Phenom Penh is a busy city and is not somewhere to linger. However, as the capital city of a recovering country, it is a place of historical interest. If you’re unaware of Cambodia’s history, do a quick Wiki read and the rest of this post will be better understood.
We only had one night in Phenom Penh, so we packed a lot of emotional information into our stay by visiting the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng museum, better known as S-21 Prison, back to back. Here’s an article about them. It’s not the best, but it’s concise and provides a decent introduction to both places.
The Killing Field outside of Phenom Penh is one of many sites where the Khmer Rouge took prisoners to be murdered in masses. Their goal was to create a communist country that would begin in Year Zero. They began by executing intellectuals—anyone educated, bilingual, etc.
In the U.S., we only really talk about the Holocaust or Rwanda when we consider genocide. Trying to wrap my head around genocide in Cambodia was a much different experience because one quarter of the country was killed between 1975 and 1979; this means that anyone about 40 years old or older has memories of the genocide and were impacted by it in some form. It’s hard to explain the feeling of walking through the streets of an industrial city that functions just like any other, knowing that an undercurrent of fear, sorrow, and hope exists silently among the routine of daily life.
Regarding details of the genocide, while the system of organization and level of control were similar to the Nazi regime, the executions in Cambodia were drawn out, crude, and involved rounds of torture instead of fast-acting gas chambers. Prisoners’ nails were pulled off, bugs and reptiles were introduced to sensitive body parts, serrated plants were used in place of knives, babies were beaten against trees, and the list goes on and on. At the Killing Fields, I stood where all this occurred and an audio tour provided information about specific areas within the field. I was there in the early evening and it was peaceful and warm, so imaging the horrific contrast that defined its past was a strange contrast. Weather in the area causes remains from the graves to be unearthed and while the grounds are maintained, you can still see teeth and scraps of clothing leftover from the people who were buried there. History in Cambodia is still very fresh.
The S-21 Prison, formerly Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was formerly a school and then became a torture center for the Khmer Rouge. All the original tools and structures still exist and pictures of them in use are present alongside the actual relics. Only seven of about 17,000 prisoners escaped incarceration (they had skills useful to their captors). Typically, prisoners were held for a few months. They were shackled together or isolated in cells, forbidden to speak to each other, given four spoons of rice porridge and some watery soup each day, and were sometimes forced to eat human excrement.
Some Khmer Rouge cadres were also held and tortured at S-21; as the regime gained momentum, officers became increasingly paranoid and turned on each other.
A woman guided us through the prison and explained that her family was killed during the genocide, but she escaped by fleeing to Vietnam. The woman who arranged our bus tickets was married to a pilot training in Thailand, so she was able to leave the country with him and them lived in a refugee camp in southern California until she found a sponsor to bring her back home. These were just two people who shared their stories with us, but everyone has them.
Seeing the instruments used for torture and walking through the cells where blood stains can still be seen on the floor was something totally unfamiliar. Perhaps most haunting were the hundreds of pictures of prisoners staring straight into the camera. Their expressions are so varied: indignant, brave, defeated, scared, pained, empty. There were also photographs of the Khmer soldiers, most of whom were very young and some who were women. Looking at all those faces, you wonder what was going through these peoples’ minds during their incarceration.