Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields

Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields are not easy places to visit. But the only way to begin to understand Cambodia is to learn about its past. I think the world owes them this much.

I knew that I was in for an emotional day. I had done a little bit of reading about the Khmer Rouge, also known as the Red Khmer or Communist Khmer, and their atrocities but it still doesn’t prepare you for the reality of standing somewhere that countless people suffered and died. On the advice of my tuk-tuk driver I started at the Killing Fields. Some people argue that you should begin at the museum because that is the order that the victims went through but I think the audio tour that is included in the entry price at Choeung Ek is a fair introduction. It takes a little over an hour to listen to the whole tour.

I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t what I found there. I guess I had imagined a barren landscape of dust and ugliness to suit the evil that had occurred. But there is grass and trees and flowers and even a pond with water lilies. The killing field is arguably beautiful. Which somehow makes the reality so much more horrific. The landscape is pock-marked. Each depression marking a mass grave that has been exhumed. The remains of more than eight thousand people were discovered in that field after the downfall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. In less than five years more than a quarter of the population of eight million Cambodians had been horrifically executed across the country. Choeung Ek is the most well-known killing field but there are many more scattered across the country.

It is difficult to hold back tears as you listen. The audio tour includes accounts of survivors and heart-wrenching descriptions of the last hours of the victims. There is one stop that I found particularly difficult. Near the centre of the field next to a marked mass grave there is a tree. This grave is particularly upsetting because it holds the remains of mothers and their children. It was a policy of Pol Pot’s regime to kill whole families. To prevent acts of revenge. Most of the executions, because ammunition was expensive, were carried out by beating the victim with whatever was available; farming equipment, machetes, and even the branches of a particular palm that has serrated edges. But not the infants and small children. The Killing Tree, as it is now known, was the site of innumerable child deaths. It is reported that when the Vietnamese found the tree it was still covered in remnants of bone, blood and brain. I felt numb as I listened to that track. I didn’t know how to process the information. The emptiness was quickly filled with disgust and indignation as I watched members of a tour group pose for photos with the tree. I don’t think I have ever felt more disdain for humanity than in that moment. I fear for a society so narcissistic that it is considered appropriate to pose, smiling, beside a site where so many children were barbarically murdered. For someone to consider themselves so important that they just have to have a photo of themselves in a place of suffering is incomprehensible to me. It goes beyond disrespect.

The Memorial Stupa. It holds the skulls and bones of five thousand victims.

The Memorial Stupa. It holds the skulls and bones of five thousand victims.

I finished the circuit with my eyes on the ground. It is important to be aware of where you are placing your feet as you walk through the field. The wet-season rain and flooding brings bone and clothing fragments to the surface. So you must make sure not to step on any. Every few months the custodians of the field collect what has been exposed. It is unclear if the bones belong to victims as the site was a Chinese immigrant cemetery before the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. The final stop of the audio tour is the Stupa. It is a memorial to those that were murdered and houses the bones of some of the victims. Some five thousand human skulls are displayed in the glass cases. Categorised by age, sex and injuries. Many of them are cracked or broken. Evidence of the method of execution. The audio tour gives permission to take photos of and inside the stupa. I have no other photos from Choeung Ek. It felt inappropriate to me.

By the time I had finished the tour I was emotionally wrung out. I didn’t have it in me to visit the small museum in the grounds. I silently climbed back into the tuk-tuk. It is a long and dusty drive from the Killing Field and it seems that much longer when you’re travelling with a heavy heart. I couldn’t help but look at the people differently as we drove past. Everyone over the age of 40 probably remembers losing someone during Pol Pot’s reign. Children orphaned. Friends lost. Families ripped apart. Even with 35 years to heal I can’t imagine how strong the people must be simply to climb out of bed in the morning. Do they envy their children that don’t live with the burden of remembering?

The rules that inmates of Tuol Sleng lived by.

The rules that inmates of Tuol Sleng lived by.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is within the City of Phnom Penh. It was once a school but was turned into Security Prison-21 during the Pol Pot years. It is probably the most infamous of the execution centres in Cambodia. An estimated seventeen to twenty thousand prisoners were tortured there and later killed, either on site or transported to the killing field. Only 12 people are known to have survived the prison. It is said that the Vietnamese discovered Tuol Sleng by following the stench of decaying corpses. For the first year victims were buried in mass graves beside the prison but the guards ran out of burial space. After that prisoners were transported to Choeung Ek for execution and burial.

Four main buildings stand on the grounds. I began with Building A which is closest to the entrance. Most of the rooms are now empty but some still contain rusted bed frames and shackles. It was in this building that prisoners were interrogated and tortured. Many coerced into giving false confessions and incriminating family and friends. Nobody speaks as they walk through this building. It is too confronting. This building is also where the last victims were found. Killed by their captors and left to rot mere hours before the prison was discovered. Those rooms contain photographs of the victims as they were found. If you have a weak stomach I would advise you not to look inside those rooms. There are still bloodstains on some of the floors.

An interrogation room. One of Toul Sleng's final victims was found in this room. As depicted by the photograph on the wall.

An interrogation room. One of Toul Sleng’s final victims was found in this room. As depicted by the photograph on the wall.

I’m not sure which building was the most confronting. The interrogation rooms with the discoloured floors from the unmeasurable amounts of blood spilled. The hundreds of nameless photographs of men, women and children in Building B. Some with expressions of fear, others with defiance, more  simply hopeless. Building C with its exterior of rusted barbed wire, designed to stop inmates from escaping or attempting suicide. Or the tiny makeshift cells inside; some still with blood trails and shackles attached to the walls. Or maybe the display of torture devices in Building D. In short the experience is harrowing. But as hard as it is to deal with, it doesn’t even come close to how difficult it must still be for the Cambodian people.

The Cambodian Government encourages visitors to spend some time in these places to learn about the country’s past. But that does not make them tourist attractions. They are memorials to great suffering and places for reflection. From Phnom Penh you can hire a tuk-tuk for the day for around 18USD and they will take you to both sites. The entry fee for the Killing Fields is 6USD and the audio tour is included. Entry for Tuol Sleng is 3USD and you can buy a small guide book for the same amount. I would suggest hiring a guide to show you around, there were none available when I visited otherwise I would have hired one myself. I think this is a really important place to visit if you’re in Cambodia.

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