Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields
I’ve hesitated writing about this experience because it is so somber and depressing, but in light of all the hate and violence going on lately I figure that this (one of our mankind’s worst atrocities) could be brought to light and used as a learning tool. A lesson that we all share a common ignorance of what the human existence means, and that we should all learn to respect one another and let each other live our lives in our own way, in pursuit of our own meaning of happiness. What someone displays to the world from the surface is only part of their story, and we are foolish to think we know someone else just based on their looks, race, ethnicity, religion, and socio-economic status.
In February 2012, I spent about a month touring around Cambodia and Thailand with my good friend Gordon. One of our first visits was to Phnom Penh, Cambodia; the country’s capital city and the location of a most horrendous case of genocide for which I had no idea how to embrace and prepare myself.
In the mid-to-late 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge was at the height of its power, their dictator Pol Pot led a destruction of his own people. He was so hell-bent on power that he sought to extinguish the educated and the wealthy because, if they did not join his forces, then they were seen as the most likely threat to his regime. It is said that, based on the ratio of people murdered compared to the overall population, the genocide inflicted by Pol Pot was even worse than Hitler’s. It is estimated that over 1.3 million people were murdered during this time, in a population of roughly 8 million…and those numbers do not include those who died from starvation and disease due to the Khmer Rouge’s policies on health and nutrition.
We started the tour by going to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum; one of about 150 “execution centers” throughout the country. In a run-down, poor part of Phnom Penh, there is an old dilapidated school building that is easily recognized as an incarceration compound due to the surrounding barbed wire fences. The Khmer Rouge turned this old school building into a prison. The wealthy, educated, and elite were imprisoned and tortured here in most unspeakable ways to force them to submit to Khmer Rouge rule and/or give information on Pol Pot dissenters. Upwards of 20,0000 people died here from being tortured to death, starvation, and disease that ran rampant.
In a country that does not have Western standards of repair and cleanliness, the building has been left in a state that makes you feel as if you just stepped into this place right after it was rescued. This state of the building causes you to vividly imagine the horrors that were inflicted here. You see implements of torture in almost every room: from waterboarding, to racks dislocating limbs, to heads being held under water, to menacing tools piercing through flesh. There were also rooms where old prisoner’s clothing was just tossed in piles and left rotting there for the past several decades—as if to serve as a reminder that the people wearing the clothes were tossed aside in the same careless manner.
After this disturbing experience, we then went to Choeung Ek—the killing fields a few miles south of Phnom Penh. As horrendous as the torturing was at Tuol Sleng, the killing fields of Choeun Ek far surpassed it in terms of heartless, cold-blooded murder. Truckloads of people were brought here all throughout the day and night based upon the lie that they would serve in agricultural slavery, only to be slaughtered en mass immediately upon arrival and then dumped into mass graves. The soldiers would play Khmer folk music over loudspeakers to drown out the cries and screams of the victims and gunshots, and when a mass grave was full the soldiers would dump chemicals over the bodies to cover the smell of decay and to also help kill off anyone who had not died from the initial slaughtering.
Upon entering the fields, you are first confronted with a large stupa full of about 5,000 skulls to serve as warning of what took place here. As we walked around the killing fields, I saw bone fragments still laying in the dirt, including what appeared to be a piece of an arm bone. They would occasionally play Khmer folk music over loudspeakers affixed to the trees just to give you the surreal feeling of being present during the slaughtering. As the music played, I finally broke down and cried when I saw a tree with a red target painted on the trunk about 4.5 feet high where they smashed children’s heads and tossed the bodies into a mass grave at the side of the tree.
As terrible of an experience as this was, I never have dismissed the importance of why these places are still open to the public—the past is to serve as a reminder of how we should shape our future. Not one person in this world truly knows what the human existence is for. Religions make their best effort at theorizing as to why we are here and what our purpose is, but at the end of the day, not one of those beliefs have ever been proven true. In light of the mass violence that has been occurring on a regular basis lately, we as a collective people should finally realize that we all share this common ignorance. We should all learn to tolerate the next person’s right to hold his own belief system; lest history is destined to repeat itself with murder, genocide, and mass executions of truly innocent people.