S21 and Choeung Ek

The morning after I sell Jackie, I head out on a guided tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (or “Security Prison 21”) and Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (or “the killing fields”). With my visa running out and my friends already in Siem Reap, I have decided to spend only one day in Phnom Penh. I will spend that day learning the things I want to learn about the Khmer Rouge. There are many more things I would like to do in Phnom Penh, but I will have to come back for those.

The bus leaves the hostel early in the morning and our first stop is S21. Formerly a secondary school, S21 was one of at least 150 torture and execution centers established by the Khmer Rouge. Between 1976 and 1979, it is estimated that 20,000 people were imprisoned at S21. The real number is unknown. Now, S21 is a museum where visitors can learn about the Khmer Rouge regime and the Cambodian genocide that it caused.

I strongly believe that though visits such as these can be overwhelming, uncomfortable, “depressing”; they are important. Travel is a beautiful thing, and I have had overwhelmingly happy times during my travels, but I believe it is good to remember that travel is above all, a learning experience. It is valuable to soak up a place’s history, however good, bad or uncomfortable that may be. It is valuable to sit in our own discomfort sometimes.

Walking the halls of S21 was those things and a whole lot more. I walked and listened to various narrators describe the goings on in the prison. I looked at bare metal “beds”, some with the shackles still attached. I listened to recordings of survivors, accounts of perpetrators. And as I walked, I wrote certain things down. I have a fear of forgetting, remember?

It’s difficult to explain how it all felt, and perhaps it isn’t quite necessary. I will show you the things that I jotted down, no more no less. Then I will mention some of the things I felt. It’s up to us to fill in the blank spaces in between.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Context

  • On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge entered the city of Phnom Penh and declared that all citizens must evacuate. There was a threat of American bombing, and people were to evacuate to outside the city for a period of three days. Those three days would turn into three years; most people would not return home.
  • “The US had bombed Cambodia. About 100,000 people had died. People came to the cities, homeless and jobless. That’s why when revolutionaries arrived, they rejoiced. They thought help had come.”

Guards

• The very guards of S21 were often originally brought in as prisoners. They were usually very young, with pliable minds. They were taught to carry out the wishes of the Khmer Rouge or otherwise be killed.

• “Torture was like that. We got the answers we wanted and then killed them.” – Former S21 guard.

• “As we used to say, better to make a wrong arrest than let the enemy eat us from the outside in.” – Former S21 guard.

Prisoners

• Upon arrival at S21, prisoners were photographed and had to give detailed autobiographies of their lives. Prisoners were then taken to small or large cells and shackled.

• Most prisoners were held for two to three months, though some were held for longer. The purpose of their imprisonment was to extract information from them and reveal treasonous activities. The torture system at S21 was extensive and specifically designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they had been suspected of.

• “The purpose of interrogation was to replace the memories. By doing so, loved ones became informants to the prisoner. This proved treason so we could kill the prisoner.”

• The Khmer Rouge also made use of so called “arrest by kinship,” whereby an entire family was arrested and killed so as to ensure that they could not take revenge in the future.

Reflections

The tour takes me through the different buildings with different sized cells. S21 remains intact. It is hardly a sanitized or neutrally curated memorial. It stands as it is, its truth speaking directly to the visitor. Walking through, I see scratching on the walls,; I see dark stains that remain from pools of blood. I look at the frames of metal beds and as I am told about how prisoners were waterboarded here, I see it in my minds eye. There are rooms with assorted instruments of torture still in their original places.

I have just walked through a section of small wooden cells designed for solitary confinement when I come out into the open air hallway. I stand and look through barbed wire at today’s Phnom Penh. Straight ahead of me there is an advertisement: “Hey you! Step In. Fair Trade Handicraft.” And just like that, two worlds collide. The drastic juxtaposition between the former house of horrors I stand in and the advert for fair trade products in front of me remains ingrained in my memory.

In another section, I enter a room that displays the photographs that were taken of each prisoner upon their arrival to the prison. There are so many faces.

