, I’ve been trying to visit at least one new place a week. This is so I get to know the area a little bit, but it also gets me away from home (or Jars of Clay, where I am now). Last week, I visited two places that are testament to the atrocities that happened in this country in the last century: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre.
When I told my students that I was going to Cambodia, one commented that it was a shame I wasn’t going to Vietnam, as “it has all the history.” I know she was studying the Vietnam War for a GCSE module, so I pointed out that just because she hasn’t studied it doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Cambodia has just as much a turbulent past as its neighbour, and a lot of their history is interlinked. The history is complicated and harrowing, and I’m not knowledgeable enough to tell it with authority.
Cambodia in 1975 had already suffered from an exceptionally turbulent decade: civil war and a policy of carpet-bombing by the US military had devastated the country. However, things were to get even worse for the Cambodian people. On April 17th 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a communist political party, “liberated” Phnom Penh with the help of the North Vietnamese. Within days, Phnom Penh had been emptied and the citizens of Cambodia were to work in agricultural communes. For the next four years, the rule of Pol Pot led to the death of millions of Cambodians (estimates vary considerably, but it’s between 1.8-3 million people- around a fifth of the population). They either starved to death in the appalling conditions of the communes or were executed.
Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek serve as memorials to those that were executed during the Khmer Rouge and provide a poignant and shocking insight in the brutality and horror that occurred during those years.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was known as Security Prison 21 or S-21 during the Khmer Rouge regime. It was a former high school that was converted in to a prison for enemies of Pol Pot’s government, of which there were many. First this included members of the previous government, but also anybody with an education including doctors, teachers, lawyers, students and monks.
The site comprises of five buildings, and you pass through A-D, each with different chilling stories, photographs and displays detailing what happened here. First, you pass fourteen graves. These were the bodies that remained in the prison when it was captured. The guards executed them before fleeing the city, leaving the mutilated corpses behind. Then you move on into building A. Here you are presented with how these fourteen people were found and with beds in the centre of the room.
The beds had bars attached to them, which the prisoners would be chained to whilst they were interrogated. As you would see later, the methods of torture were brutal. Sometimes prisoners would die before they were meant to. These accidental deaths were well documented and you would see photos of the victims in building B.
Building B contained galleries of photos of the victims and exhibits about those involved in the running of S-21. One particular display I found particularly harrowing: the display showing photos of the staff. It shocked me to see how young they were. Most of them were teenagers; some of them were even younger. During his trial, Comrade Duch, who ran the S-21 prison, admitted “he had turned two truckloads of “gentle” teenagers brought to S-21 from Kampong Chhnang into killers” . I couldn’t help but think of the teenagers I knew back at home and I was thankful that the same fate would never befall them. Many of the guards a S-21 would later become prisoners themselves as paranoia gripped the Khmer Rouge.
Building C showed you some of the living conditions of the prisoners. There were small cells on the ground floor, for single prisoners. This would be where those who were being interrogated would be kept, as it was easier to move them to the interrogation rooms. The rest of the prisoners were chained to long bars together and were not able to do anything without the guards’ permission.
Building D showed the eventual fate of the prisoners. Estimates between 12,000 and 20,000 prisoners passed through the prison, only a couple of dozen survived. Once the prisoners finally succumbed to torture and signed their confessions, they would be killed. Of course, these confessions were mostly fabricated, detailing their apparent espionage or crimes. Then the confessions would list others involved, often running into tens or hundreds of names. These named people would all then be arrested themselves. Once a confession was signed, the prisoner was killed. At first, they were buried in the prison’s grounds. However, this soon became unviable, and so the prisoners were then carted in trucks to the killing fields.
Choeung Ek is about 15km away from Phnom Penh; it is a long, dirty and bumpy ride, especially by tuk tuk. When you get there, it is worth the visit. Choeung Ek is one of hundreds of killing fields across the country. Some of them are inaccessible; some of them are lost to the jungle.
Trucks with prisoners would arrive at night to this rural setting. Propaganda music and sounds of meetings would be playing loudly from speakers to mask the sounds of what would happen next. The prisoners would be taken and executed. Bullets were limited, so they were either struck with a hammer, stabbed or had their throats cut. Their bodies were then thrown into mass graves.
The site now is serene and peaceful. However, the troughs in the earth show where the mass graves are and have sunk over time. Although a lot of the skulls and major bones are housed in a Buddhist stupa, the rest of the remains still, for the most part, lie in the graves. Some of the larger mass graves are protected by roofs, but the rest are not. This means that they are subject to the elements. The result is that clothing, teeth and bones emerge from the ground, especially after heavy rain. You are asked to be cautious as you walk around and signs warn you not to step on bone (mostly the paths are on boardwalks, but there are areas that are not). Every few months, those that look after the site will collect the bones and clothes and house them in the glass cases that are around the site.
About halfway around the walk, you come to a tree that is named ‘the killing tree’. When the site was first found it was covered in blood, hair and brains. This is where infants were killed, as they were dashed against the trunk and then thrown into the adjacent grave.
Finally, you are led to the stupa. In the centre is a glass cabinet that contains shelves of skulls. You look up and the layers just continue. There are around 5,000 skulls in there, many of them you can see the fatal wound.
After you have visited Choeung Ek, you will probably find returning to the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh a bit jarring after the reflective serenity of the Genocidal Centre.
Tuol Sleng is easily accessible, as it is in the centre of Phnom Peng. Choeung Ek is a lot further away. You will get a better deal if you go to both in one day. I was quoted $15 from Tuol Sleng to Choeung and back, which is a reasonable price.
Wear modest clothes (no shoulders; no knees). Also, sensible footwear is advisable for Choeung Ek. However, if you want to go into the stupa, make sure you can take them off with ease. I wore a sturdy pair of flip-flops and they were fine.
I did Tuol Sleng in about an hour and Choeung Ek in about the same time. I’m generally quite quick compared to other visitors. Perhaps set aside one and a half hours for each. They both have very comprehensive audio guides. (I tend to skip some bits.) The journey between the two is about thirty to forty minutes in either direction.
Price for the sites. I can’t remember, sorry. It was around $6-$10 for each though.