Perhaps the most eye-opening weekend of my life. Think I’m being dramatic? Then you haven’t visited both Toul Sleng (Prison s-21) and the Killing Fields.
Admittedly I haven’t been to Auschwitz or any Holocaust museums, but I imagine the effect on a person is similar. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me offer a brief overview of Cambodia’s history for those of you unfamiliar with it – if you are familiar you can either skip ahead or you can read it to fact check me.
During the Vietnam War, neutral Cambodia was used by the Viet Cong as a way to get around US forces, but once the US got wind of this tactic they decided the answer was to drop bombs on Cambodia. This did little to stop the Ho Chi Minh trail and had the added side affect of enraging rural Cambodians against the US. This gave the Cambodian Communists (Khmer Rouge) the momentum they needed to gain support and eventually overthrow a US backed government. For the next few years, Cambodia was turned upside down and millions of people suffered.
The Khmer Rouge entered the capital city, Phnom Penh, and forced all of its people to evacuate the city. The Khmer Rouge did away with everything that resembled Cambodia, claiming that if they went back to “Year Zero” and were more like their ancient ancestors – those who had build Angkor Wat – they would become great again. But what was the cost?
Every person was forced to live in communal camps and spend their days laboring in the fields. They were given little to eat, little to drink, and little time to rest. Families were torn apart, never to see each other again. They lived in constant fear that they might be taken in the night, never to return. Those who were once friends couldn’t be trusted because they might be spies for the Khmer Rouge. Anything associated with the West was especially condemning; wearing glasses, being able to read English, or even being a doctor/lawyer could get you killed.
The whole country lived with this dark cloud over it for several years. In the end a whole country suffered, millions perished, and Cambodia’s future changed forever.
The places we visited are the places where those family members and friends were sent, never to be seen in this world again. Toul Sleng was originally a high school in Phnom Penh, but was turned into a prison to interrogate and torture the most guilty of offenders: innocent women, children, monks, or anyone else who might pose a threat. I won’t go into the details of their interrogation methods, but they must have been thought up in a lower realm of hell.
Like many of the prisoners of Toul Sleng we then went to the Killing Fields. These fields are essentially mass graves, and they’re located all over the country. We visited the largest one found just outside the capital. Here people would be told to dig a pit – for their own graves. The atrocities performed here are as horrific as those at Toul Sleng.
How could people do this to each other is beyond me. I stood there amazed at the destruction and disregard of human life. I saw into the hell that is war and hate. I could only imagine how it made Martina, and other Cambodians, feel to see the reality of their history up close and unadulterated. I will never forget this experience, and in some way, I hope writing about it helps to honor those who suffered.