A Solemn Visit

Picture of barbed wire.

Barbed wire still encloses the cells.

February 18, 2015
Day 216

Today I saw two of the most somber places I have ever visited: the infamous S-21 prison and the Choeung Ek killing field, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Our large group first went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, at the S-21 prison. The building was once a school, which was converted into prison when the Khmer Rouge rose to power in 1975.

Most of the initial prisoners at S-21 were soldiers for, or members of, the previous ruling party. But soon, doctors, teachers and other members of the bourgeoisie class were also taken there. In the end, when Pol Pot was at the height of his paranoia, many high ranking officials within the Khmer Rouge itself were imprisoned. The inmates' “crimes” were often nothing more than owning a business or having an education. Some, however, stood accused of spying for the CIA or KGB, organizations they had often never even heard of. In the end, it didn't matter what the accusations were, because the punishment for all crimes was death.

Upon entering S-21, all prisoners were photographed and stripped of their belongings, including anything they might use to commit suicide. Most were shackled to a group of other inmates, though some were given their own cells, constructed from brick dividers in the former classrooms. Inmates were encouraged to write their autobiographies, and then confess to their “crimes,” under the promise of lenience. Those who didn't confess were tortured until they changed their minds. After confessing, they were tortured some more. Prisoners were also told to name everyone who collaborated with them, including their friends and family members. Those people were then brought in for a similar treatment. Within their first few months at S-21, many inmates died from malnourishment or torture. Those who were still alive were taken to a killing field, where they were executed.

Walking through S-21, I could see that it hadn't changed much since 1979, when the Khmer Rouge fled from Phnom Penh. Barbed wire still surrounded most of the cells. The torture rooms were still intact, complete with iron beds and shackles. In the courtyard, there was an apparatus for hanging people upside down and dunking their heads into jars of water until they nearly drowned. And throughout the museum, photographs of the condemned were hanging on the walls. It was sobering to think that all of these faces I was looking at had died at the hand of the Khmer Rouge.

Of the estimated 17,000 prisoners held at Tuol Sleng, only twelve were known to have survived. And only three of them are still alive today. As I walked through the courtyard on my way out of the museum, I saw an old gentleman selling books about the genocide. One of the books was a memoir written by Chum Mey, one of the three remaining survivors. I looked down at the book, then up at the man, and suddenly made the connection: the man selling the books was Chum Mey himself!

All of the survivors had some skill that the Khmer Rouge thought was useful enough to justify keeping them alive. In Mr. Mey's case, he was a mechanic who could repair the typewriters that would be used to transcribe prisoners' confessions. His former cell was still on display, unchanged but for a fluorescent light bulb hanging overhead. He displayed incredible bravery, sharing the story of how his wife and four children were murdered, and he was tortured in this horrific place. It's one thing to read about this history, but it's quite another to see it for yourself. And for me, meeting someone who had barely survived one of the worst atrocities in the history of the world was a life-altering experience.

Picture of bracelets.

Bracelets for the dead.

From S-21, we made a short trip out of the city, to Choeung Ek. Horrific as S-21 was, Choeung Ek was even worse: this was the killing field where most of S-21's prisoners were actually executed. Every night, covered trucks would show up, full of the condemned. From there, they would be marched to the edge of a mass grave, and the slaying would begin. Bullets were scarce, so the executioners used whatever they could get their hands on: machetes, car axles, sharpened bamboo sticks, palm fronds, rocks. Music was played over loudspeakers so the local villagers wouldn't hear the screams of those being bludgeoned and hacked to death.

I was provided with an audio guide, narrated by a man whose entire family was executed. In the center of the field was a Buddhist temple, full of victims' skulls, where we could pay our respects. The mass graves were on display for all to see. Strangely, if it weren't for the audio guide, this would almost be a peaceful, relaxing place. Some of the fields looked ready to grow crops, and there was a pond adjacent to the property. Though there were some reminders of what had taken place here, such as the signs kindly reminding visitors not to walk through the mass graves or to step on any bones that may have surfaced after a rainstorm. Just knowing that so many people had been executed where I was walking sent chills through my body. A deafening silence filled the place.

In all, Pol Pot's regime was responsible for around two million deaths, about one-fourth of Cambodia's population. Thirty-five years later, the aftermath of the genocide is obvious – there are almost no elderly people here, and even seeing someone of middle age is uncommon. Obviously the situation has greatly improved for the youngest generation, but Cambodia remains a very poor country. I can't say I ended the day in a good mood, but I was still glad to have seen S-21 and Choeung Ek. They gave me a better understanding for what had happened, and a greater appreciation for all of the privileges I have had in my own life.

More photos from Phnom Penh, S-21 and the killing field

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