How can I even presume to talk about a period in Cambodia's history that was so indescribably awful and so full of terror and pain that I can barely even conceive of it?
I've been sitting with these pictures for weeks now, and I'm still not sure how to answer that question.
What follows is pretty ugly, and I don't blame you if you don't want to read it.
The Khmer Rouge was in power for such a short length of time, a span we heard recited often during our visit to Cambodia; 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days. During their brief but psychotic reign under the leadership of Pol Pot, they attempted to return Cambodia to what they called Year Zero, by which they meant a completely agrarian and ideologically pure Communist society. Families were split up, communities were torn apart, and by some estimates, a fifth of the population died from starvation or disease.
We visited S-21, a horrific prison in Phnom Penh. Being sent here during the regime was, in effect, a death sentence. It's been preserved almost exactly as it was when the invading Vietnamese found it in 1979, and is now called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
One of the most awful things, to me, about this prison is that before the Khmer Rouge came into power, it was a school. But who needs education when you're only expected to farm rice? At least, that was the position of the Khmer Rouge, who hastily converted former classrooms into tiny, disgusting cells, either brick,
People were brought here for such crimes as wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language. They were tortured until they named names, any names, and signed a "confession" - and then they were taken to the killing fields and killed. The people they named were then brought in for interrogation and torture, and the cycle continued.
There used to be a map of Cambodia at Tuol Sleng made entirely out of skulls, but it's been dismantled. A few skulls are still on display, along with room after room of pictures; faces of people brought here by the government and catalogued before their torture began.
The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of who came through S-21, but unfortunately all that remains of these records are the pictures; the corresponding identifying information has been lost. People still find photos here of missing children, parents, and relatives.
It is therefore no wonder that many pictures of Khmer Rouge leaders in the museum have been defaced.
The leaders are not popular guys.
This museum is gut-wrenching and sickening. Everyone I saw there looked horrified; these signs warning people not to laugh seemed redundant.
After our visit to S-21, our hired tuktuk drove us out of town to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Many of the prisoners from S-21 were brought here to be killed in gruesome ways; bullets were expensive, so most of the victims here were bludgeoned or stabbed or hacked to death with old axles or farm tools or even rigid, serrated palm leaf stems.
Early on, the pace of killings at Choeung Ek (only one of many killing fields spread throughout the country) was slow, but by the end of the regime it had ramped up to hundreds of people a day.
A memorial stupa marks the center of the site, which now feels remarkably peaceful. The stupa holds 9,000 skulls, only a fraction of the vicitms. They have been catalogued by age and sex.
Your admission fee here includes an informative and sensitively done audio guide, which I absolutely recommend you get. It will give you a much deeper understanding of what happened here; the complete horror and absolute futility and insanity of it all.
The idea of making signs like these is terrible on so many levels.
Some of the mass graves have been excavated; others have been covered and stand as testimonial.
At a pit where the bodies of women and children were found, people leave small trinkets and bracelets.
Right next to this pit is a tree aganst which soldiers beat children, taking them by the legs and swinging them, cracking their skulls. All this to a loud and blaring soundtrack of patriotic songs, blasting from speakers set up around the site.
After thirty-some years, bones and pieces of clothing are still making their way up to the surface. Workers (and visitors) gather these and bring them to small collection areas.
There's also a museum on the grounds, with a few displays and a brief history of the Khmer Rouge. In front of this exhibit, a tourist asked her guide "So, did you have to wear this?" He looked at her and said "Of course. We all did."
Items not allowed inside the museum:
On the drive back into town, we (well, actually Logan and the tuktuk driver) saw the immediate aftermath of a terrible scooter vs. truck accident with two fatalities. Awful wrecks seemed more common here than anywhere else we've been, including India. I don't know why exactly this is - we've seen traffic practices like this one below all the way around the world, but it was in Cambodia that we saw the most accidents.
All in all, this was one of the hardest days we've had. But also one of the most necessary. The horrors of recent Cambodian history are just as important to see as the glory of its ancient civilizations at Angkor Wat, which is where we were headed the next day.
I crawled into bed after this day and cried.