[Introductory note: I would like to request that before you dismiss this post as a simple recount of historical events, please consider that genocide continues in countries around the world today. In my humble opinion, there are lessons still to be learned from this horrific series of events. I can only attempt to do them, and the victims, some justice, but perhaps this post will prove enlightening to at least some of you.]
[Warning: Images and written content in this post are intended to be informative, but portions may be disturbing]
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is in the midst of a sea change. After a slightly random read of an article on the ongoing transformation of this fascinating city, I was inspired to visit recently over an extended weekend. I had no expectations that Phnom Penh would significantly resemble Cambodia’s other famous city, Siem Reap, and the epic proportions of Angkor Wat. Indeed, it has a very distinct feel. It is quite populous, rapidly modernizing, overall more wealthy (I use that term quite loosely), with a clearer commercial focus and growing infrastructure supporting business, tourism, and aspiring entrepreneurs. Still, it is a fairly gritty city despite a few areas of relative concentrated chicness. Its growing pains are still palpable, and it is in the throes of a slightly awkward but also exciting adolescence of sorts, as it aspires and works towards rising success as an emerging market. As it looks to its future with hope, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on the deeply troubled past of this city and of Cambodia overall.
Just a few days following the 39th anniversary of the fall of the city on April 17, 1975 to the Khmer Rouge, Mark and I made the pilgrimage to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (‘Killing Fields’). Of course, I anticipated being moved by what we were to observe. What I did not expect was to learn as much as I did nor to reflect on the devastation almost everyday since our visit.
Being neither a historical expert nor a Cambodian, I will not attempt to recount the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and their genocide in extreme detail. There are certainly much better sources for such information. But I will share some background, photos, and my impressions from my brief immersion into this travesty, in the hope that they will touch you in some way and also honor the memory of those nearly 2 million civilians whose lives were stolen by this brutal regime.
Following internal turmoil, civil war, and also the impact of the Vietnam War infiltrating via their neighbor to the south, the radical Communist Party of Kampuchea (better known as the Khmer Rouge), led by Pol Pot, overthrew the existing government. Within a horrifyingly impressive short period of time, his forces captured the city of Phnom Penh and nearly all of its inhabitants, as well as many living outside the city. Thus initiated a reign of terror with the end goal of achieving an extreme, agrarian, Mao-like Communist society, absent of intellectualism, religion, non-pure Cambodian blood, or Western influence – and thus anyone who resembled anything other than this pathological ‘ideal’, or was opposed to it, was subject to elimination. Allow the fact that Pol Pot was a former schoolteacher resonate in its extreme irony for a moment.
No one was spared in this nightmare. Men, women, and even children, were subject to hard labor, interrogation, severe torture, starvation, and death. Those unable to sustain hard labor or who refused to go to the labor camps were killed immediately. A handful of foreigners were also captured. The regime even turned on their own, frequently suspecting sabotage and betrayal. And their brand of torture was nothing short of absolutely brutal.
A Khmer Rouge slogan speaks volumes: ““To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.”
The nature and extent of the torture was shocking to me. If you are like me, you likely were provided a superficial overview of all of this sometime during your schooling. I had no idea of the full truth. I suppose most teachers would have a difficult time explaining this to youngsters. However, even as an adult, I confess I never learned the details until this visit. Even the award-winning film, The Killing Fields, as compelling as it is, does not fully characterize the breadth and depth of the suffering endured by those captured.
You may have heard of a prison called S-21, which is now officially referred to as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (the choice of words still strikes me as a bit odd). A former school, S-21 was the largest and most treacherous of 158 prisons where ‘offenders’ were taken. It was helmed by Kang Kech Ieu, more commonly known as Brother Duch – also ironically a former schoolteacher.
And this was no mere prison. It included a series of torture chambers, each room outfitted with a metal bed frame to which prisoners were cuffed and chained, then beaten in a multitude of ways and starved.
Rape of captured women was likely inevitable.
And in case you thought the misery at least ended after a few days, note that imprisonment prior to death generally lasted between 2-7 months. Barbed wire surrounded the buildings, to discourage escape and suicide attempts.
Outside in the courtyard, what appears as a gallows of sorts was another torture device, whereby victims were painfully hoisted up by their arms tied behind their backs, inverted until they passed out, then forcibly immersed into barrels of filthy liquid (normally used as fertilizer) that would jar them back to consciousness to allow further interrogation.
Some victims were placed into boxes resembling coffins, shackled, and subjected to waterboarding torture.
One element of the footage inside the museum I had seen previously – a series of the ‘before’ images that had made its way to NYC for a historical photography exhibit. Khmer Rouge was fastidious about documentation, and each prisoner was photographed upon arrival by a man named Nhem En. The most chilling are those reflecting the greatest innocence – those with unknowing smiles on their faces, completely unaware of the brutality to come.
As for the ‘after’ – in this case, photographs unfortunately are worth beyond a thousand words, so I will allow them to speak for themselves. As I warned above, these may be (arguably should be) disturbing to many of you. I present them obviously not as my own (I would never even want to take credit for them) and not to be sensational, demeaning or disrespectful to the victims, or unnecessarily grotesque – however, I think they are a critical reminder of what took place. As you view them, imagine if they were in color, as the B&W imagery almost too conveniently abstracts and somewhat conceals the full nature of the decimation.
Just prior to the building being abandoned near the end of the regime’s rule, 14 prisoners still captive at S-21 were shot and left to decay. They were found, as photographed below, by Vietnamese photojournalists who first discovered S-21 in early 1979. These final prisoners are buried onsite in the courtyard.
