by Cassidy Armbruster
Imagine if one in four people in your country were murdered, and by your own people. That is what happened in Cambodia, and those are the words spoken through your headphones as you enter Choeung Ek, one of Cambodia’s largest Killing Fields. Choeung Ek has been transformed from an extermination camp into a silent, and peaceful memorial where one is led by an audio guide through the mass grave site. The information provided during the tour is extremely heavy, gruesome, and appalling, and even despite all of that, I recommend you visit. Following the tour of the Killing Fields, my Tuk Tuk driver took me to Security Prison 21, which is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, at the heart of Phnom Penh. These visits are upsetting, but as a visitor in a country so deeply traumatized by genocide, it is important to give respect to the millions of victims, as well as to be knowledgeable of the fresh history Cambodia is still overcoming.
Though each individual will have their own personal experience visiting the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, I can offer some insight into what I observed and experienced. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a former torture and interrogation prison, and much has been left the same, such as bed frames where victims were tortured, the stalls where people were held, the barbed wire, and the chalk boards in the classrooms. This gives the museum a staggering sense of authenticity. Tuol Sleng was originally a high school that was converted into a security prison in 1975, following the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Each victim at the security prison had their picture taken upon arrival, all of which are displayed throughout the museum, and some of which are very graphic. Only 14 individuals survived the prison, thus seeing the terror in people’s faces in the photographs, hearing their stories, and knowing their fate makes you to feel connected to the victims and reflect deeply about what leads people to commit genocide.
During your visit, remember that at any time, you can leave the buildings too painful or gruesome to be in, and you may listen to the audio outside on one of the many shaded benches. Your audio guide does warn you prior to entering an especially disturbing room that may show torture methods or vivid images of murder. The upper levels of the buildings are almost completely unchanged, and are also welcome to visitors. The hallways on the upper level were completely empty when I ventured up. Inside the classrooms are rows of inhumane wooden stalls where victims were kept. They were blindfolded and required to stay silent in these rooms. Even the noise of the chains shuffling as victims turned in their sleep would result in a vicious beating.
It is estimated that 20,000 innocent inmates were brought to S-21 Security Prison for brutal torture through a variety of methods, and majority were then transferred to Choeung Ek, outside of Phnom Penh where they were executed. Most of the inmates were educated professionals, government officials, doctors, students, and Monks. Though Choeung Ek is an equally heart-breaking place, walking in nature from site to site as you listen to your guide gives a sense of peace and calmness that the genocide museum most definitely does not. One especially awful moment at Choeung Ek is at the end of the tour when you reach what is called a killing tree covered in colourful bracelets next to a gravesite. Your audio explains that predominantly children, but also some women and men were murdered here by being bashed against the tree. The Khmer Rouge used this brutal method of killing for efficiency and in order to save bullets.
After leaving the killing tree, you are guided on a wooden bridge towards another tree near the centre of the extermination camp. You are instructed to stay on the designated bridge during the tour because the surrounding area has visible bones and old clothes emerging from the ground due to rain and the changing environment. At this tree, a diesel generator was hung to play music at night to drown out the noise of moans and screams of executions. The revolutionary music you hear through your headphones is eerie and nightmarish, leaving you very unsettled as you complete the tour. The tour ends at the centre of the extermination camp where a beautiful stupa dedicated to the victims of the Cambodian genocide stands. Inside this stupa are shelves and shelves of skulls that were excavated at the Killing Fields, and each skull is scientifically identified with a colour marker to show how the victim was murdered.
Though the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields have different atmospheres, they are equally informative and intent on ensuring humanity never forgets the victims and the atrocities that occurred, so that they are never repeated. The Khmer Rouge fell from power in 1979 after Vietnamese invasion, thus most middle-aged and elder Cambodians were directly affected by the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. Cambodia’s young population is vibrant and intelligent, and both the young and the old have worked together to build a new future for Cambodia. The effects of the genocide, however, are woven into Cambodian culture, politics, and society, and memorials and monuments such as these are intended to aid in the reconciliation process. As your audio guide will tell you as you near the end of the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum audio tour, reconciliation is about the victims putting all of the broken pieces back together.