Sunday, October 25, 2009

S-21 and The Killing Fields

Our second day in Phnom Penh we went to visit some of Cambodia's horrific past. We decided it was really important to go see some of the museums and monuments dedicated to the millions of victims of the genocide. We wanted to learn about the Khmer Rouge and what they did to the Cambodian people - to better understand what they went through during the Pol Pot regime. Our first destination was Choeung Ek - "The Killing Fields"

There were hundreds of "killing fields" scattered around Cambodia. The best known monument is 'Choeung Ek', located at one of the mass grave sites outside Phnom Penh. It is the site of a Buddhist memorial to the victims of the genocide.

The Khmer Rouge regime executed approximately 17 000 people here between 1975 and 1979. This stupa contains more than 5 000 skulls which were found in the mass graves at Choeung Ek.

Men, women, and children were brought here to be beaten and killed. Some were even buried alive - thrown into the mass graves and left for dead.

There were thousands of bodies found here after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge.

Our next destination was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was a at a high school that was made in to a prison during the Pol Pot regime.

If you haven't read about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge I suggest you look into it. There are numerous books and even some movies dedicated to the subject. There were horrible atrocities committed and the scariest part was that it all happened in the not-so-distant past. The events during the 1970's have had a lasting impact on the people of Cambodia and it was evident in the stories we heard from the few people we met there.

(Here is a small introduction to the Museum at S-21.)

The first building we visited had large rooms dedicated to the interrogation and torture of the inmates. The rooms contained rusty shackles and beds to which the prisoners were tied. Each room had a photograph of a victim hung on the wall over their bed.

(Here are the 'rules' of S-21)

The second building contained photographs of the prisoners. When they were brought to the prison they were documented, photographed, and interrogated. It was estimated that 17 000 people were imprisoned here within 4 years.

You can see women, children, and even babies that were tortured and held captive here. It was really overwhelming to see all of their faces. There were so many photographs spread over the rooms in Tuol Sleng. It's difficult to imagine what happened in these very rooms. . .

These buildings also contained many small, 'makeshift' cells meant to increase the capacity of the prison. They were incredibly small cells - some were too small to lie down in . . .

This place was pretty scary. The barbed wire was to keep prisoners from commiting suicide. The guards were encouraged to keep prisoners alive because they needed to hear their confessions. The prisoners were tortured and forced to identify friends and family members who were subsequently captured and killed. There are only twelve know survivors of Tuol Sleng and only four are alive today.

These paintings were done by Vann Nath, one of the survivors. He was trained as an artist and he was kept alive in order to paint portraits of Pol Pot. These paintings are relfections of what he witnessed during his stay at Tuol Sleng.

This is the infamous Cambodian Map of Skulls that was kept on display at Tuol Sleng. It was taken down in 2002 becuase they feared it was deterring tourists from visiting the museum. Only a photograph remains in its place.

It was a really somber morning but fascinating nonetheless. It was important for us to see these places firsthand so we could better understand what Cambodia and its people went through. Its really amazing how, in such a short time, the Cambodians have rebuilt their spirits. The economy and infrastructure is not at all up to standards yet, but all of the people we met in Cambodia were extremely generous and we felt welcome everywhere we went.

Next, we decided it was time to 'lighten-up' our sight-seeing a bit and head to some of the places Cambodian's are proud of. The Royal Palace!

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