So many faces of grim determination. Grim acceptance of fate. Faces of fear, sadness, anger and all the many gray feelings in between. In one of the rooms I decide to look at each face individually. I feel that they deserve at least that much. I soon find, however, that this will be quite the undertaking, because just like this room, there is another. And another. And another. And for each photographed face there are hundreds of thousands of faces not pictured. I continue to walk and take it in, but am forced to press on as the tour goes on without me. I am eventually unable to look at each person individually, and as I walk past the blur of humans lost, my mind echoes a quiet “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” to the room at large.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Context

• Along with detention centers such as S21, the Khmer Rouge made use of an extensive number of execution sites, collectively known as “the Cambodian killing fields.” The exact number of mass graves is unclear. Our tour mentions that there are over 300 killing fields in Cambodia; research I did afterwards indicated there might be very many more.

• Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is just one of these countless killing fields. Its proximity to Phnom Penh (only 17 kilometers) has made it one of the most well-known sites for visitors.

• Choeung Ek was originally a fruit orchard. Under the Khmer Rouge it was turned into a killing field. At least 20,000 people were killed there. Many of them had come from S21.

• The Khmer Rouge did not use bullets for executions; these were deemed too expensive. Instead, prisoners were lined up at the edge of a pit. Executioners used a metal pole to deliver a blow to the back of the neck.

• The Choeung Ek grave site was discovered when the Khmer Rouge regime fell. A Buddhist stupa was erected and the site now serves as a memorial.

Visit/Reflections

Arriving at Choeung Ek felt, in a way, bizarre. The grounds are peaceful. The soil is quite obviously fertile and there is beautiful green grass and an abundance of trees. There is a white stupa in the center. I follow the marked path and listen to the narrator(s) detail the events that occurred here.

I walk past sections of dirt and sections of grass and hear that though much of the human remains has been excavated to create the memorial, there is still so much that is left behind. I hear that every year, when the rainy season comes, more bone fragments and teeth come up to the surface. Nature’s own way of making sure we always remember.

The path eventually takes me to “the killing tree.” It is a tall, beautiful tree. Next to it is a small pit with a roof built over it. I press play on my audio device. The killing tree, I am told, is where infants were executed. Executioners would hold the infants by the legs and swing, their skulls cracking on the tree. The pit beside me is their grave. When killing tree was discovered after the fall of the regime, the bottom of the tree was still covered in the blood and brain matter of its victims.

I feel immediately sick.

Now, the tree is covered in bracelets. It is a rainbow of all different colored bracelets. I am feeling cracked open wide, I am feeling sadness with a newfound desperation. There is nothing I can do, so I do the only thing I can think of. I untie the bracelets I bought two days ago and attach them to the tree. I am sorry. I know that it is not enough, but it is all I can give you.

I complete my round and find my way back to the stupa. I go inside and see the remains. Perfectly cataloged and organized. Men, women, children. Different parts of the body, different causes of death.

Once I am done, I go back outside. I stand at the edge of the grass and look at the stupa. It has long windows stretching up the length of the building. Through those windows you see the bones and skulls of the deceased. The roof of the stupa is a golden yellow; like the sun, my favorite color. The trees surrounding it are in bloom. They have yellow blossoms of almost the same color as the stupa roof. It is a combination of details so desperately different yet alike. A small moment where the unthinkable past meets an ordinary future. It blossoms a small hope in my heart, and I wonder whether the roof and the flowers were at all intentional.

There will never be any right words to describe these types of things that humans do to one another. There will never, in my opinion, be any possible explanation. But history shows that it is an unfortunate element of the human condition that there can be things that separate us. That there is hurt that we cause to one another. This is something, I think, that is worth learning. It is worth remembering. Lest we forget.

***

“Let it be that the world takes notice of the evil that can happen when people do nothing. And let it be that the world decides that doing nothing is not an option.”

Robert Hamill, brother of Kerry Hamill who was killed by the Khmer Rouge.

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