In light of this story in the Washington Post today about the trial of a former Khmer Rouge prison chief, I thought I would post a story I wrote for publication while I was in Cambodia. It was never published, as the travel editor I was working with was laid off the day after I filed the story. Some of my posts on Cambodia can be found here and here.
Phnom Penh, November 26, 2008.
Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen: each name is immediately recognizable as the scene of heinous crimes. But if you mention the words ‘Tuol Sleng’ or ‘Choeung Ek’ you’re almost guaranteed to draw a blank. What? Where? Huh?
Tuol Sleng served as the detention and processing center for enemies of the Pol Pot regime; the sentences were carried out at Choeung Ek, better known as the ‘killing fields.’
I was very hesitant to stay in Phnom Penh. And I certainly didn’t want to witness ground zero of Cambodia’s self-immolation. But the morning after I arrived from Saigon, however, I grabbed a tuk-tuk, the Cambodian equivalent of a tri-shaw and made my way to Tuol Sleng.
Toul Sleng is a former school. In the center sits the old administration building. Flanked on the left and right by two story buildings made up of classrooms the campus resembles an ‘E’ laying on its back. In the center of the campus children once played, laughed and dreamed. But no longer. A rough silence blankets the school grounds while the city surrounding goes about its business. Touts call out for tourists, beggars beg and the assorted smells, burning plastic mixed with the spices of the East waft in the air. South East Asia lives on in Phnom Penh.
The first two rooms had small iron beds in the middle. Here the regime electrocuted its enemies until they confessed their crimes. All questions were canned, the answers predetermined. The rules of transgression were clear, and posted outside the rooms: “While getting lashes or electrocution you must not cry out. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.”
The next room I visited was filled with rows and rows of black and white photos of the men and ‘processed’ here at Tuol Sleng. All were old and grainy, adding verisimilitude to an atmosphere of silent terror permeating the school-cum-prison. These simple black and white photos, the act of looking into the eyes of the damned, spoke more eloquently than any monument to human suffering could.
A young man with long fuzzy hair stares into the camera, eyes wide in sheer terror. His look haunts my nights still. A young girl, not more than 18 years old, looks out with a piercing, stoical gaze. A grandmother, short-haired, toothless, scarf hanging from her shoulders peers into space, exhausted. Another young man peers into the lens, head cocked in a last act of defiance; knowing what awaits. And finally, a boy, no older than eight or nine years old appears on the verge of tears.
Just who were these enemies? Mostly educated Cambodians, although the many children in the photos betray an all-encompassing barbarism. Some victims were even pulled off the street for the crime of wearing spectacles. The goal of all this torture? Pol Pot’s desired creation of an agrarian worker’s paradise.
I left the school grounds shaken, clambered into my tuk-tuk and drove to the outskirts of the city. The countryside surrounding the capital remains distressed. Blue skies and high, wispy cirrus clouds hung overhead. Below, in the fields death crouched. UXOs, the silent enemy, lay in the fallow rice paddies. Brambles and weeds hiding the deadly foe in what were once orderly, prosperous farms.
In the distance a large stupa (a Buddhist temple of sorts) rose up over the wasteland. As I drew near it grew larger and larger, until it was the equivalent of a four-story building. Unaware of what awaited me at Choeung Ek, I strode up to the stupa. Had I known I’d see four floors of glass encased human skulls—like a sickening high school terrarium project gone awry—I doubt I’d have continued. All showed signs of head trauma. Some with skulls shattered by blunt force, others with small, neat bullet holes. Each are very, very real. All the last remains of lives snuffed out by wanton cruelty and social engineering.
Before Pol Pot’s regime turned Choeung Ek into a charnel house it was an orchard. It is still fecund, trees grow all around, grasses and weeds proliferate. Water is plentiful. Tropical songbirds sing in the trees above the dozens of shallow graves littering the area around the stupa. Signs narrate the gruesome tale. One informs the visitor that the mass grave at her feet was filled with around a hundred women and children, all of whom were naked at the time of their execution. Another is nailed to a tree where executioners bashed the brains out of children. A glass case filled with bones and a cup of teeth is all that remains of the child victims of Pol Pot’s regime.
The sign that disturbed me the most said, “Magic Tree: The tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make (sic) sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.” That man can be so cruel and cunning in devising a system that drowns out the voices of the dying, for the executioner’s ease, is unspeakable.
I returned to my barren hotel room, pondered heading to a bar to drink away what I witnessed but thought better of it.
There is much more to Cambodia than it’s heart of darkness. And there is hope. But it’s tenuous at best. Even now famine stalks the Eastern portion of the country. And yet, the people outside the capital are warm, generous and happy. Angkor Wat, adjacent Siem Reap, is stupendous, worth a full week’s visit itself.
But no visit to Cambodia is complete without seeing Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. In one century man has committed four major genocides: those perpetrated against the Armenians, European Jewry, Cambodians and Rwandans, not to mention those against the Kurds, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovars. One, in the Sudan, is already underway in the 21st century.
“Perhaps there is a lesson to all this,” I thought to myself later that evening. Nothing is unique about any of them and complacency is deadly. If this once peaceful Buddhist Kingdom can collapse into an orgy of inhumanity so might we. It can happen anywhere.