This post contains graphic and upsetting information regarding genocide and torture in Cambodia.
Today was a day I had been dreading but knew it was important, so I woke early to prepare myself to go to the Killing Fields and S21 which was the secret prison in the Pol Pot regime. I know that nothing I can write will ever properly communicate what we experienced or how I felt about what we saw, but I feel it is crucial to blog a somewhat censored version so that others may learn from what we saw too.
When we arrived at the Killing Fields I felt nervous- many people had warned me that this would potentially be life changing for me, so I stepped over the threshold with trepidation. I was amazed to see ‘no Pokemon go’ signs on the walls- I couldn’t believe that catching Pokemon could be on someone’s mind in a place like this.
The first thing I saw was a monument containing 8000 human skulls, all excavated from the site. Then we went a little further into the site and read about some of the awful things that happened to people here. I couldn’t repeat them, and it wouldn’t be responsible to publicly post them, but I would be willing to tell friends about it verbally if you feel you want to know.
We stepped up onto wooden boards, but I didn’t know why. Then I saw a set of human teeth coming out of the ground. The recent nature of the Cambodian genocide (1975-1979) means that the thousands of bodies at the location are currently being unearthed by the weather. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Others in the group were already in floods of tears as we saw more and more bones and more and more items of clothing belonging to victims that were naturally appearing through the floor. Signs saying ‘don’t tread on the bones’ were everywhere. It was sickening and surreal.
We went to the mass grave for women and children and heard the most horrific things. I’m not sure I could repeat them if I tried. I cried a million tears for the women and children and prayed as many prayers as I could for the families that were left behind. The tree where children were tortured has haunted me since we went there (I’m now writing two weeks on as I haven’t been able to write about the experience until now). Matthew really struggled in this particular area too and still isn’t ready to talk about it. I didn’t know things so barbaric had happened there and certainly I had no idea of how recent these terrible occurrences were.
We saw more and more, but after the children’s torture tree it’s all very blurry in my memory. Unless you have seen it with your own eyes and felt the atmosphere around you, you just can’t imagine it, and I wouldn’t want you to. We left stunned and sickened and headed for S21.
S21 had previously been a high school but was re purposed as a prison for the prisoners of the Pol Pot regime. We went into the VIP cells first, large rooms with metal beds in them and heavily stained floors. There was a metal box in each room too, which inmates used as a toilet. If they spilled the contents they would be forced to clean the floor with their tongues. The VIP cells contained members of the government or other senior officials and the 12 that remained at S21 when the Vietnamese people liberated Cambodia in 1979 were murdered before the jailers fled. We saw the pictures of how the bodies were found. The atmosphere was already suffocating and many of us had to go outside as we were feeling faint.
The next building was where general inmates were kept. They were tiny cells, separated by brick. Inmates were not permitted to do anything without permission. That included rolling over when sleeping or coughing. If inmates saw a member of their family or a friend in a nearby cell, communication was not permitted. Many cells still had blood stains in them, or splatters up the walls from torture. We saw the cell of Chum Mey, one of very few living survivors who we went on to meet.
The final block we saw contained similar cells and the original barbed wiring was in place which was designed to prevent people, but mainly women, from committing suicide. Even this hope was taken.
We went around the courtyard and were greeted by an older man with a big smile on his face, Mr Chum Mey, a survivor. He looked straight into my eyes and smiled and did a traditional bow to me with his hands pressed together in a prayer, a mark of respect in this part of the world. This was too much for me. How could a man who had been tortured so brutally, had his wife and children murdered in front of him, how could he bow to me? I managed to pull myself together for his sake, and I’m glad I did as his book talks about how when he sees the tears of visitors he cries
He told us his story. The story of the violent torture and the image of his scars, bent bones and crooked toes won’t ever leave me. His one request is that people tell his story so that the suffering of the Cambodian people is known. Even Cambodian schools don’t learn of this history that cost the country 3 million lives only 30 years ago. The UN kept Pol Pot’s seat for years after his regime fell. The man was a dictator and a murderer, how does that Unite Nations? I can’t figure this out, but I presume there must have been some political reason for keeping him on side.
We met another survivor, an older man and a painter. This man was deaf from electrocution through his ears whilst he was held in S21 and is now 85 years old. He held my hand as we sat with him for a picture. He held MY hand. How can that make sense? I cannot understand how these men go back to S21 every day, re live their experiences over and over to tourists. Chum Mey and the older man stood in court against ‘Duc’ one of the commanders of the prison in the early 2000s, re telling the horrific tale in great detail over and over again. Chum says the only happiness he has felt since before he was arrested was the day he saw Duc receive life imprisonment. Duc himself is an old man now, so I don’t think his inprisonment is to teach him a lesson, it’s for the survivors to die peacefully when their time comes.
We were all stunned. Not a word was spoken on the bus back.
I spent the afternoon horse riding with Miriam through small, remote villages in rural Pnom Penh. It was great to have some quiet time to think about the day and keep occupied after the morning’s experiences. We saw some amazing people on our ride, and really appreciated the peace of the countryside interspersed with the excitement of local children as they saw the horses. We didn’t want to leave but day turned to night and darkness really set in- fortunately our clever horses could lead the way back for us.
This was a day I will never forget and I will always be different because of. So far (I write two weeks later) a day hasn’t passed when I haven’t thought about what I learned and felt on this day. The Cambodian people chose for the many prison guards and torturers not to receive trial as they felt their communities had already been divided too much. Mr Chum Mey pitied the guards who tortured him
to within an inch of his life. How much we can learn from the Cambodian people who I can’t help but love.