Leaving Angkor Wat and the temples in Siem Reap behind, we were up bright and early to catch an early morning bus to Phnom Penh. The city is the largest in Cambodia and the capital of the country since the French colonized it in the 19th century. As one of the most beautiful cities built under French rule in Indochina, it was once called the “Pearl of Asia.” Where grand boulevards studded with French colonial buildings hug the banks of the Mekong River, a pearl it may have once been. But long gone are those days.
On my travels, I’ve been trying to do as much reading as possible on the places we’re visiting. Getting a better understanding of the history, land, politics and people has helped me go a bit deeper and make the experiences even more rewarding. Pulling into Phnom Penh after reading a few memoirs on what had recently gone on here, the pages came alive.
Cambodia suffered a bloody genocide from 1975 to 1979. Nearly three million Cambodians – in a country of eight million people, that’s roughly one out of every three – were tortured and killed under the rule of the socialist ruling party called the Khmer Rouge. In one of the most brutal racial cleansings, the Khmer Rouge executed monks, students, engineers, factory workers, doctors, librarians, teachers, lawyers or anyone suspected of being educated. They murdered aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers and young, innocent children. The put an entire nation in labor camps and destroyed a beautiful country.
The country is still recovering from the bloodbath and nowhere is it more apparent than in Phnom Penh. Paying a visit to the S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields made my blood curdle and brought to life all the suffering.
S21: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or S-21 as it is otherwise known, is a former high school in a suburb of Phnom Penh. Today it’s a museum and a testament to the 20,000 lives that were tortured here.
Four months after the Khmer Rouge took power, they converted this high school into a prison and interrogation center. The classrooms became torture chambers and small prison cells. The windows were barred with barb-wire and iron bars. Those that passed through these doors were repeatedly tortured and forced into naming family members and friends against the regime, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. Of all 20,000 Cambodians that entered these doors, only seven survived.
Upon arrival, prisoners were photographed and interrogated, and then the torture began.The torture system here was designed to make prisoners confess to the crimes the captors were accusing them of. The prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, scalding metal instruments and hanging. Other prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags. Instances of people having their fingernails pulled out while pouring alcohol on the wounds and holding a prisoner’s head under water were not uncommon.
Today the prison has been left just as it was found when the Khmer Rouge was defeated. Haunting empty classrooms house small prison cells. Blood stains soak the floor among piles of prisoners’ clothing. Torture chambers are still intact and the barbaric tools used to torture are on display. And in the cabinets where, perhaps, high school trophies were once displayed, lie piles of human skulls.
It’s hard to describe the feeling you get walking the grounds of a place where such horrific events took place not too long ago. What made the experience so powerful, so raw and so real, were the thousands of faces staring at you. The photos the Khmer Rouge took of the prisoners are on display here. Blank, tormented faces gaze into the camera, seemingly pleading for help. The suffering becomes real and personal.
I can’t get these faces out of my mind. Can you?