One almost wishes that a human being could die more easily, to avoid at least some of the pain and suffering. As I walked through the prison, I grew increasingly infuriated. I kept thinking – what was the point of all of this? The regime had no intent to keep these prisoners alive in the end – so why put them through this? All I can conclude is they carried this out for the sick enjoyment of torture, to somehow ‘train’ the new generation of impressionable, brainwashed teenage soldiers who largely comprised the new regime. Extensive documentation recovered from S-21 includes notes accusing prisoners of betrayal and defiance, encouraging torture to reveal ‘truth’. Clearly leadership themselves were deluded and actively sought methods of justifying their cruel actions.
Disgusting – and such a waste of human life, from so many perspectives.
There were only 7 survivors found at S-21 in 1979, after the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese. 7 out of an estimated 20,000.
The rest of the prisoners who were not killed at S-21 were marched unceremoniously in waves, sometimes in the hundreds, to one of the 309 ‘Killing Fields’. The most infamous of these is now known as the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. There, they were either clubbed to death with archaic instruments, stabbed, beheaded, or had their throats slit (sometimes using sharp tree parts), and left in shallow mass graves which appear now as large pits.
The visual focal point of the Killing Fields site is a tower, a Buddhist memorial stupa, built with intricate details.
This haunting stupa contains more than 5000 skulls recovered from mass graves. You may have seen images of these before, as I had, but seeing them in person is quite another experience. In many cases, marks from the fatal blows suffered were clearly visible.
Historical photos now displayed at S-21 also dramatically capture the piles of bones discovered at the Killing Fields.
Throughout the Killing Fields, small piles of bones can be found out in the open – with even shards of some bones still protruding from the ground.
As I wandered through the Killing Fields, I happened upon a dog who was seeking refuge nearby – and it tore my heart out immediately. Thin, weak, and diseased, he was sadly and quite clearly in his last days. I couldn’t help but think about that dog as a (barely) living parallel – and that while heartbreaking on his own, still paled drastically in comparison to the suffering of the nearly 2 million Cambodians who were murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
On the day that we visited, it was quite beautiful out – sunny with blue skies – a striking contrast to such a metaphorically dark place. Green grass grows over the grave pits now. The surroundings are even – pretty – which made it that much more haunting an experience to walk these fields.
I wondered – what did these innocent Cambodians think about as they faced their demise? Fear? Deep sadness? Shock? Perhaps relief after endless torture? Did they have any moment of lightness before they were killed? Even the briefest moment to feel the warmth of the sun on their face after months of darkness, both literal and figurative, in prison? Then I learned that prisoners were taken here and killed at night.
I had to fight tears for most of the time I was there. But what really got to me – what made me want to burst into tears – was coming upon the tree. The tree against which babies were beaten to death. Those who had discovered the fields, which were kept a secret for years with the aid of odor-masking chemicals (also used to kill off those who might have been buried alive), even found pieces of brain and other organic matter on the trunk of this tree. I cannot imagine a person capable of such an act. It is beyond comprehensible. What does it say about a group so willing to eliminate, and so cruelly, what most would view as society’s most innocent – and also their best hope for the future.
I wish I could say this would never happen again. But it has, and it continues to happen, or is on the verge of occurring, around the world today – most notably now in Sudan, Syria, and Myanmar. There are certainly no easy answers. Being informed is important. Being vigilant is important. Playing one’s part in putting in place intelligent, rational, humane government leadership is fundamental. But it is too often not enough, and sometimes on the latter point, not even realistically feasible.
At the very least, appreciate your own freedom, if you are lucky enough to have it. Advocate for and support those without such luxury.
Visit sites like S-21 and the Killing Fields, that while far from easy or comfortable to absorb, are incredibly important and will likely place such events in much more vivid and appropriate context. I do feel that more could have been done to make S-21 resonate even more deeply – to explain even more, bring individuals and their stories more to life (for prisoners and Khmer Rouge alike). But it is still a critical visual record of what did take place here. You can read a few victims’ stories at S-21 and also listen to some more via the excellent audio guide during your visit to the Killing Fields – and while extremely difficult to read or hear, they are poignant and powerful.
My first non-textbook learning about the genocide in Cambodia occurred during my visit to Siem Reap several years ago. The private guide we had hired, a lovely man named Nu Tarth, revealed amidst tears that he had watched as his own father was bludgeoned to death right before his eyes as a child. He actually lost a significant proportion of the rest of his family, as well. It was an incredibly heartbreaking story – and an awful reality that I’m sure he will struggle to come to terms with all his life. But despite such a horrible tragedy, Nu Tarth made a commitment as a survivor to make life better for his community and the families, especially the children, living in it. He sold his own home to finance a school for about 200 young students, and he initiated a clean water project so that the people of Siem Reap could benefit from this most basic of needs. To this day, he is probably the most amazing person I have ever met.
That spirit, that resilience, that desire to not forget but to learn, continue to move forward, and create a better life for themselves and others – it seems to run so deep within many Cambodians today and is so inspiring. Yes, there are still many issues in Cambodia that must be addressed, and they are significant – government corruption within its currently vague democracy is still rampant, sex trafficking is a prominent problem, and poverty clearly remains. But there is potential. There is hope. There is determination. Cambodia holds promise and embodies the essence of a country on the rise.
[Note: All historical B&W images above are my images of original photographs on display in Phnom Penh. The originals are largely attributed to Khmer Rouge photographer Nhem En, and also the Vietnamese photojournalists who discovered the infamous prison S-21 in 1979. I included selected images here for documentation purposes]
For more information regarding the Cambodian genocide and the Khmer Rouge, and/or to donate or assist with post-genocide efforts:
Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (Khmer Rouge Tribunal)
For more information regarding genocide around the world, and/or to donate or assist with anti-genocide efforts: