Toul Seng Prison & Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Phnom Penh CambodiaWarning, this post contains some very disturbing pictures, including some of skeletonized human remains. If you are sensitive to mental images of violence against both adults and children, you should not continue reading. This is the story of some of the atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge against their fellow Cambodian people, and I am very honest about my experiences there.
I struggled with posting this one for a long time, but it's important to acknowledge these events. Cambodia is a beautiful country with amazing people. However, the nation carries the scars of its past, so it's good information to have to understand their current situation. It's also a reminder of what evil people are capable of in order to hopefully help prevent a future occurrence.
I had traveled to Phnom Penh to assist with a property dispute in the countryside. I wanted to know if the 1984 movie The Killing Fields was even close to accurate, and if the strange and horrible stories I had heard about Pol Pot and his cadre were true. On one of my down days, my quest on the subject led me to Toul Sleng Prison and Choeung Ek, south of Phnom Penh
Toul Sleng PrisonThe prison was a high school before the Khmer Rouge took over in Phnom Penh in 1976, when higher education was abolished in favor of a peasant farmers' paradise in the model of Mao Tse Tung's Glorious Revolution.
As the revolution and purges inherent in a communist takeover of a country ramped up, they turned the high school into a prison and torture facility to extract confessions of paranoid beliefs or to implicate even more people in their purges.
Strangely, one of the most sought after confessions was that of Vietnamese sympathies. This struck me as odd because the Vietnamese were the ones who helped them initially get into power. Another popular path was to force admissions of CIA or KGB complicity.
The classrooms were used for holding and interrogating prisoners. Screams could be heard throughout the facility day and night. Since Phnom Penh had been mostly emptied of people who were relocated to work in the rice fields outside of town, that was not a big issue for the captors.
Once a confession was obtained, or it was decided they couldn't break an individual, they were told they were being driven to a re-education center south of the prison. It was actually a one-way trip to The Killing Fields.
The prison retains its air of oppression and some of the rooms are basically untouched since the 70s. There are pictures in some of the rooms, documenting everyone who passed through the facility, thousands of pictures of people who did not survive the experience. In fact, in the four years the prison was operational, there were only 7 survivors who were left when the city fell to the Vietnamese in 1979.
The Cambodian government established the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which opened in 1980. The Cambodian people want visitors to see the remnants of the facility so they can understand what happened here. The prison museum pulls no punches and sugar coats nothing that happened. It is a difficult experience, but it is nothing compared to what came next.
Choeung Ek - The Killing FieldsA former orchard in what was then the countryside, bordering a lot of farm land, was turned into a imprisonment and execution site where upwards of 25,000 people were brutally exterminated.
Every day truck loads would be brought down from Toul Sleng Prison and off loaded to huts where they were shackled by the ankles with long iron bars holding their feet past them.
When nighttime fell, the communist mantra would be broadcast loudly to cover up the sounds of each individual being lead to the edges of pits and dispatched with farm tools to the back of the head, as bullets were expensive and needed to fight existing enemies of the state.
I rented the audio tour, and in English listened to the account of a former guard and executioner of the complex. He was very frank and blunt about what he did, and said that at the time, the choice was kill or become the next victim. He did survive the time, but I cannot judge his actions. I am a military veteran, and acknowledge that things one does are hard to reconcile outside the context of the situation.
The descriptions at each audio station are pretty vivid. The graves of the headless soldiers who, while looking like Khmer people (another thing that could get you killed was looking different), they must have said something or someone said something about them being sympathetic to the Vietnamese. The saying "Khmer heart, Vietnamese head" resulted in the Vietnamese part being removed.
In recent years, the bones were collected from the pits. They dug up almost 10,000 bodies before they gave up, leaving a possible 15,000 bodies still down there. Clothing and bone fragments surface after every rain, littering the entire site. It's almost difficult not to step on them in some places.
The part that has kept me from looking at these pictures for three years was the Children's Tree, but the more apt translation is Baby Tree. The tree was used as an anvil, and the babies were the hammers. It's truly so disturbing and soul wrenching that I became nauseated. Going back to the pictures has made this a rather difficult day honestly.
The thousands of skulls that had been exhumed were separated by ethnicity in a central Bhuddist shrine. It shows that it didn't matter who you were or where you came fro; if you were suspected, you ended up here... or in one of the other similar prisons and execution sites in each province of the country. Included among these skulls are what are assumed to be those of American reporters like the ones portrayed in the movie. Unlike in the film, they were not spared because of their blue passport.
It's intensely saddening and humbling to know that this kind of thing happened, and continues to happen around the world because of our tribalistic attitudes.
SummaryI cannot say to you that this is for sure a must see. It has affected me profoundly and changed my perspective on the world. It's disturbing to the core, and I still at times am plagued by memories of my experience at Choeung Ek, the thoughts difficult to handle.
As Anthony Bordain said "Once you've been to Cambodia, you'll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands." Bourdain's fury may seem shocking unless one understands a bit about the role Kissinger played in the changing landscape of southeast Asia in the late 60s and early 70s. Cambodia was a neutral sovereign nation during the conflict between Vietnam and the United States. Despite the protections afforded by the Geneva Accord of 1954, Kissinger authorized bombings of eastern Cambodia along its border with Vietnam, resulting in tens of thousands of civilians losing their lives. Operation Menu (1069-1970), ostensibly an attack on North Vietnamese fighters who set up on the Cambodian side of the border, was followed by Operation Freedom Deal (1970-1973) which resulted in blanket bombing of the eastern half of the country. It was a combination of our complicity in the Khmer Rouge's coup by bombing the hell out of everyone, and actual support of Lon Nol's Khmer Republic, ostensibly as a foil against Vietnamese communist rule that enabled them to rise to power and subsequently murder hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.