The Most Disturbing Experience of My Life17 May 2013
Greetings from Cambodia. Right now I’m in a town called Kampot, but most of the last week has been spent in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh.
In the last week I’ve couchsurfed, played Jimi Hendrix covers at a jam night, been fined (i.e. forced to pay a bribe) by Cambodian police, visited many Wats (temples), and gotten hopelessly lost in the run-down Phnom Penh ghettos/suburbs, but one experience stands out above all: The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
See, apparently there was this thing called the Khmer Rouge led by a guy called Pol Pot who in the late seventies were responsible for the death, through execution, torture or starvation, of over 2 million Cambodians (more than a quarter of the population) in the name of purifying the populace and purging Democratic Kampuchia of its anti-Communist enemies.
Tuol Sleng was a school converted into a prison where, over the course of Pol Pot’s brief rule, around 20,000 mostly innocent Cambodians (and a handful of foreigners) were brutally tortured for months on end before being sent to the Killing Fields outside the city to have their throats slit.
Why didn’t I know about this? I mean, I’d heard of the Khmer Rouge, and been vaguely aware that there’d been a dictator somewhere in the world called Pol Pot and that he’d been a dick, but I’m not sure if before moving to Southeast Asia I could have even told you that Pol Pot was Cambodian, let alone the extent of his crimes.
Is the Cambodian Genocide relatively unknown in the West, or am I just ignorant as hell? I don’t know which one of those options I’d rather be true.
Theres no way I can do Tuol Sleng justice in writing. If you’re in PP, you need to see it for yourself, but be warned: it will stick with you. I’m a pretty hard person to shock, but the row after row of tiny cells (still with faded blood stains on the walls), cabinets full of skulls and bone fragments, and photos and paintings of mutilated corpses and bloody executions, is without exaggeration the most chilling and disturbing thing I have ever seen in my life. Tuol Sleng is the kind of place that seriously shakes your faith in humanity, and mine was low to begin with. I don’t believe in God, but if I did I’d find it hard to reconcile belief in a loving deity with a world in which the Khmer Rouge were allowed to exist.
What makes it all even more depressing was that this madness happened as recently as 1979; barely a generation ago. The Khmer Rouge were ousted that year by an invading Vietnamese army but carried on fighting a guerrilla war from the jungle for at least another decade. (Actually I’m a bit fuzzy on all the details, I only learned all this myself a few days ago.) It’s only in the last couple of years that those responsible for the genocide have been apprehended and are now on trial. Pol Pot himself evaded justice by dying a natural death in 1998.
If you do visit Tuol Sleng, I’d recommend paying $2 for a guided tour, otherwise you don’t really know what you’re looking at. I did, and at the tour’s end we were taken to a stall in the prison’s courtyard, behind which sat two grey old Cambodian men. On the table in front of them was a selection of books about the prison and the genocide. Some of the books had photos of one or both of the two men on their covers.
“Do you recognise these two?” said my tour guide. They waved and greeted us in Khmer.
The guide pointed to a black-and-white photo I’d seen before, of seven emaciated Asian men standing arm in arm. Of over 20,000+ people who passed through Tuol Sleng, these seven - just seven - were the only people known to survive. Only two - Chum Mey and Bou Meng - are still alive, and now they spend their days at the site of their former hell on Earth, posing for pictures with tourists and selling translated copies of their autobiographies.
This to me was one of the strangest things about the whole experience. How could these men possibly bear to be back here in the prison? Wouldn’t they want to get away from it all and forget their past? Were they really comfortable being propped up on display like zoo animals all day to half-interested white people from the other side of the world?
I guess it seems strange to me, but then theres no way I could even attempt to relate to what they’ve been through, and for that I am eternally thankful.
Tuol Sleng, of course, is just one piece of the puzzle. The other prominent tourist attraction is the cheerily-named Killing Fields, where thousands more enemies of the state were murdered one-by-one and buried in mass graves. I’d meant to visit the Killing Fields that same afternoon, but really there’s only so much genocide a man can take in one day, so I postponed my visit until a couple of mornings later.
You can get a tuk-tuk out to the fields for $10, but, fancying something different, I rented a motorbike for the day (which actually worked out cheaper) and made the half-hour drive myself.
Next time I'll wear long sleeves.
After the horrors of Tuol Sleng, the Killing Fields were relatively bearable, but only in the sense that a kick in the balls is more bearable than getting hit by a train.
The centerpiece is a large monument (I didn’t get any photos but Wikipedia will do) full of the exhumed skulls of the deceased. Surrounding it are dozens of pits which once contained bodies. Bullets were prohibitively expensive, so most of the victims were just hacked or bludgeoned to death. Even the children of the accused were killed, on the annoyingly logical reasoning that if they were allowed to live, they might have grown up to seek revenge. Babies were bayoneted or had their heads smashed against a tree the particular tree that was used for this purpose is now marked with a sign.
I could go on about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, but its 2:30am and I need to go to bed. There are plenty of books out there that will give you all the sordid details but I’m not masochistic enough to read them; I’m getting depressed just typing this post. I admire your fortitude for reading all the way to the end.
Not to make light of a heart-wrenching national tragedy, but Don't Walk Through The Mass Grave would make a good name for a Megadeth album.