My knowledge of the Khmer Rouge killings is restricted to the movie, The Killing Fields. Today, my understanding will be broadened by visiting one of the killing fields close to the city, Choeung Ek. It’s a 14 km ride outside the city and it takes half an hour dodging traffic for us to get there. We arrive before the rest of the tourist crowds, and we have the place pretty much to ourselves for a short while. My initial impression is one of peace and serenity. It’s a lovely setting with a huge, imposing and welcoming pagoda as you enter the complex. It is only when I start listening to the stories on the guided tour tapes that the horror of this place starts to set in. People of Cambodia were brought here by the truck loads to be bludgeoned to death. The tour takes me step by step through the various areas. A couple that stand out are the miracle tree where they played loud music and propaganda songs to drown out the screams of the victims. The other is the tree where they smashed babies skulls against the trunk. The tree trunk is now covered with string bracelets left by people in solidarity and to show their sorrow at the events that took place in this specific spot. As I walk from spot to spot it’s difficult to transport myself to the horrors that played out here. This place is so tranquil and beautiful and I wonder if the souls that linger here have found peace . I finish off at the pagoda, which houses the bones and skulls of the victims found in this site. I expect it to be a chilling experience, but it’s not. I buy some flowers and light a joss stick, more for my own benefit than that of the victims. It somehow makes me feel connected in a small way.
The genocide museum, Tuol Sleng aka S21, is in the centre of the city. In fact, we probably walked right past it during our meanderings the night before, completely oblivious to the fact that these buildings, originally a school, played host to the most horrific torture on human kind during the Khmer Rouge Genocide. Any person in Cambodia who was perceived to be an intellectual (wearing glasses was enough evidence of this), or anybody who belonged to the previous regime was brought here to be interrogated and tortured, eventually to be taken to their death in one of the hundreds of killing fields around Cambodia.
The school classrooms were used as torture rooms and there are horrific photographs of tortured victims which leaves no room for imagination, they are that graphic. One of the classrooms has bloodied footprints embedded so deep into the floor tiles, that they are still clearly visible after 30 years. I am not sure if these are original, or if they have been touched up with paint, but regardless, there is no doubt that there were hundreds of bloodied feet staining the tiles in these rooms and it is highly emotive.
The Khmer Rouge were pedantic record keepers, and the classrooms that follow are filled with a photographs of every single prisoner that was brought here. Rows upon rows upon rows of black and white photographs of a man or woman staring at the camera, now stare back at the tourists that walk these rooms. It’s a somewhat voyeuristic experience and I find myself standing back and watching the interaction between dead and alive play out.
The following school block of classrooms are the cells. Each classroom housed 12 prisoners in a space no bigger than 1m x 1.5m big. The views outside the windows are of the school yard and I imagine that the scenes that the prisoners would have seen looking out toward the gallows would have been very different to the beautiful, heavily scented frangipani trees lining the courtyard now.
The morning has been a heavy experience and it takes me back to the feelings I experienced when visiting the concentration camp, Dachau in Germany, twenty years ago. It occurs to me that whichever country I visit in the world, there is a story of war, of cruelty, of death and suffering. We create museums from these events and places, so that we can learn from our mistakes and in the hope that we will stop the wars, but today, somewhere in the world, someone is killing another human being, and we all continue with our lives with little regard to that fact. One day, these places will also be museums and exhibitions for us to ooh and aaah over, to remind us of how cruel we are and the suffering that we are able to inflict.
With these dark thoughts running through my mind, we leave the museum and cross the street to a little shop/ restaurant to order some drinks and discuss our feelings and experience so far. Within minutes, a gorgeous 10 year old girl, sashayed her way across to our table and in near perfect English takes our order and begins to woo us. She is the cutest, spunkiest little thing and she immediately lifts my mood and spirits. I enquire as to her name, which happens to be Phnom and she informs me that she learns English at school which she attends every day. Before I leave, she has sold me a couple of bracelets and a scarf, and have had my photograph taken with her. In all the darkness there is light, and it comes in the form of the Phnoms of this world.
The Royal palace seems like a fairy tale place after the experiences of the morning. The architecture and gardens are beautiful, yet feel frivolous and unsubstantial to me. I take the photographs and admire the riches and splendor, but my heart is not in it. My heart lingers with this mornings stories and finds its way to the soul saving, delightful Miss Phnom.