I’m in Siem Reap and we’re about to head out for our first day of temple-gazing. The last few days since we left Kampot have gone by in a flash, and I cannot believe that my flight home is tomorrow.
During our short stay in Phnom Penh we finally hired a tuc-tuc driver, Peter, a former English teacher and a great tour guide, for the day to visit the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison. It was a heavy day. Peter’s father had been killed by Pol Pot and he gave us the uncensored version of events. He told us about when Phnom Penh was evacuated on a moment’s notice because supposedly the Americans were going to bomb the capital. Instead people were simply forced out of their homes and prevented from returning for 3 and a half years, during which they were forced to work in the rice paddies in work camps. As a child he was separated from his family and sent out to the country to work in the fields. He told us about the time he tried to eat a bit of rice that he noticed was stuck on the side of the cooker in the kitchen, was caught, and was beaten senseless for eating outside of the allotted communal eating time.
I cannot even describe to you terrible things that happened in S21 and the Killing Fields. The short version is that people of all stripes, mainly intellectuals, ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, and “enemies of the revolution,” which of course could be anybody including children and babies (because they could rise up in revenge later), were arrested and taken to prisons. They were tortured for information, oftentimes forced to inform on innocent friends and relatives, starved, locked up in cells, and eventually carted off blindfolded in trucks to some secluded fields outside of the city where they were summarily bludgeoned, to save bullets.
We went to the Killing Fields first, which are an eerie place. It is a closed off area with uneven terrain and a large pagoda-memorial building in the center. The terrain is uneven because you are walking above hundreds of mass graves, only some of which they have excavated. The heavy rains wash off layers of soil and reveal more bones and clothing. At one point as I was walking down a path I realized that there was a human bone on the ground in front of me beginning to appear in the dirt… The memorial has a glass display case, in which they have piled hundreds of human skulls. Some of them have holes in them from where the people were bludgeoned. There is something unreal about standing in front of so many skulls. After walking around the memorial, we just sat in silence for 20 minutes. As we walked out, I was struck by the incongruity of an American family with children walking towards me. As they passed me I heard the mother say to her 8-year old: “Look honey, at all the skulls!” My stomach lurched.
S21 is a school. During the Khmer Rouge revolution, education was banned as they pursued a farming utopia. Therefore schools were turned into prisons. There is something very twisted and demented about walking around a place that feels like it should have children playing in it, and walk into rooms that have instruments of torture and black and white photos young men and women who later died. The Khmer Rouge diligently documented their genocide and as a result there are literally millions of photographs.