The Killing Fields and S-21 Tuol Sleng

A few weeks before Saigon fell to the encroaching NVA, Phnom Penh, in neighboring Cambodia was overrun by the nascent Communist guerrilla group known as the “Khmer Rouge.” They were led by a Paris educated madman named Saloth Sar a.k.a Pol Pot. Saloth Sar somehow sounds worse than Pol Pot, like an evil Sith name. Nevertheless, somehow he convinced his “combatants” (only Cambodian troops were known as combatants, the enemy was always known as “soldiers”) to round up all civilians from the cities and move them to farms to enact a perfect form of Maoist communism. It wasn’t perfect. The new regime killed anyone who spoke a foreign language, wore glasses, owned land or property, basically anyone who wasn’t a peasant, the people whom Pol Pot most admired. He called them “the good people.” A nasty three years followed as workers starved on meager rations of the rice which they were farming, brutal, arbitrary killing of civilians continued and a total of between 2-3 million Cambodians died out of a population of less than 8 million. Picture 1 of every 4 people you know dying in only 36 months. It felt so terrible to hear the Cambodian tour guides explaining the mass graves, or a tree where heads of babies were smashed, or finding headless torsos, or the fact that this particular gravesite outside the capital contains over 100,000 bodies and was only one of dozens of mass graves found all over the countryside in the 1990’s. Cambodia suffered so much and only had their first elections in 1993. This country really feels haunted. Walking around and seeing misty moonlight, hearing strange frogs, the knowledge of what happened here less than 40 years ago can be a chilly reminder. But somehow, the Cambodians pressed on beyond the gruesome past and seem to be a very relaxed and happy populace. The Killing Fields Memorial is about a 30 minute ride on the tuk-tuk. Tuol Sleng prison is right inside the city, where there are restaurants and hotels very nearby. You should do both in one day.

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Inside this symmetrical stupa lies thousands of murdered Cambodian civilians’ skulls.

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There are some flowers and scattered, miserable trees all haunted by memory.

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These are some mass graves of the Cambodian Genocide. One of the hardest parts of the audio tour was listening to the last sounds of these accursed people. It was a throbbing mix of an old diesel generator clomping along like a horrible metronome keeping the beat to those screeching communist nationalistic romps. Inside that horrorshow was probably muted screams, fearful goodbyes and machine gun fire.

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These were the halls of a high school once. Even in its prime, as a place of learning, this place must have been depressing. It later became the place of interrogation, torture and forced confessions against the state. People were charged with conspiracy such as colluding with CIA or KGB spies. The sadism on display here was heavy. Drowning, nail-ripping, scorpions in nipples, beatings and savage containment.

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That was the room in which this man was found when the prison was freed. There were about 8 survivors left in the prison when the Vietnamese liberated it. He, and 13 others found dead inside the walls were buried in the “schoolyard” where the gallows reside.

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The entire first floor of the prison contains room after room of the faces. The mugshots of the damned. It became monotonous in its savagery and incomprehensible nature. This was a civil war, not desecration of another race. They did this to their own blood. There must have been something inside these men and women to allow them to perpetrate such heinous acts. Perhaps it was out of self-preservation, anger, resentment, jealousy. But, we can’t know. Some of the former regime’s agents gave testimony and they all enlisted very young usually with the thoughts of saving their family by joining. It’s a sometimes forgotten chapter of history, but it hasn’t left my mind yet.

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