Learning About Cambodia's Troubled Past at The Killing Fields

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Just a quick warning, this post is fact heavy, and some of it may be graphic or upsetting. During the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia, which lasted 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, approximately one quarter of the population was wiped out. It's a pretty shocking statistic, but then again, Pol Pot and his crew were a pretty shocking bunch.

I am going to plead a certain amount of ignorance here...I was aware of some of what happened under the Khmer Rouge, but I didn't really know the ins-and-outs. Shamefully I had only done minimal reading before we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (entry $2 each) is located at the former high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into the infamous S-21 prison. From 1975 to 1979, anywhere between 17,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned at S-21. The main purpose for the prison was to obtain 'confessions' from the prisoners. These confessions usually took the form of confirming that the prisoner had once been a spy for either the CIA or KGB, or for the Vietnamese.

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Various and extensive torture methods were used to obtain said confessions. And prisoners were then forced to give details of all close family, who were then rounded up and brought to the prison for their own interrogation.

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It's easy enough to walk round the prison without a guide - there's information in English and French as well as Khmer. Guides are available (we were quoted $6), but to be honest, it's easy to understand without one.

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

After the prisoners had confessed to their crimes, they were transported to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. The prisoners were often transported at night, while they were bound and gagged. It is not a long journey from Tuol Sleng to Choeng Ek (roughly 20km), but it would have been very uncomfortable to say the least.

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Once the prisoners arrived, they were checked off the list and either killed straight away, or thrown into prison for the night before being killed the next day.

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Choeung Ek is now a peaceful place, with an emphasis on remembrance. As part of this, they have created a fantastic audio guide to help people understand about the atrocities committed here. The guide is included in the $6 price. Getting here from Phnom Penh costs $10 for return and waiting time in a Tuk Tuk.

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Back in the late 1970s, Choeng Ek was a ruthless killing machine. Prisoners were killed in any number of inhumane ways...often bludgeoned to death in order to save on expensive bullets. There is one tree, that brought this home with a sickening reality.

As I said above, this is slightly graphic

As well as adults, many thousands of children were murdered at Choeung Ek. The "Killing Tree" was used as a gruesome way to dispose of these children. The child (often babies and toddlers) was held by it's ankles, while it's head and body were used as a human axe against the trunk of the tree. The semi-dead or dead child was then tossed into a pit with the rest and then the next child faced their horrible end. The people who found Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge said that they found pieces of hair, brain and blood on the tree.

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Both Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng have been well looked after since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and they serve as a poignant reminder of all that is wrong with humankind. It is one of the most interesting days that we've had on our trip so far, but it isn't a pleasurable one.

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia