It has been over a month since we visited the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh and then walked the corridors of the Tuol Sleng detention and torture center in the city's center. Anyone who has been following the website will know that a month has passed since we've written much of anything, despite plotting these entries on the map. This entry, in particular, seemed like it should have been written in the hours following those sorrowful hours spent in these haunted places. But for whatever reason - time, travel, being busy, or feeling worn out from spending so much time behind a computer screen - we have been neglectful of our trusty online travel journal.
Looking back on my personal journal, then, I thought I could get a fresh reminder of what my thoughts were on that day so to better communicate to you, the reader, what passed through our hearts and minds that day. My personal journal, when I looked back, was little help. All it said was, and now I quote - "Visited killing fields and S-21 - beyond words. Indian food for dinner."
But maybe that is help enough. Visiting those two sites, which symbolize the terror and destruction wrought by the Khmer Rouger during their brief rule, was a silencing affair. One of the most brutal genocides conceived by man in the 20th century, the purges performed by Pol Pot and the KR regime stand as testimony to the unimaginable cruelty and evil that ideaology, paranoia, and efficiency can create. In their minds the ruling Khmer Rouge clique thought they were saving the war-torn, poverty-stricken, exploited, and oppressed people of Cambodia by cutting out the intellectuals, capitalists, and US military puppets. Following a strict interpretation of contemporary and historical events, they made the case that Cambodia could reclaim its rightful prestige and power by cutting themselves off from the outside world, and cutting out the cancers that had be laid by foreign powers over the previous centuries. These cancers included those with ruling class blood, journalists, educated people, foreigners, Khmer-Vietnamese, Siamese, royal loyalists, and in the end, anyone who questioned the direction or authority of "Angkar". By returning to a rural agricultural society they conceived of a pure communist-socialist country that would be wholly 'self-sustained.' Where the Soviets, Chinese, and Vietnamese had failed, they would succeed by removing all outsiders and demanding total submission from its citizens. Their vision of a 'pure' Khmer society was blinding to those in power, and the results of this blind quest for perfection sentenced to death hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of Cambodians.
When the Khmer Rouge defeated the Lon Nol army and captured the capital of Phnom Penh, they immediately evacuated the entire city. For the entire length of their rule, Phnom Penh remained open only to the ruling elite and certain sectors of industry. In an abandoned high school, not far from the National Museum and the Royal Palace, they stationed their primary detention, interogation, and torture facility, Tuel Sleng - also known simply as S-21. Translated literally Tuel Sleng means - a poisonous hill or place on a mound to keep those who bear guilt. This is where Khmer Rouge officials brought those suspected of trying to undermine the revolution. Between 1976 when S-21 was created and 1978, when the invading Vietnamese "discovered" it, an estimated 12,499 people passed through the its chambers. Out of that number, there are only seven known people who survived. The death toll includes over 2,000 children who were jailed and then executed at the nearby killing fields. What tells the tail of this horrorific tragedy, however sad and ironic it is, are the thousands of portraits of each of S-21's victims. Not unlike the Nazi's of Germany, the Khmer Rouge were perversley efficient documentarians. Each inmate was photographed and made to write out a complete, if not implicating and sometimes false, biography. As a museum, S-21 displays these photographs as the most haunting testimony to those who lost their lives. I don't think I have ever been so choked or saddened. Unlike the Nazi's, the Khmer Rouge did not spare their own the devastation of their fury and murderous rampage. Looking back from these photos are Cambodians themselves, and in their eyes you see not only a pain beyond description but something that says, "I cannot believe my own people are doing this to me." Indeed, as the Khmer Rouge genocide ran out of foreigners, opposition leaders, and party enemies it increasingly turned on its own party members, even those who were vital and loyal to the ideals and authority of the revolution. Pol Pot, who never was made to answer for his crimes, will go down as one of the most mysterious of mass-murderers. Possibly insane, or possibly so distraught by his years in the jungle fighting and leading that his logic was stripped to a cruelty that made sense only to himself.
When we walked the grounds of the Killing Fields - the area where most of the S-21 prisoners were actually executed - the madness could not be more apparent. Huge holes were dug, often by prisoners themselves, and to save on bullets most of the thousands murdered were smashed over the head or neck with a large wrench or iron bar. They crumbled into the pits, unmarked and quickly buried. The memorial built near the entrance to the Fields is 40 meters high and is stacked with the skulls of those who were unearthed. It is not the type of memorial that you would see in most other countries. It is too harsh and too inyourface, I think, for most sensibilities. Somehow, though, it seems necessary and fitting to the tragedy of this place. It is so shocking and so brutal that the experience of seeing these white skulls, stacked one upon the other, will burn an image of the carnage so deep in your memory that you would never forget the legacy of the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia, and her history is long and complex one , is a sad country. Their genocide, and thus their pain, is very recent and it will be a long time before they are a healed country. Still, the Cambodians we met were kind if not quiet. Even our young guides who brought us by motorbike - did not much want to talk about the places they had brought us to. "Yes," they agreed when we said it, "It is very sad."
Like anyone, I assume, who visits a place like S-21 or The Killing Fields - God knows there are many places like this on the planet - I am quite speechless about how the day effected my mind and thoughts. It is such a painful experience to know that the spot you are standing on was once the scene of horrible torture or murder. It is easy to understand how humanity is capable of, and driven to achieve, something like Angkor Wat, Irises, or the Taj Majal, but it is infinitly incomprehensible why humanity has proven itself to be so set on bringing death and destruction unto itself. Perhaps it is that this question is so hard to answer that leads me to be so lost for words as I reflect on what happened in Tuel Sleng and the countryside nearby.