Sunday, June 7, 2009

Tuol Sleng Prison and The Killing Fields: Phnom Penh

Well, it has been awhile and, indeed, I am back in Korea and not even travelling abroad anymore! I still have so much to tell about our trip, though, and should be blogging for another month or so to make sure I have all my memories put into words. After all, this is the first extended backpacking trip of many more to come- and we haven't done The Philippines yet, which still falls under the Southeast Asia blog, so stay tuned for that!

When I last left you, Pat and I had spent a wonderful two days with the kids at SCAO, teaching and learning and playing and generally having a very good time with those wonderful kids. We all know that Cambodia is considered one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, and despite all the investment from other Asian countries, it still has a long way to go to get back to what it was pre-Khmer Rouge, and pre-Vietnam war (because, yes, the Americans bombed the hell out of Cambodia and inadvertently caused the Khmer Rouge to come into power, but we're not going to dwell on that for now).

Something we will dwell on? How about the fact that in Siem Riep we lost our memory card with nearly all of our pictures of Cambodia on it. How about that. Because Patrick and I are very upset that we lost our Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Riep pictures save the orphanage pictures I had already uploaded onto the blog. It's very sad, because Cambodia was one of my favourite countries (my second favourite, to be exact, but more on that later). In any case, I will continue with our stories and hope that my words paint a bright enough picture. So here is our other Phnom Penh story- our history lesson and reality check story concerning Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields.

After spending the morning with the kids at the orphanage, we hired a tuk-tuk driver (15$ for about 5 hours) to take us about 45 minutes away to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, and then to Tuol Sleng Prison- the place where prisoners were held, tortured and questioned before being sent to said Killing Fields. This experience was sobering to say the least, and I am going to try and recount every single thing we learned that day without exception, but that being said, I'm not going to detach my personal experience. I cried. It was horrible. And unfair. And the worst thing that could ever happen to such a beautiful, proud people. I just kept thinking how lucky I was to live in Canada, and how it could have so easily been my mugshot on display. And I felt guilty, too.

When we arrived at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, the first thing we saw was a great pagoda. As we approached the pagoda, we saw that it was full of human skulls. It was quite large, and it was filled to the absolute brim with human skulls, clothing found in the trenches, and jawbones that had no corresponding skull. These skulls were just some of the victims of Pol Pot's regime. Many human bones are still embedded in the trenches. Excavation at the Killing Fields began after the regime collapsed in 1979 and it was discovered that over 8000 executions look place at Choeung Ek alone.

In total, the Khmer Rouge executed about 200,000 Cambodians. They targeted officials from the previous governments, intellectuals (aka, teachers, people who spoke other languages, people with glasses...), Buddhist Monks and ethnic minorities (mostly Chinese Cambodians and Thai Cambodians). While they executed these people, millions more died from exhaustion and starvation over the four year attempt at a perfect, agrarian reformation. Those executed would have been the ones to get the country back on it's feet when the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia in 1979, but instead the UN allowed the Khmer Rouge to represent Cambodia in the UN for many years afterward- many of them uneducated, with no political experience or know how.

I get the feeling that the Khmer people value education now more than anything else because they understand how disastrous it can be to let untrained, uneducated people be the "doctors", the "lawyers" or the "teachers". These are things we take for granted in Canada. Of course we would never let an uneducated person become a doctor, but what about a politician? Who knows where the next Pol Pot will come from, and for this reason, we need to remember the atrocities committed by his regime and never let it happen again. Let's not forget, Pol Pot was originally a school teacher himself (not to mention, from an ethnic Chinese family).

As we walked around the trenches, there were signs explaining exactly how the executions took place. At one tree we were informed that there had been sound effects inserted into the branches so those waiting for execution couldn't hear the screams of their fellow prisoners. At another tree we learned that children were beaten against the trunk- yet another way for the Khmer Rouge to save bullets. They killed the adults with hammers, sharpened bamboo or knives. It was a truly chilling experience. How could this ever happen?

We returned to the tuk-tuk and our driver, who looked to be in his sixties, took us to Tuol Sleng prison. I wondered how he survived the war. He was our driver for the two days we spent in Phnom Penh, and he was a sweet man, but obviously spoke no English. It just made me remember that every Cambodian has their story, no matter what side of the regime they were on.

Tuol Sleng prison was originally a high school in Phnom Penh. It is one of the more famous buildings associated with the Khmer Rouge, although there were many places of torture and imprisonment around the country. Tuol Sleng, or S-21 as it is otherwise known, saw nearly 20,000 Cambodian civilians questioned, tortured and sent to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. The former classrooms were turned into cells or torture chambers. As one walks through the complex one can see the instruments used to torture victims and then move on to see the faces of those tortured during their time there.

Often they were questioned as to what their previous life was like- what their profession was, who their father was, whether they supported the former government. Often they would be tortured into giving the names and locations of their extended family members so that they, too would be executed. The prison was turned into a museum after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge and it is-rightly so- shocking and, at times, gruesome. This embodies the Khmer Rouge regime.

The most difficult part was looking at the mugshots taken of the prisoners before they were questioned. While the Khmer Rouge were very good at destroying the historical records of their country before "Year Zero", they were ironically fastidious in keeping their own records. These records are now on display for the world to see. In 1979, mere minutes after the Khmer Rouge officials fled the prison, a Vietnamese soldier ran through the building and took the photos of prisoners who were left in the middle of torture or interrogation.

The pictures were disturbing. The expressions on the faces of these people are etched in my mind forever. Some looked as though they knew they were going to die. They looked frightened, or resigned or defiant. And then there were those who seemed to have no idea of what was about to happen. They were smiling at the camera. The mugshots of the children were the hardest to look at, especially after spending the morning at the orphanage. These kids didn't look scared. Many were not crying. But in their eyes you could see that they were thinking "You're supposed to take care of me. You're not supposed to be doing this. Even I know better than you, and I'm three". It was the saddest exhibit in the museum, and I won't say I didn't choke down my sobs.

As you progress through the museum, you can read the stories of some of the prisoners- why they were captured, when they were killed, etc.

In another area you can read the stories of those who were members of the Khmer Rouge and why they joined the regime. Many were scared of the regime and worked hard to prove they were as ruthless as the regime's leader. Their stories were touching.

Patrick was reading about a Scandanavian journalist who came to Cambodia during the regime and had the wool pulled over his eyes by the Khmer Rouge. He went back to his home country and wrote about the wonderful things the Khmer Rouge were doing for their country. Only after the truth came out did he realize that there were no patients in the brand new hospitals he was being shown and that he had been fed a pack of lies by the regime. Now, one of the exhibits recounts his first impression of the Khmer Rouge and his impression after he found out he had been lied to.

Tuol Sleng really is the best, most heart wrenching museum I've ever been to. It is the best because it transports you back to 1975. It is heart wrenching because, through it all, it shows the resiliance of the Khmer people. I'll never forget it.

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