Last night I watched the 1984 move The Killing Fields. Today I had my reality shattered by visiting one of the many killing fields plus the notorious S21 torture and execution centre. When you come to Cambodia you can not avoid taking a hard look at Cambodia's dark history and understanding how the world knowingly ignored it. The world knowingly ignored the brutality here as it had in many places before and after. Armenia, Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Serbia, Darfur, Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, North Korea and now Myanmar. The list grows, millions die and the world remains silent. "Never Again" my ass.
I thought I was mentally ready for this. Man was I naive. I hired the same Tuk Tuk driver who picked me up at the bus station. He would stay with me for the day and was a reasonable $18.
Our first stop would be Choeung Ek, One of the hundreds of Killing Fields scattered throughout Cambodia. My driver got a bit lost as there was road construction on the back roads to the site. He looked more worried than me, which got me worried. "It's ok", he kept telling me. Once we arrived he parked his beast machine, took out a hammock and told me to "take my time and learn.". That statement by a 25 year old caught my attention.
With your entrance fee you receive an audio guide and a map with "stop and listen" stations. Each station gives you intense detail about what you are looking at. Even the first station which was a bare patch of earth was "The place where trucks stopped to drop off prisoners". You will wander through areas that describe, sometimes in great detail the horror and fear that took place here. It was not uncommon for everyone in the truck to be dead within 24 hours.
Bullets were not an option as they were expensive. Clubs, ox cart axles or knives were the weapons of choice. Death was not easy. You looked over mass graves and torture sites. One place that stands out in everyone's mind is the Child's Killing Tree. Kids were taken from their parents and as the parents were being tortured the kids heads were smashed against this tree, swung usually by the feet.
At the rear of the memorial park is a walking path. Here you chose a classical music selection from the audio tape and reflect what you have just been a part of. Walk the path, sit on a bench or do both. I was hoping to find a copy of the music but no luck. What I find was a transcription of the audio tour. Please Click here to read a copy. If the link does not work let me know and I will send you a copy I downloaded. Just reading it will give you a shocking sense of the reality that was.
I spent about 3 hours here with a final stop at the huge memorial that has stacked bones, skulls and remains of the victims of Choeung Ek. It also had a color coded system that shows how each person died.The reality of neck cutting, killing by ax, killing by hoe, by hood knife.
I thought I had my senses shocked. I had no idea what was to come next.
The second stop was the notorious and Savage S-21 torture and execution prison. It started as a peaceful walk through a welcoming gate. Then I put on my audio tour cassette headphones and the horrors became instantaneous. As with all historical site I visit there is much better and detailed information about S-21 if you Click Here
This former school was turned into a prison where torture, suffering and death was a top priority. Listening to the details as you walk through the first building creates a sense of sadness unless your a robot. Bars on all windows, metal bed frames where prisoners where chained and tortured and dirty barren walls gave you a sense of complete hopelessness.
Building number 2 was covered with wire mess? One prisoner had jumped from the third floor to commit suicide. Since suicide was not an option for the Khmer Rouge screening was put up to prevent it. Even hope for a quick death was averted by these motherfu**ers.
Buildings 3 and 4 is where it really hits you. Walls of pictures of each prisoner with knowing terrified looks on their faces. Men, woman and kids. Rows of teenagers, both boys and girls whose only crime was to be the children of parents accused of some meaningless crime against the country, so they had to suffer and die as well.
There was the stories and photos of the 9 foreign victims including John Dawson and David Scott, Christopher DeLance, Their crime, accidentally sailing into Cambodia waters and were immediately accused of being American CIA agents. They suffered the same fate as most prisoners however all western bodies were burned so as to not be identified.
I was struggling to get through building number 3. Hundreds if not thousands of horrified faces staring at me as read story after story of individual life stories and the supposed crimes they had committed. Remember I am listening to audio as well as reading and viewing everything around me. I left building 3 and sat in the open courtyard mentally exhausted, and I was not alone. I sat in the sun for the better part of 15 minutes trying to regroup. I took one step inside building 4, looked around and said "nope". I had had enough. No shame in that.
Later that day I took to the city streets and markets. I was really wandering aimlessly lost in thought of what I had experienced during the day. I watched the people and recognized there were very few of the older generation because most had been killed.
Cambodia is young but nobody has not forgotten. The museum's are filled with locals and school groups learning about and being reminded of their history as everyone was effected. Learning about grandparents, aunt's, uncle's, and cousins is a part of the fabric of this country. Scars are everywhere. Blind message parlors, vendors missing arms or legs and older survivors begging on the street with mindless stares.
Through it all Cambodia has move forward. They have embraced the future without ignoring their history. Kindness is genuine. We should not have to live through a genocide to be kind to each other.